Cities and Climate Change: Small Enough to Act, Big Enough to Matter

Shin-pei Tsay is a policy researcher who focuses on cities, transportation, energy and climate change, and the founder of an organization that connects volunteer urban planners with community-based projects that can benefit from planners’ skills. As such, she is cognizant of the potential our urban environments and urban citizens have to offer global challenges — and is well aware of the skepticism towards the value of cities coming from outside the “urbanist bubble.” In the following essay, Tsay calls on urbanists to better communicate the crucial role cities can play in addressing the global challenges of climate change by clearly identifying what cities can offer, which innovations are working, and where the impediments to their effectiveness exist. – V.S.

Let me let you in on a secret: not everyone thinks cities are great.

It’s easy to see why we would think otherwise. Judging by the headlines we read, we live in the age of the city. Foreign policy journals[1] have devoted entire issues to the topic. City-focused media proliferates, from The Atlantic Cities to NPR’s recently-launched cities program. Daily dispatches about new place-based, urban projects praise local ingenuity, sometimes overlooking action taken by larger institutions at broader scales of governance. It’s easy to be swept away by these stories. All this enthusiasm serves to bolster the claim: cities are engines of innovation, of economic and cultural production.

Living in our urbanist bubble, we swallow these developments without question. We’ve come to expect the stories of cool projects on the ground. Cities act, they don’t need national consensus or legislation in order to change things. We assume the public and our policymakers have joined our celebration of cities.

Left: Ecobici station in Mexico City, photo by Angélica Portales | Right: Vélib' station in Paris, photo by Martin Tod

Yet, I have come to realize that the allure of cities is not as widespread as we might think. From my dual roles as a policy researcher in cities, transportation, energy, and climate change at a foreign policy institution and as a founder of Planning Corps, which matches urban planners with community-based projects to catalyze change, it seemed obvious to me that governance and engagement at all scales and by all actors are necessary to make a difference in climate change. We do not yet know what needs to be invented to solve unknown future problems. The nimbleness demonstrated by urban innovations allude to an armory of ingenuity that would serve us well when the climate becomes more unpredictable and volatile. Whether it is top-down government-led bike share or bottom-up do-it-yourself urban reforestation, these projects are rays of hope and possibility that cut through a seemingly impenetrable rock wall of climate inaction by larger entities.

Though cities seem to be a natural, practical subject through which to address climate change, there are reservations from the non-urbanist crowd. The primary actors of global governance are nation-states, which abide by agreements which can be enforced by international law. So the critical questions from my colleagues are these: if nations fail to meet the challenges at hand, would cities be able to fill the void? Without agreed targets, why would cities act? Are cities somehow more enlightened than anyone else? Are we depending on them to reduce emissions out of a recognition of the need that nation-states just don’t have? Or do they pursue these strategies out of other needs?

To answer these questions better, and to characterize the role of cities in addressing global challenges, we, as urbanists, have to do a better job of understanding and articulating cities’ unique capabilities relative to everything else that is necessary to create change. Cities do demonstrate considerable might, but their role in the world is not all encompassing, and in many cases it is severely limited. Yet the actions they can take show promise and could make a significant contribution. To avoid the trap of urban hegemonic thinking and to make headway in elevating the role of cities in international governance, especially when it comes to addressing climate change, we need to separate distraction from substance.

Planting trees at Hubbard Elementary School in San Jose. Photo via the City of San Jose.

In broad terms, we need to promote widespread understanding that climate change is not just about protecting the earth from rampant greenhouse gas emissions where the sole policy goal is carbon reduction through an equitable shared responsibility across nations. The window of opportunity to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius has been missed. We’re looking at a potential 3-4 degree Celsius increase in our global temperature, with dramatic consequences. Though this new reality doesn’t negate the necessity of carbon mitigation, it firmly pushes us into adaptation mode. Within this reality, climate change is also about the reality of rising sea levels, stronger storms, larger and more widespread population displacements, and more incidents of deadly urban heat island effect. The impacts vary locality by locality, but cities are on the front lines and have no choice but to protect their populations and infrastructure. Fortunately, cities have some specific assets they can bring to these challenges.

First, municipal governments have multiple tools at their disposal that continue to make a difference. Cities can create policies that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by incentivizing density through land use zoning, building regulations, and providing alternatives to private cars. Dictating land uses, building types, and urban transportation would account for 60 percent of urban-based carbon emissions. Through the process of regulating buildings and transportation, cities are effectively upgrading infrastructure, which can be an opportunity to integrate adaptation strategies like updating flood maps, putting storm contingency plans in place, and building in energy infrastructure redundancy. Cities can go further by leveraging technology to decrease emissions by promoting energy commissioning of buildings and prohibiting use of dirty fuels.

Cities can also legislate and incentivize citizen or corporate action more quickly than larger scales of governance are able to do. They can mandate both interdepartmental coordination as well as public-private partnerships to leverage public funds and accelerate action to address climate change. Interdepartmental coordination, an imperative in managing cities for climate change impacts, is easier to achieve at a smaller scale. National policy in large countries tends to isolate problems and locate policy responses within specific arms of government so as to prevent unintended effects and level the playing field. State and especially municipal governments, however, can more easily take advantage of synergies between agencies to achieve mutual benefits. For example, a street redesign can mitigate stormwater while providing more space for bicyclists and pedestrians, and thus achieve goals of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. New York City’s PlaNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability and economic development plan, and San Francisco’s metropolitan planning organizations’ long-term Climate Action Plan are two policy examples that mandate interagency cooperation.

