The Missing Link in Our Climate Change Strategy – Building New Sustainable Cities

Recently, an investment firm backed by Bill Gates announced a new project to build a smart city outside Phoenix, AZ. While virtually all infrastructure and sustainability projects around the country are focused on existing cities, this new project sheds light on a critical missing link in our country’s strategy to address the impact of climate change: building new urban environments to prepare for the largest population migration in the history of the United States.

Sustainable City Project is a nonprofit whose mission is to build the first new, sustainable city in the United States from the ground up. While the trend in new development revolves primarily around making our cities “smarter” and more energy efficient, it is more imperative than ever that we view all new city infrastructure projects through the lens of climate change and environmental sustainability.

With these considerations in mind, the location in Arizona makes very little sense. The Phoenix area experiences 40 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees. Multiple climate change reports, including “The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” from the Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson, and Tom Steyer-led organization, Risky Business, posit that by the end of this century, the number of days over 95 degrees in Phoenix could triple.

With increased heat comes the further drying of water resources and a greater potential for more wildfires, both of which are already challenging the southwestern region of the country. Purposely attracting more people to a locale that – environmentally-speaking – will become increasingly inhospitable with dwindling resources seems shortsighted. It almost guarantees the need for follow-on investment just to maintain a level of support for those populations in the future.

In addition, the rise of sea levels continues to accelerate and surpass original estimations, posing an even greater danger than once thought. By 2100, these unsustainable levels will force millions of people in coastal communities to leave their homes. Land, infrastructure and fresh water resources will be lost forever and storms, storm surge, and flooding will worsen. So where will the people go?

Societal studies show that these coastal migrants will head, for the most part, to large cities in search of new housing and employment. The problem this presents is most of our large cities are already struggling to manage their current populations, infrastructure, and organic growth. As the economy has improved, housing costs have risen, jobs markets are increasingly competitive, and resident support services are stretched thin. Even with the success of current city planning efforts, the effect of the growing population migration on the entirety of the system will be too much for existing cities to handle.

These realities require the creation of new city infrastructure to complement the work being done to prepare existing cities within a cohesive vision and plan for a sustainable future.

While there certainly needs to be an investment in new technology and sustainable infrastructure to deal with climate-related concerns in Arizona, in the long term, it seems clear there are more preferable locations to build a new city.

Future migration away from dry deserts and flooded coastal communities is inevitable as our temperatures rise. Building new cities in more sustainable locations will go much further in preparing our country for the impact of climate change, while simultaneously achieving the goal of testing innovative, smart city technology and new urban design techniques.

At Sustainable City Project, we are actively collaborating with interested stakeholders, including scientists, researchers, and urban designers, to explore potential new locations and develop the criteria they must meet to qualify for the project.

While we applaud Mr. Gates’ forward-looking vision and encourage the continued investment in new cities, including those outside of Phoenix, we also invite him – along with Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Paulson, Mr. Steyer, and others – to join us in our mission to build the nation’s first sustainable new city.

David Crane is the Founder and Executive Director of Sustainable City Project (SCP). Together with a global network of experts, creative talent, and technology pioneers, SCP is addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: building new, sustainable cities that will prepare our country for the largest population migration in our history. Sustainable City Project is actively working to plan, design, and build the first sustainable city in the United States from the ground up, using worldwide collaborations and competitions.

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