Trump may be out – but cities and states are rallying around the Paris climate change deal

A visual metaphor for growing diplomatic isolation. Image: Getty.

When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement, the landmark climate accord signed by 196 nations that came into force in November 2016, the decision caused a significant negative backlash among other signatory countries.

Given that the US is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, its 1 June reneging on the deal delivered a blow to the global agreement. But, as many commentators were quick to point out, as long as other leaders didn’t follow Trump’s lead, it was largely a symbolic one.

So far, the international response has confirmed this: a chain reaction of support for climate change mitigation, from grassroots up to the highest ranks of government.

Making the planet great again

China has reiterated its support for the Paris agreement, and India, the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, seems likely to continue the renewable energy revolution already underway there.

Europe, led by Germany and France, is also stepping into the fray.

“Make our planet great again,” French President Emmanuel Macron retorted from the Élysée Palace on 1 June, inviting American scientists to France for work on developing solutions to climate change.

In the same speech, Macron also proposed a follow up to the Paris agreement: a global pact on environmental justice, under which states could be held accountable for flouting the rights of a group or individual.

More than any other European leader, the 39-year-old French president seems to represent younger generations’ concerns about climate change. And, of course, the Paris agreement wouldn’t be the Paris agreement without France.

Heat islands

Trump’s environmentalism has also incentivised US stakeholders to play a more central role in holding up the American end of the Paris agreement, which then US secretary of state John Kerry signed in April 2016 with his granddaughter on his lap.

US cities, companies, universities and states are now taking the initiative to cooperate directly with other countries and coordinate initiatives on reducing greenhouse gas emissions via the UN’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action portal (NAZCA), which recognises the importance of sub-national actors in climate action. As of 24 June, 331 US cities had adopted the Paris agreement, and at a mayors’ conference in Miami Republican and Democratic leaders supported it:

These pledges may not be legally binding, as they are when countries sign agreements, but the commitments of US cities, states and companies, which will be reported and measured through NAZCA’s data partners, may well have a significant environmental impact.

As former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire philanthropist who has invested $15m in American cities’ effort to engage internationally, said about mitigating climate change in a recent interview on National Public Radio, “Local governments can do something, state governments less and federal governments almost nothing.”

Large cities give rise to the “urban heat island” effect, in which heat-trapping concrete and asphalt replace natural vegetation and water. This steamy situation is exacerbated by heat from cars, subway systems, air conditioners and the like.

Asphalt, buildings and other urban realities can trap heat. Image: NOAA/Wikimedia.

According to new research reported in the journal Nature Climate Change, the heat island effect in the world’s most populous cities – a clutch of sprawling megalopolises that includes Chicago, Houston, and San Diego in the US, as well as Shanghai in China and Lagos in Nigeria – is expected to add 2°C to global warming by 2050.

The study by Francisco Estrada, W. J. Wouter Botzen and Richard S. J. Tol provides the first quantitative assessment of the economic costs of the joint impacts of local and global climate change for all major urban centres around the world.

The analysis, which looked at some 1,500 large cities, shows that the total economic costs of climate change for cities could be 2.6 times higher when heat island effects are taken into account than when they are not. For the worst-off cities, losses could reach more than 10 per cent of their gross domestic product GDP by the end of the century.

There are relatively low-cost solutions to this highly localised problem, from cool pavements, which are designed to reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat, to green roofing.

In Chicago, the City Hall’s green roof helps keep things cool. Image: TonyTheTiger/Wikimedia.

According the the study, converting just 20 per cent of a city’s rooftops and half of its pavements to modern heat-reducing versions could save up to 12 times what they cost to install and maintain, and reduce local air temperatures citywide by up to 0.8°C.

As study author Richard Tol has noted, “City-level adaptation strategies to limit local warming have important economic net benefits for almost all cities around the world. It is clear that we have until now underestimated the dramatic impact that local policies could make in reducing urban warming.”


Global problems, local response

So, from Pittsburgh to Phuket, cities will be essential for keeping the increase in the average global temperature below 2°C, the main goal of the Paris agreement.

The unprecedented bottom-up commitment to this international climate deal is also in the clear interest of participating states and cities, which are most likely to directly and immediately feel the impact of global warming.

California, for example, has a long-term commitment to reducing emissions, alongside its unique technological strengths in renewable energy and research on autonomous cars. Meanwhile, the island state of Hawaii is particularly sensitive to climate change-related sea level rises.

Mayors and governors are also the public officials responsible for common infrastructural needs that can help population centres mitigate climate change, such as reinforcing dikes and improving public transit – eco-friendly investments that also improve quality of life for residents.

In neighbouring Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made battling climate change a priority for his administration, many provinces, including populous Quebec and Ontario, are now making direct agreements with states and cities on cap-and-trade agreements and other environmental initiatives.

The world’s response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a powerful reminder that global challenges – not just climate change but also conflict, migration and others – are profoundly intertwined with local and regional issues.

At a time when countries’ openness to the world has become a matter of contention, many of the world’s most pressing problems still require not just active international collaboration between nation states but also engagement on all levels of government, whether the administration in Washington likes it or not.

The ConversationParis, in this sense, was just the beginning.

Luc Soete is a professorial fellow at United Nations University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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