Second, cities benefit from a culture of innovation and experimentation, driven in large part by spatial clustering. In urban areas, new ideas, products, and strategies spring from close proximity, with knowledge more easily shared between public, private, and civic sectors. Economists’ studies of agglomeration in urban areas demonstrate that where more people and businesses are clustered together, sourcing necessary components and services for production becomes easier, and the opportunities grow for learning and finding new employees and jobs.

Third, cities have access to a special strength that national governments have greater difficulty harnessing – citizens. Cities are the primary interface for the interaction between citizens and government: in urban areas the abstract is made most tangible. The United States isn’t the only country with a healthy civic society in cities, there is active urban citizenship in less democratic regions such as China or the Middle East. Political and social movements are rooted in cities. A healthy dose of technology and open data, whereby information about city services is made publicly available and formatted in an easily accessible manner, empowers citizens to take a greater role in governance. All the strategies above still require the participation of citizens to make the change successful.

This map by Modi Research Group visualizes annual building energy consumption at the block level and tax lot level for NYC.

In traditional governance structures, citizen intervention that challenges government might be perceived as a workaround. That is, what is the failing government policy that has forced citizens to take such an active role? But I return to the stories from those who have wielded top-down power at the national level for energy efficiency or other sustainable development projects and still faced failure: local engagement is necessary for success. Citizen engagement is not a workaround, but a necessary ingredient, especially for tackling climate change. Further, citizen engagement empowered by open data complements municipal policies, such as real-time data that enables higher public transit ridership or illuminates energy consumption building by building.

For all the weight that cities are pulling today, large challenges stand in the way of municipalities taking full reins of the climate change situation. In many countries, city powers are granted by state or federal governments. In other words, cities exist at the favor of a higher order of government and, therefore, have limited reach. Perhaps this is most explicitly viewed through the revenue-raising capabilities at local levels that are subject to provincial, state, or federal regulations.

Further, without broad national policy, uneven local policy within national boundaries can result in dislocation effects that are net negative. This effect has been noted in economic development, where different labor laws and tax structures can move a firm from one city to another. A national policy that rewards climate change action would level the playing field for all cities and regions.

Finally, we need to face the reality of global politics. Because cities remain subsidiary to nations, they have no standing in international law. Very few federal governments would relinquish state power to subnational levels of government like provinces or cities. Few nations would agree to an internationally binding agreement where cities have more autonomy than the state in which they are domiciled. A couple of exceptions are regional special economic zones, which have some standing in international trade law, federated municipalities in some large countries, and perhaps others. However, the exceptions stay subsidiary to the state and are in the margins compared to the majority of cities worldwide. Recent books[2] discussing the rise of cities in globalization document the growing contributions and relevance of urban output, rooted in specific places, to the world order, but fall short of substantively challenging the global political framework.

In building a case for cities and climate change, we need to band together and be explicit in demonstrating their potential and acknowledging their challenges. We need to draw clear links between innovations on the ground, the specific powers that were used to launch them, and the specific obstacles that stood in the way. Overstating the power of cities or playing into media hype risks alienating skeptics or gatekeepers. Trading in the currency of cool leaves urbanists open to criticism of aggrandizement. Worse, it leaves us without a meaningful seat at the international table.

Macro-level statistics suggest the growing prominence of cities in the global political hierarchy. The United Nations says that the global population became more than 50 percent urban (though we might question the definition of “urban” in that oft-cited account) in 2010 and urban growth will increase, with nearly 70 percent of the world living in cities by 2050.[3] Economists show that the majority of world’s gross domestic product can be attributed to cities.[4] Energy specialists report that metropolitan regions are the primary consumers of energy as well as the primary emitters of carbon.[5] From this perspective, cities are often heralded as the sites at which climate action might result in actual planetary solutions.

We are entering an era where cities, as geographies of innovation and as representatives of local actors, have become critical for the transformation necessary to deal with climate change. The need for collaboration is not only within government, but extends from citizen to government and is present at all scales of governance. It’s up to us urbanists to show how this happens. Cities matter in the global scheme of things, and it’s up to every urban enthusiast to put their love of cities to work in asserting cities’ – and urban citizens’ – role in addressing global challenges like climate change.


Foreign Policy and Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs.


Parag Khanna, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (Random House, 2011); and Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision.


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


The World Bank.

Shin-pei Tsay is the director of Cities and Transportation in the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on federal, state, and local transportation policy, climate change policy, and urban and regional planning issues, with an emphasis on economic development. Prior to joining the Carnegie Endowment, Tsay served as the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a nationally renowned non-profit focused on transportation issues in New York City; as a founding member of the NYC office for ZGF architects, where she was on the sustainability team; the chief operating officer of Project for Public Spaces, an international non-profit; a strategy consultant with a company serving the Fortune 500; and founder of Planning Corps, whose work is a part of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale for Architecture.