Southwestern University’s program in Environmental Studies stands out because of its innovative curricular structure. Whereas other colleges and universities tend to focus on financial and environmental sustainability, SU students and faculty look at every aspect of the environment, including both applied and theoretical perspectives, to provide a comprehensive approach to environmental education, studying everything from ecology, geography, and biology to economy, human relations, and policy. It is truly student focused: when SU undergraduates discover something that is important to them, that they’ve researched in depth, and that is applicable to the entire campus community, then the faculty will follow suit.

In recent years, that “important something” has been social justice. By focusing on social sustainability, the students and faculty in SU’s Environmental Studies Program take a proactive, positive approach to sustainability, collaborating with partners to examine and innovate ways to assure that the campus and the larger community are not just environmentally and economically stable but also healthier, safer, more equitable, and more inclusive.

That commitment to social justice is at the heart of two recent articles coauthored and published by Associate Professor and Cochair of Environmental Studies Joshua Long. An interdisciplinary geographer who specializes in urban studies and environmental politics, he’s the author of more than a dozen scholarly articles and is probably best known for his book, Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010). More recently, his work has focused on climate-change actions implemented by cities and the unforeseen consequences of those often-well-intentioned policies and plans. And that research is garnering attention around the world: Long recently returned from the American Association of Geographers Conference in Washington, DC, where he co-organized three sessions on the topic and received the Helen Ruth Aspaas SAGE Innovator Award in Geography for his teaching and research. His theory of climate urbanism will also be a central theme at the UK Urban Institute—a new research focus that will be kicked off by a September 2019 workshop in Sheffield, where Long and his coauthor, Jennifer L. Rice (University of Georgia), will be giving the plenary lecture.

Climate urbanism

In “From Sustainable Urbanism to Climate Urbanism,” published in June in Urban Studies, the leading international peer-reviewed journal for urban scholarship, Long and Rice coin the term climate urbanism. They define climate urbanism as a shift in policies, programs, and urban development “that (1) promotes cities as the most viable and appropriate sites of climate action and (2) prioritises efforts to protect the physical and digital infrastructures of urban economies from the hazards associated with climate change.” That is, cities are generally recognized as engines of economic growth, but that development is and will continue to be affected by climate change. Consequently, to protect their economic growth, major metropolitans in the U.S. (e.g., Austin, Seattle, and Portland) but also across the globe (e.g., Toronto, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, and Kyoto) have embarked on two major agendas. First, they have marketed themselves as “climate-friendly” or “climate-resilient” to attract investors and skilled labor that will continue stimulating their local economies. Second, cities have mobilized new technologies and implemented changes to their infrastructures—and invested enormous sums of money to do so—to protect themselves from climate hazards that threaten their financial and human resources, such as floods, heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels, increased storm frequency, and damages to water supply. That climate-resilient infrastructure might include “anything from sea walls and ‘eco-districts’ to digital and ‘smart’ solutions to reducing their carbon footprint,” says Long, and such projects are “leading to some interesting public–private partnerships and influencing the prioritization of infrastructure projects.”

Unfortunately, those protective actions can lead to outcomes that diminish populations’ equal access to wealth, opportunity, and safety by displacing vulnerable, lower-income residents and segregating the urban landscape. For instance, the installation or revitalization of green belts or parks has forced homeless and minority residents to relocate, and the implementation of “green” transit systems has ousted working-class and immigrant populations from their homes and neighborhoods to outside city limits, beyond the safety of services and amenities that would protect them from climate hazards. Meanwhile, “eco-districts”—insulated developments marketing themselves as low-carbon, climate-resilient, secure communities—are springing up within urban downtowns, but those neighborhoods are generally unaffordable to anyone but the affluent.

So cities’ efforts to secure populations against the threats of climate change can actually put certain populations in positions of greater vulnerability. Another irony is that climate-friendly actions are often implemented to safeguard some of the most important drivers of the economy, such as oil refineries and pipelines, which means cities are protecting the very systems that are implicated in contributing to climate change in the first place.

