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We'll always have Paris

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on December 09, 2015

Two weeks ago, in a Paris café not unlike La Belle Equipe where 19 people died during the terrorist attacks of November 13, I sat with colleagues reflecting on the troubles in today’s cities, and the hopes represented through meetings like those currently taking place at COP21.

The violence still reverberates through Paris. In an attempt to stifle the city’s joie de vivre, the attacks purposely targeted the young. Cities only have one or two degrees of separation. Almost everyone in this city knows someone, or has a friend or relative who knows someone, killed or injured. The murder of La Belle Equipe’s two sisters Halima Saadi Ndiaye (37, with two young children; a Muslim married to a Jewish man, shot twice in the back) and Hodda Saadi (celebrating her 35th birthday that night) is particularly infuriating, sad and senseless.

Our greatest strength and vulnerabilities are our cities. Cities concentrate people, opportunity, culture, economy. They also concentrate congestion, pollution, fear and risk.

Our cities create our wealth and our way of life. Terrorists know this. Paris, London, Madrid, Beirut, Bamako, Mumbai, Toronto: these are targets. For example, after three days of a precautionary shutdown vigilant against terrorist attacks, normal life returns to Brussels. The cost of the Paris attacks will likely exceed one billion euros.

The motto of Paris is Fluctuat nec mergitur, “tossed about but not sunk.” This is an apt motto for all cities. Terrorists, storms, flooding, earthquakes, power outages, pandemics, shortages of food – these all threaten our cities.

The climate negotiators with the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) now convening on Paris also know very well the criticality of cities. Cities and their citizens are responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And cities with their expensive and fragile infrastructure, many on the ocean coast, are highly vulnerable to a changing climate.

The battle against terrorism, and against climate change, will be won or lost in our cities. The best way to stand against terrorism and malice is to build resilient, welcoming, and hard to quantify, ‘kind’ cities, with supportive neighborhoods. Parisians are quick to mention how people opened their homes to strangers after the violence.

The best way to address climate change is to build resilient, low-carbon cities. Cities that can take a punch and quickly get up, dust themselves off, and get on with providing critical day-to-day urban services: tossed about but never sunk.

Cities are the most visceral, complex, and immediate level of government having to walk and chew gum at the same time, while increasingly, also having to juggle and sing. For example, despite what countries might agree upon at COP21, cities will not be able to address climate change without also addressing local air pollution, or access to energy and jobs, food and water security, and increasingly, public security and resilience.

COP21 illustrates another powerful attribute of cities. The climate negotiations proper only need a handful of designated negotiators to represent each of the 190 participating countries. If the negotiations hit a snag, having heads of state nearby can be helpful. Yet there are more than 40,000 ancillary attendees expected at COP21. Canada for example is sending every premier, many mayors, and likely more than 500 representatives.

Whether it is in Kyoto, Rio de Janeiro, Montreal, or Geneva, humans, being social creatures, want to meet together, to help, to participate, to see, and to be seen. Cities make that possible. More than anywhere cities concentrate conversation and change.

Parisians are slowly returning to the metro and shopping malls, and this week conference attendees and would-be negotiators will flood the city. In the end, any climate deal will mostly revolve around costs and who will pay. The world’s cities, being both the main energy consumer, and the most vulnerable will be tossed and tested, but in the end they will pay, as they should, and as they can.

A civilized future depends upon the ability of cities to remain open, as the portals to countries. Paris will always carry a scar from November’s attacks yet light spills out on the city’s streets even at its darkest time. The welcome mat is still out.

Filed under: Sustainability 101