As Cities Adapt To Climate Change, They Can Protect The Wealthy–Or The Rest Of Us

Our global economic system demands growth at all costs–but that imperative is causing the cities that support it to fall apart, author Ashley Dawson argues in his new book, “Extreme Cities.”

As Cities Adapt To Climate Change, They Can Protect The Wealthy–Or The Rest Of Us
“For most wealthy spectators the threat of sea level rise one day submerging their luxury condos doesn’t matter much.” [Photo: Ryan Parker]

The capitalist engine runs on immediate gratification. Returns are measured quarterly; impact is expected immediately. We see this in cities across the globe: Luxury high-rises spring up seemingly overnight, backed by developers deepening their pockets, and encouraged by governments anxious for tax revenue. Laser-focused on profits, the displacement and environmental disruption that often occurs around these developments are overshadowed. But this dynamic will, quite literally, sink us in the face of climate change and its related shocks. Ashley Dawson argues in his new book, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.


The book delves into the coastal cities like New York, Jakarta, and Rotterdam, where the effects of climate change will be most deeply felt. It’s not just the structural repercussions that Dawson is concerned with; as a professor of postcolonial studies at the City University of New York and a longstanding environmental justice activist, he’s well attuned to the ways that upheavals and disasters disproportionately affect the socioeconomically disadvantaged. As Donald Trump continues to roll back protection measures and disavow the U.S.’s role in global cooperation to mitigate the effects of climate change, the book is a clear-eyed reminder of who, and what, will be left most vulnerable as a result.

You can buy Extreme Cities here. [Photo: Verso Books]
In Extreme Cities, Dawson focuses on Miami, where foreign billionaire developers are withdrawing their money from developing countries and instead sinking it into high-rises and condominiums along the city’s fragile coastline. “For most wealthy spectators the threat of sea level rise one day submerging their luxury condos doesn’t matter much,” Dawson writes. “If they can pull their money out of a developing country, where the inflation rate is roughly 50% and park it in dollars in a Miami condo for five years, where it will appreciate 5%-10% a year, it’s not important what’s going to happen in 30 years.”

But, Dawson argues, it is for the rest of us. While the upper crust may not feel the effects of climate change until decades down the line, global warming and its attendant disasters, from land degradation to extreme weather events, are already rattling the socioeconomically disadvantaged across the globe. In Miami, low-income communities are continually socked with flooding from high tides as the city has failed to address the need to update its infrastructure to absorb excess water. The city is becoming unlivable for them already, as it will for everybody decades down the line. While the developers will continue to profit until the city sinks, those at the other end of the economic spectrum are already suffering.

Capitalism obscures these struggles. As long as money continues to flow upwards and into the hands of wealthy CEOs and developers, they will continue to build and expand in accordance with the capitalism’s growth imperative, which maintains that the whole economic system will collapse unless it continues to produce more and more and more.

Throughout the course of the book, Dawson–using examples from across both the global North and South–draws out the argument that the collapse of the economic system is bound up in the collapse of the cities that support it.  “It is the capitalist world system, at bottom, that’s putting people in harm’s way by driving ceaseless economic expansion,” Dawson tells Fast Company. “But I wanted to think more specifically about how it plays out in particular cities.”

“While it’s important for cities to keep thinking about how to live more in harmony with water, ultimately… we’re going to have to talk about retreat.” [Photo: Wikipedia]
Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is the fastest-sinking city in the world. Parts of the nearly 10 million-strong city are subsiding at a rate of 10 inches per year. In an effort to stem the submersion, the government of Jakarta commissioned a consortium of Dutch companies to construct, over the course of 30 years, what will become the world’s longest seawall, extending for 25 miles and encompassing 17 artificial islands to be built in the bay created by the outer barrier and the city’s natural shore. The team behind the project claims the long wall will act as a viable defense against rising sea levels. Furthermore,  developers promise that the $40 billion project, called the Great Garuda, will recuperate the cost through the sale of luxury homes and the accompanying office towers and shopping malls on the artificial islands. As much as the city is creating a plan to prevent disaster, it’s also creating new opportunities for real estate development.