Says Long, “So far, we are watching cities prepare for climate change by essentially protecting some populations over others, protecting ‘priority’ industries and laborers over others, and creating a uniquely apocalyptic rhetoric that justifies their actions.” That effort is not a conscious one, he continues, “but because of the way these programs are being financed and because of the need to prioritize economic growth while also protecting against climate change, the result is often that the projects that take priority are those that can demonstrate a long-term return on investment. Right now, this is having a huge effect on housing affordability in cities across the U.S. (and elsewhere) and is already creating a much more polarized urban landscape of haves and have nots. But if this scenario continues to play out in the rest of the world, as the hazards associated with climate change become more acute, then we will have to fight hard to keep from having segregated cities filled with two populations: the climate privileged (those who have the political influence and financial stability to insulate themselves from climate change) and the climate precarious (those who will find themselves increasingly vulnerable to climate hazards).”

For Long and Rice, the evidence for this phenomenon of climate urbanism was extant, which was confirmed when the double-blind peer reviewers at Urban Studies accepted the manuscript for publication in record time because it aligned with the empirical observations in their own research and in other urban climate studies. “Many researchers were observing these same patterns. We just needed to put a name to it—[it] needed to be introduced as a theory to explain what we were all witnessing,” Long says.

But to be clear, Long adds adamantly, “We are not critical of action on climate change. Cities are appropriate places to take action on climate change, climate change is an urgent and necessary issue to address, and we should act quickly. However, we should not use that urgency to justify policies that are ineffective or end up causing harm. What we’re trying to do is parse out how can we take meaningful action on climate change that doesn’t cause further injustices, such as the polarization of wealth, the segregation of societies, or the marginalization of populations that are already the most vulnerable.

Eco-gentrification in climate-friendly cities

Long and Rice’s paper on climate urbanism was actually an outgrowth of an article that had been in the works much longer and was more recently published as “Contradictions of the Climate-Friendly City: New Perspectives on Eco-Gentrification and Housing Justice” in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Whereas their research on climate urbanism entailed a global scope, looking at “the major cities of the developing world” and “particularly those areas that were on the frontlines of climate change,” “Contradictions” focuses primarily on progressive, tech-oriented, “green” cities in the U.S., such as Austin, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.

Coauthored by Rice, Long, Daniel Aldana Cohen (University of Pennsylvania), and Jason R. Jurjevich (Portland State University), “Contradictions” examines the current trend of climate-friendly cities that are becoming unaffordable to live in and that may be unintentionally doing more harm than good for the climate. The paper has been receiving wide media attention because it interrogates the impacts of major tech corporations such as Amazon moving into major metropolitan areas. In doing so, they often bring promises of ecofriendly infrastructure, improved public transportation, and higher-density developments that combine residential with commercial use so that newly arrived employees of the creative and tech sectors can walk or bike to work. Unfortunately, as Rice and Long discovered in their exploration of climate urbanism, the result of accommodating these well-paid and highly educated workers is often higher property values and taxes, which forces lower-income and often minority residents to move elsewhere.

“And we can have a much longer conversation about the market and why the market drives this,” Long remarks, “but it’s not just the market. There are also actual specific policies that make this happen. [For example,] Austin policymakers and growth advocates wanted to be the tech capital of the Sun Belt, Austin promoted the idea of a ‘Silicon Hills,’ Austin wanted to be this climate-friendly green city, and it’s used that image to attract specific industries, investors, and skilled workers”—all of which has inadvertently resulted in reduced housing justice and widespread gentrification in areas throughout the city.

Equally disturbing is Rice et al.’s revelation that as more affluent residents move into these elite eco-districts, although their welcome and admirable intentions are to reduce their carbon footprints and lead more environmentally sound lifestyles, their greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and consumption may actually be the same or even higher, even when factoring in their reduced transit or building energy emissions. “All these cities are making progressive action on climate change, and they need to be lauded for switching to renewable energy, for promoting conservation, and for building more environmentally friendly housing,” Long argues. But new research on embedded carbon—the measure of GHG emissions associated with the manufacturing of a product, such as a laptop computer or a car, that therefore serves as an effective measure of environmental impacts—has shown that the affluent residents of urban eco-districts are purchasing a greater quantity of goods that contain greater amounts of embedded carbon, and they are traveling by plane to faraway vacation destinations more frequently. Such activities offset any improvements to their ecological footprint that they’ve achieved through living in dense mixed-use developments close to public transit.

