Review: The Urban Climate Challenge

Editor(s) Craig Johnson, Noah Toly, Heike Schroeder
Publisher Routledge
Year 2015

Talk of climate change is everywhere and there is an increasing focus on cities as key sites for adapting to and mitigating climate change. This book starts to unpack how cities are engaging with the urban climate challenge. It puts cities forward as key players in the global climate regime as well as critical actors in driving urban change internally, and looks at the potential role of cities in increasing their own resilience.

The book is framed around three key questions:

  • How are cities repositioning themselves in relation to the global climate regime?
  • How are cities being repositioned – conceptually and epistemologically?
  • What are the prospects for crafting policies that can reduce the urban carbon footprint while at the same time building resilience to future climate change?

The book is structured into five parts and includes 12 chapters in total. The editors, Craig Johnson, Noah Toly and Heike Schroeder, have experience in politics, governance and international development, and all have worked on urban climate governance. Most of the chapter authors are well established in their fields and have extensive experience in urban governance research.

A summary of Part 1 helps give a sense of the material that weaves through the different chapters. This first section provides an overview of the issues in governing cities in an era of climate change, with an emphasis on different theoretical perspectives that could be employed to help us understand the role of cities in more depth. The introduction provides an excellent frame. It is particularly rich in examining the different role that cities play, through both the lens of building and creating and in polluting and destroying. In this sense, it does not see cities as the solution but places them as having a very central role to play in being part of transformation. Although the introduction chapter does not frame the book as being about transformation, many of the chapters talk to this theme as a significant underlying foundation of what is needed.

Chapters 2 and 3, by Sassen and de Flander respectively, talk to the theme of transformation. Sassen suggests that a re-framing is needed to capitalize on the potential of cities to disrupt current pathways. She suggests that cities have more potential than national governments for addressing environmental sustainability because of their ability to bypass some of the international debates that have become stuck, such as carbon trading. In addition, cities have implemented more innovations that national governments, in part supported by the global urban networks they are engaged in. She suggests that the multi-scalar and ecological features of cities should be capitalized on more. De Flander builds on this by looking at cities as systems, as part of resource flows, that have connections to multiple scales. She suggests that this systems-based understanding should be built on to experiment with transdisciplinarity. She brings citizens into the conversation with local government suggesting that, “changing urban systems should start from within the existing cities, trusting the transformative potential of the city and taking the citizens along in the process.”

Part 2 ‘Going Global? The Changing Face of Urban Climate Governance’ looks at cities as part of an international network. Part 3 ‘Domestic Policy Responses: Integrating Mitigation and Adaptation into Urban Climate Governance’ looks at how cities have implemented both policy and projects on the ground. These two sections illustrate how important international networks have been in informing different city responses. Yet, once ideas are generated from the international level, implementation is needed at the city scale and success has been varied in this regard. The chapters in Part 4 look at urban responses in Latin America and East Africa, adding to earlier chapters on India, Brazil, Canada and the USA.

The diversity of cities included in different chapters helps to give a sense of the different innovations and challenges across different regions as well as some of the common challenges that cities are facing despite differences in capacity and resources. The final section, Part 5, ‘Governing the Urban Climate Challenge: New Directions in Theory, Policy and Research’ pulls the book together with the concluding chapter by the editors.

Although the introduction to the book frames the challenge of the role of cities very well, it does not define what a city is. As someone who works in smaller metropolitan areas that morph between urban and rural, I feel such a definition would be helpful. This omission points to the current focus in research, more generally and in this book, on large cities and climate change. More work is needed to support and assess what smaller cities are doing, as that is where a lot of growth is likely to happen.

I expect this book will be of interest to many scholars and practitioners working in urban areas and grappling with the climate challenge. It will be of interest to transdisciplinary scholars as the book has many examples of why cities cannot be looked at in isolation or through narrow lenses. Often research focuses on one part of the city, sometimes sectorally or spatially. This book provides examples of and calls for more research that sees the city as a system that has multiple components connected across scales and sectors. It challenges researchers and practitioners alike to push boundaries and see the city as a site of transformation.


Dr Gina Ziervogel is a geographer by training, working in the field of adaptation and vulnerability to global environmental change. She is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town researching issues related to development in a context of climate change and working on the ground in aligning municipal and community adaptation responses.

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