Mind & Matter


Cities After Climate Change

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Climatopolis (Basic Books), by Matthew Kahn.


After perusing a compelling review of Matthew E. Kahn’s new book in The Economist, I ventured to read it for myself. Entitled Climatopolis, the book transcends the current debate about how to avoid climate change, instead assessing how such a phenomenon will actually affect us—and especially cities—in the future. Although some may see the book as a cynical view of the inevitability of climate change, it provides interesting insights regarding the potential physical ramifications of global warming on urban environments.

An economist and professor at UCLA, Kahn focuses on economic issues, such as the desired roles of the private sector and government in mollifying the negative effects of climate change, or future changes in the branding of cities as more or less desirable places to live (in one passage, he whimsically entertains the rapid purchase of Fargo real estate by flooded Manhattanites).

If the book’s strengths are in Kahn’s reasoned assessments of economically-driven issues, it falls short in terms of tangible scientific predictions. Kahn presumes that most coastal cities will experience flooding, for example, but he hesitates to approximate a physical depth or timeline for this inundation. Although I forgive Kahn for not wanting to speculate on such an unpredictable issue, I would expect more in terms of addressing global warming’s myriad effects—including the increased severity of droughts or winter storms—that have inspired the more appropriate title of “global weirding” in recent discussions. The fact that Kahn lists Las Vegas (drought) and Fargo (winter storms) as two cities most immune to global warming gives one pause.

Despite these limitations, Climatopolis clarifies the approaches cities may take towards “climate-proofing” their populations, starting with an in-depth forecasting of environmental impacts as Mayor Bloomberg has initiated with the New York City Panel on Climate Change. He also makes a profound case for the important benefits of particular material changes to existing structures, such as increased insulation and the addition of renewable energy-harvesting systems. Although it is difficult to predict the severity of future changes influenced by global warming, architects would do well to study its potential effects.



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.