In Extreme Cities, Dawson eviscerates the proposed development, pointing to the proven inefficacy of seawalls as a defense against extreme weather events (90% of the seawalls along the coast of Japan broke when the 2011 tsunami hit). The Great Garuda, he argues, fails to rectify Jakarta’s drain on its groundwater supply, which an architect working on the project has identified as the most basic cause of the city’s sinking. So why go ahead with the plan? “Coastal protection efforts such as the Great Garuda effectively constitute a new form of disaster capitalism, one in which highly remunerative real estate development overlaps with engineering megaprojects whose spectacular character is clearly designed to attract speculative capital investment,”

In other words, it mirrors what’s happening in Miami, where immediate investments take precedence over future stability. And in both instances—and so many more across the world’s megacities—the cities’ poorest people, and those who are least able to economically protect themselves against climate-change-wrought destruction, are the ones who fall victim to these schemes. In Miami, the relentless luxury development is driving up property values and the cost of living. In Jakarta, progress on the Great Garuda will dispossess residents of the informal settlements that have sprung up on the unstable land slated for redevelopment.

This dynamic is symptomatic of a whole host of concerning trends that have accompanied urbanization over the last several decades: lack of communication, lack of foresight, willful blindness to human need across the full socioeconomic spectrum. But the underlying driver of destructive development in cities, Dawson says, is privatization.

The private developers and architecture firms that are commissioned to undertake large-scale redevelopment projects like the Great Garuda are, to their credit, “trying to think about how cities could exist in a more complementary nature, and specifically with water,” Dawson says. In recent years, cutting-edge architects have shifted their focus away from building in silos and are designing their developments more holistically, integrating green spaces and other resiliency features in acknowledgment of the shifting demands of a world facing down climate change.

But the fact that they are private companies commissioned specifically to work on one project in one location within much broader and more complex urban ecosystems creates and strengthens structural and economic divides in cities. Illustrative of this, he says, is a redevelopment proposal, called Hunts Point Lifelines, that is currently underway in the South Bronx, New York. The design for the Hunts Point neighborhood was solicited through New York City’s post-Sandy reconstruction request for proposals, Rebuild By Design. Spearheaded by University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Olin Studio, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, the plan comprehensively links the portion of the South Bronx to a proposed network of new waterfront parks that would line the river. New public transit hubs and a clean power generating station accompany the plan, as do new restaurants and public amenities attached to the parks.

The PennDesign/Olin team worked closely with community groups in Hunts Point to develop a plan that would address their chief concerns, mainly a lack of green spaces and poor air quality due to the numerous industrial hubs sited in the area. Hunts Point Lifelines does that, but Hunts Point is just one of several communities clustered on the South Bronx—it just happens to be the one where crucial citywide resources, like the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center and the Fulton Fish Market, are located. The neighboring Port Morris and Mott Haven and their combined 90,000 residents are left out of the redevelopment, as are the five other areas throughout the five boroughs that are designated as Significant Maritime Industrial Areas—low-income places where heavily polluting industries have been encouraged to cluster together in order to shield wealthier zip codes from health risks. Because these initiatives are not citywide, he says, they do little to advance equitable development, and the prioritization of Hunts Point over the rest of the South Bronx rings of the sense that “people in that region are constantly asked to make sacrifices for the rest of the city,” Dawson says.


The situation in the South Bronx, however, does gesture toward ways in which cities could better prepare themselves for the inevitable shifts brought about by the dual forces of climate change and urbanization. “A solution has to be for social movements to engage with city governments, and really push the city as a whole toward developing and carrying out a city-wide plan that’s based in social justice and doesn’t exclude communities,” Dawson says.

While the buzzword now among forward-thinking urban designers is resiliency–the idea that cities should be built to sustain and quickly bounce back from disasters instead of trying, but failing, to fully prevent them—Dawson argues that this idea too often reinforces existing structures (both in the literal sense and in the sense of power hierarchies within cities), when realistically, adaptation will necessitate letting some of those old structures and ways of thinking become obsolete.

A truly resilient city, Dawson suggests, is one that places equity and realistic necessity above short-term profit gains. And accomplishing that, he adds, might, in some cases, mean retreat. “While it’s important for cities to keep thinking about how to live more in harmony with water, ultimately a generation or two down the road, we’re going to have to talk about retreat,” Dawson says. The concept of retreat flies in the face of the capitalist growth imperative, and with the particularly American sensibility of expansion at all costs. But for communities like Miami and New Orleans, which will sometime in the near future be submerged, relocating will be necessary. “The question that arises is: How can we have a socially just retreat, rather than rich people just picking up and moving elsewhere?” Dawson says.

With entire cities slated to disappear everywhere from the U.S. to Indonesia, countries will have to figure out how to relocate their people. In the midst of the forthcoming upheaval, Dawson suggests, we might find a space to begin to build and live more sensitively, and with the foresight whose lack thereof landed us where we are today.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.