The article came about after Long, Rice, and Cohen noticed during a conference that they were doing essentially the same research but on different cities. They needed hard data to back their initial findings from numerous interviews and observations, so they consulted with Jurjevich, a demographer and geographic information system (GIS) expert, to see whether the data on housing prices and displacement of vulnerable groups would align with their findings. “And whoa did it!” Long exclaims. “Tech companies, which have become incredibly influential in urban-development policy, were establishing major campuses and developing strategies that seemed very climate friendly but that also were leading to heavy gentrification and displacement of existing residents. Not only did this indirectly lead to sprawling developments on the outskirts of cities to accommodate displaced residents and intense new development in the interior of cities to cater to new residents, but it also failed to account for the significant amounts of consumption that the wealthier tech employees (and other residents) were engaging in. Their lifestyle, in short, came with a much higher carbon footprint than anticipated, especially considering that they had been aiming for the exact opposite. Ultimately, we have found that housing affordability, mobility, and social stability are such key components of real sustainability and cannot be overlooked as we begin to address climate change.”

On the verisimilitude of Black Mirror

If you’re a fan of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror, all this talk of the unintended consequences of high-tech innovation is probably unsurprising. But Long—who is no conspiracy theorist—admits that he has discovered some fairly dark, deeply unsettling implications of the relationship between tech corporations and green urban development.

“What’s interesting about the tech sector,” he says, “is that they’re parlaying this into having a huge influence on cities and how they’re growing.” Consider, for example, how Amazon HQ2 recently inspired dozens of American cities to compete for the company’s hand while delivering untold but certainly massive amounts of data about their citizens. But while players such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are creating independent “smart cities,” Long says, they’re also partnering with cities across the U.S. to implement solutions to traffic and transportation issues, communications, and land use. “Tech companies and cities are partnering together to integrate ‘smart systems’ in every aspect of city life. This includes tracking your commuting habits, monitoring utility use, and embedding sensors to track air quality, soil moisture and aridity, water quality, seismic data, etc. All of these things give municipalities real-time information so that you can make cities more energy efficient, more responsive to climate change, and more efficient in terms of movement of goods and services through transportation structures,” he explains.

But here’s the rub: these services come at the price of individual privacy, another significant social-justice issue. “In a legal sense, we have in no way caught up with tech companies’ capabilities and have not sufficiently regulated their data mining practices,” Long warns. “If you’re walking through the city, you’re being monitored constantly, you’re signing on, and you’re downloading apps that are constantly giving information to Google Analytics, Amazon, Facebook, and others who use that information and are now developing models that predict public behaviors and share some of that info with cities. And sometimes that’s good because we want more things like efficient bus and transportation systems, distribution of goods, and waste-water systems. But the problem with the Internet of Things is that we’re sacrificing all kinds of other data about ourselves.” This is why Black Mirror is so good, Long concludes: “Tech companies have an incredible influence over city decisions and policy making. A city like Austin or especially smaller cities like Crystal Falls, Virginia, really have to go out of their way to attract these major industries and end up partnering with them in ways that aren’t fully understood.”  

Advocating environmental and social justice

The articles on climate urbanism and gentrification in climate-friendly cities are only two in a series of publications that readers can look forward to in coming months and years. Long and Rice are continuing their focus on the role of tech companies and the emergence of smart-city technologies in discussions of climate urbanism, and are working with other researchers to develop a greater understanding for how climate change can polarize populations. “The tech industry, development organizations, and financial institutions have an incredible amount of power and influence right now,” Long comments. “We suggest that the two biggest influences in urban development right now are (1) the response to climate change and (2) the role of the tech industry. We want to investigate that relationship further.”

As a result of this ongoing research, Long and his colleagues would like to see a more nuanced approach to climate-change action, one that champions rather than exacerbates current issues in social justice. For them, “When academics see that new development programs and policies—even those with the best of intentions—are introducing unfortunate and/or unforeseen outcomes, we want to point them out immediately while there is time to change course,” Long reflects. “My fear is that some people will read our research and use it as a reason to be critical of climate actions, or to suggest that we shouldn’t act at all, which is certainly not what we are advocating. Our hope, however, is that this research will promote more equity and justice in cities’ response to climate change.”