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Cities are critically vulnerable to climate change. In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change, cities are already facing the growing risks of water scarcity, sea level rise, and extreme weather events such as heat waves and floods. These climate events increase mortality and morbidity, cause asset and economic losses, push households into poverty, and displace communities.
Climate change is not just knocking on the doors of cities, but as they concentrate on the people and the economic activities in our region, their action is critical to fostering a more sustainable region. At the Interamerican Development Banks (IDB)’s Housing and Urban Development Division, we help cities make the best decisions to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. In today’s article, we will address the profound repercussions of climate change on the cities of LAC. At the same time, we spotlight the indispensable role of governments in adapting to these environmental tribulations and, more crucially, in shielding their most vulnerable populations from the harsh realities of our changing world. In addition, eight innovative strategies and solutions that hold the key to adapt our cities to climate change. So, keep reading and join us on this transformative journey towards urban resilience in a changing world.
Cities at risk: vulnerability to climate change
Cities have become the epicenter of human activity, housing most of the global population. In LAC, this urbanization trend is even more pronounced, with over 86% of the population expected to reside in cities by 2050. However, this concentration of people and assets comes with a heavy price tag as cities face increasing vulnerability to climate change.
• Heatwaves are more frequent and longer-lasting:
Rising temperatures and heat waves are making cities less habitable. The urban heat island effect exacerbates this issue, with some cities in the region experiencing up to 8°C temperature spikes. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and low-income households, bear the brunt of these heatwaves.
• Water scarcity: thirsty cities:
Changes in precipitation patterns are leading to water scarcity in urban areas. Poorly maintained water supply systems and a growing population significantly threaten water security. For example, Montevideo (Uruguay) faced a severe drought in 2023, forcing authorities to tap into brackish water sources.
• Urban Fires:
Droughts and higher temperatures contribute to an increased risk of urban wildfires. Valparaiso (Chile) experienced its largest urban fire in 2014, displacing thousands and causing substantial damage. The threat of such events continues to loom over millions living in wild-urban interfaces.
• Rising seas and storm surges: coastal vulnerability
Sea-level rise and storm surges threaten coastal cities. LAC have a high proportion of their metropolitan populations residing along coastlines, making them particularly susceptible to the encroaching sea.
Adaptation strategies for resilient cities
To tackle these challenges, cities must adopt a multifaceted approach to adapt to climate change and become more resilient.
1. Location matters: relocation and land reclamation
Cities can develop relocation strategies to vacate high-risk areas and adopt land reclamation techniques to mitigate coastal threats. Both approaches require careful planning to minimize community and asset displacement.
2. Grey infrastructure: protection through engineering
Investing in grey infrastructure, such as seawalls, floodgates, and drainage systems, provides immediate protection against extreme weather events. Barcelona‘s underground reservoirs and permeable pavement technologies serve as a successful example.
3. Green infrastructure: nature’s defense
Green infrastructure, including mangroves, wetlands, and urban ecosystems, offers natural protection against floods and storm surges. These solutions not only enhance resilience but also benefit biodiversity and improve air quality.
Mangroves prevent erosion and reduce the force of waves, storm surge and flooding
4. Cooling the heat island: urban design
Cities can reduce the heat island effect by increasing green coverage with trees and parks. Additionally, architectural designs that promote thermal comfort and passive cooling can help combat rising temperatures.
5. Regulations and zoning: building for the future
Stringent building codes, standards, and zoning regulations can ensure that new construction is resilient to climate change. Retrofitting existing buildings to meet these standards is also crucial.
6. Government’s role: governance and coordination
Effective governance, coordination, and planning are necessary. Governments must address institutional fragmentation and enhance coordination between national and subnational entities. They can develop risk assessments, engage citizens, and implement early warning systems.
7. Overcoming Informality and Inequality
Informal settlements often spring up in high-risk areas due to poor regulation and enforcement. Governments should adopt holistic urban planning approaches that involve residents and address poverty and underdevelopment.
8. Funding Cities: Financial Support
Lack of resources is a significant barrier to climate adaptation. Governments can provide subsidies, loans, and affordable housing to encourage residents to move to safer areas. Tax revenue and incentives for private developers can fund essential infrastructure upgrades.
Are you interested in learning more about how cities can adapt to climate change?
Climate change poses significant challenges to cities of the region, threatening both the urban environment and the well-being of their inhabitants. Effective adaptation requires a comprehensive approach that combines engineering solutions, green infrastructure, and robust governance.
The role of governments is pivotal in coordinating efforts, regulating development, and providing financial support to vulnerable populations. By prioritizing climate resilience, cities can continue to thrive in the face of mounting climate risks and ensure a sustainable future for all their residents. If you are interested in learning more about the role of cities in addressing climate change, you are invited to download the latest IDB publication and read chapter 6: Adapting the Urban Environment.