COP26: the role cities can play in combating climate change

Smarter land use, smaller footprint

Between the sweeping changes demanded – but not necessarily received – from federal governments and the small adjustments imposed on individuals, there are cities.

In the struggle to keep the global temperature under control and maintain the planet as a more or less habitable spot for humans, municipalities play a crucial role, explains Shauna Sylvester.

“I think cities have an extremely difficult task of having to contend with a whole range of new realities that haven’t been traditionally on their agenda,” she says.

Sylvester, executive director at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, spoke to the Dispatch between a series of panels and conferences ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

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While the need to take action is underscored by rising sea levels, head domes, wildfires and flooding from extreme weather events, Sylvester acknowledges the inherent challenge of putting ‘addressing climate change’ on a municipalities to-do list.

“You add that to the array of things the city has to deal with like housing, affordability, the opioid poisoning crisis and it becomes a stressful situation on the current capacities of cities,” she says.

However, wielding authority on land-use decisions affords city councils a unique opportunity to adjust our collective footprint.

“If we can increase density where people can walk, they don’t have to get into vehicles, that’s one of the best ways of addressing climate [change],” she says. “We’re not taking up land for sprawl, we’re not taking up land to suck in more and more energy to keep a single-family home available.”

But where will people park?

Coquitlam council recently approved a 349-unit Burquitlam development that also includes 389 parking spots.

While parking spots remain necessary for commuters who rely on their cars, Sylvester says the larger issue is about no longer seeing cities through the prism of driving.

“Most of our cities in North America were centred on this love affair with the car,” she says. “That has to change.”

While there may be a generational shift away from the automobile as a “rite of passage,” it’s important municipal councils shift how we move around as opposed to attempting to build our cities out of congestion, according to Sylvester.

“The people that are leading us have to take that mind-shift too,” she says. “They really have to think about the long-term health of our communities.”

Climate advocates

In the run-up to Glasgow, Sylvester says she’s seen an effort to bring more prominence to the concerns of cities.

“We under-value the role of mayors and councils and citizens in advocacy,” she says, noting the Metro Vancouver regional growth strategy. “I think when mayors are co-ordinating there is far greater opportunity for real action.”

Beginning today, Sylvester is planning to broadcast live briefings via Zoom that profile leaders and communities taking significant action on climate change.

“I think the greatest innovation going on in Canada right now is coming from local governments trying to address those issues,” she says.

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