Urban Adaptation to Environmental Change

In response to the pressing global conversation on urban adaptation to climate change, this project is facilitating a dialogue between urban archaeologists and non-archaeologists engaged in the design of adaptive solutions. According to the United Nations, “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment”. The IPCC 6th Assessment Report Synthesis states, “Integrated, inclusive planning and investment in everyday decision making about urban infrastructure can significantly increase the adaptive capacity of urban and rural settlements.” The 7th Assessment Report cycle will build on this thread and focus on questions related to urban adaptation to climate change. With the IPCC’s emphasis on integrated, inclusive planning for urban infrastructure, this working group is strategically positioned to make a substantial and timely contribution, linking archaeological insights to contemporary challenges in the pursuit of sustainable urban development.

The Summary for Urban Policymakers of the 6th IPCC Assessment Report (SUP – Summary for Urban Policymakers (supforclimate.com) highlights the connections between several IPCC’s reports and urban development. Many of these, in turn, connect with urban archaeology. First, the report emphasizes the need for a localization methodology to construct climate change information for cities: “policymakers need to understand the relationship between extreme conditions and climate change at the city scale. . . Long-term observational records are crucial to assess if the types of extreme events of interest have become more common or intense over time.” (p. 8). This suggests that effective interventions should focus on the city as the unit of analysis and should leverage the inherent time-depth of archaeological evidence.

Second, the report emphasizes climate-resilient development—the idea that urban adaptation to climate change must proceed in a context of continuing human development, especially in the global south: “Exposure to hazards can be reduced by altering the physical form of urban areas, managing population and infrastructure growth, and modifying physical hazards along coasts and rivers. Vulnerability can be reduced through efforts to promote inclusive development and to reduce inequality.” (p. 27).  The concept of adaptation limits is also developed: “Both hard limits, or conditions beyond which it is impossible to adapt, and soft limits, conditions that can limit adaptation because solutions are not available to certain people based on assets or capacities, are shaped by differences in levels of development.” (p. 35).

The possible synergies between urban adaptation to climate change and sustainable urban development are highlighted in a report prepared by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs for the Sustainable Development Goals Summit held last September (UN Climate SDG Synergies Report-091223B.pdf). This report urges global efforts at identifying what synergies can facilitate climate-resilient urban development. Climate-resilient development involves trade-offs, in that higher levels of development may be associated with both greater inequality and less stringent limits to climate adaptation. What does the archaeological record have to say about development vs. inequality and long-term adaptation?

Urban archaeology has studied how properties of cities influenced their ability to adapt to environmental change, and what adaptation responses consisted of. The study of urban systems and their rural hinterlands, and of human adaptation to environmental change, are both enduring research topics in archaeology. Numerous studies have also examined long-term socio-environmental processes affecting regional population distribution, rural-urban migration, urban planning, social relations, economic specialization, political organization, and so forth. However, to connect with discussions by researchers and stakeholders on how to design effective and just solutions to climate change, research on how urban areas in the past responded to environmental change needs to be connected to contemporary challenges posed by climate change. It will be especially important to measure environmental change for past urban contexts and assess relationships among population size, level of development, inequality, urban morphology, and the degree to which adaptation was driven by civic institutions or distributed decision-making by individuals.

This project is being led by Drs. Sarah Klassen (Center for Collaborative Synthesis in Archaeology, University of Colorado Boulder) and Jose Lobo (School of Sustainability, Arizona State University).

The request for information letter was distributed on March 29, and applications are due on May 8, 2024.

Related Publications

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest