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Why climate change is important to the ‘New York Times’ architecture critic

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Michael Kimmelman discusses his series “Changing Climate, Changing Cities”

Sunset in Rotterdam
Roman Boed: Flickr/Creative Commons

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has always taken a wide-angle view of just what the building beat can entail.

Just as the impact of a single skyscraper can only be fully explained by exploring its economic significance, environmental footprint, and connections to the wider real estate and regulatory worlds, architecture is woven into broad social and political issues. A building means nothing without its street, its neighborhood, and the city in which it stands.

That systematic storytelling approach served Kimmelman well when he launched “Changing Climate, Changing Cities” earlier this year, an ambitious examination of how environmental change has started to tug at the economic and social fabric holding global cities together. Beyond rising water, this shift threatens to be a “spark in the tinder” with deep repercussions.

In wide-ranging stories on the water crisis and social strains in Mexico City, China’s Pearl River Delta, where rapid development is in a head-on crash with a changing climate, and Rotterdam, where the Dutch focus on turning rising seas into a business opportunity, Kimmelman looks beyond places with immediate challenges, such as Miami, to show how climate change is a universal issue with vexing local political challenges.

Curbed spoke with Kimmelman about why an architecture critic offers a unique perspective on a ubiquitous issue, how cities need to become characters in the story of climate change, and why feel-good urbanism isn’t the entire answer.

An aerial view of Mexico City.

Why is it important for an architecture critic to write about climate change?

Climate change is the looming problem of our time, and so much of what the challenge of climate change is about is the world we build, or fail to build, in response to the science, as we understand it.

Once the issue is about the built world and our strategies and failures, it seems to me to be a question that falls naturally under the purview of somebody called the architecture critic.

I suppose my definition of architecture has been loose and broad enough to embrace not just buildings, but the neighborhoods and cities they occupy, and by natural extension, the communities and people who interact with those buildings. It seems to me not just an urgent subject for us and our survival, but also a fascinating lens through which to talk about the ways cities work or don’t work. Our understanding of the urban fabric is as this complicated, interwoven, economic, social, physical, and environmental thing.

The water supply to some poorer neighborhoods in Mexico City is erratic, so residents buy water from tanker trucks like this one, called pipas. Climate change, and the water supply issues it is bringing to the metropolis, threaten this fragile system.
Photo by Tim Johnson/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

Climate change is a challenge to almost every place on the planet. And it’s very instructive and revealing to see the ways in which different cities have not tackled it, pretended to tackle it, tried to tackle it, and been thwarted by it; the fact that cities, for all their inventive and often progressive ideas, are often thwarted by state and federal government.

Each of the cities I focus on is hopefully emblematic of some larger issues that go beyond climate change to tell about how cities work, what opportunities there are to improve them, and what challenges face them.

How do you make the story of climate change relatable and make people pay attention? You’re adding an extra challenge by picking cities that aren’t in the United States and that may not be familiar to your readers.

This is the hardest project I’ve undertaken at the Times, because the city has to be a character. In order to engage people, I think they have to care and relate to the thing you’re writing, and a city is often so amorphous and—especially if you haven’t been—it can seem so abstract and foreign. [I’m] trying to find ways into these places that give them some character, scenes, and people with whom they can identify.

People see climate change as some ominous-but-vague thing out there that isn’t part of their daily life, so you need to relate the ways in which it has an impact now on situations that relate to them. Mexico City was chosen because it wasn’t a coastal city. It’s a mile high, it’s surrounded by lakes, it’s not particularly hot. It’s not a place people think of like they think of Miami. But precisely for that reason, it struck me as being a really good place to start. You may not think that this pertains to you, you may not live in Miami or Tampa, but it does.

Rotterdam at night.
Tom Roeleveld: Flickr/Creative Commons

The reaction you get from climate deniers or skeptics to a piece like the Mexico City story is that these issues you cover are longstanding problems. You’re describing social problems, geographical problems, which have been around for ages. But climate change becomes the spark in the tinder. It takes these fragile and complex situations and exacerbates problems. That’s the lesson of a place like Mexico City.

We seem to be stuck in a situationwhen it comes to working against climate changewhere cities and local government are up against the federal government. How do you keep your optimism? How do you see those forces working together in the right direction as opposed to butting heads all the time?

Even if you’re not interested in climate change, the issues that I hope come up in the conversation about Mexico City or Guangzhou, China—like local governance issues, local versus state, or cities versus federal government—pertain to many things, such as public transit. These articles should also ring a bell when it comes to other subjects.

You ask me how I can be optimistic. I would say in many cases, I’m not. One thing I hope is implied, or will come across, is that the kind of feel-good, “mayors are the answers to everything, cities are our future” philosophy, which has dominated a lot of urban discussions, sounds good, but runs up against the reality that cities aren’t countries. They do rely on state and national governments, with which they are very often at odds.

[It’s important to] be honest about that, and not pretend that mayors can do everything, even though they are on the front lines and are full of good ideas. Implementing those ideas is something entirely different. We need to move beyond that feel-good stage to begin to tackle the larger problem: How do you make good ideas a reality?

The Maeslantkering, a massive gate that controls the flow of water into Rotterdam’s port. Each of the two arms are as tall as the Eiffel Tower and twice as heavy.
M. Moers: Flickr/Creative Commons

You did a piece on Habitat III [the United Nation’s global conference on urbanization and cities] where you talk about seeing all of these forward-thinking, progressive city officials and architects. The ideas are there, but the political will to work together and make them happen is what’s missing.

I saw this with the mayor of Mexico City. I mentioned in the article he said that his federal funding had been cut to zero. The present administration in Mexico was opposed to the mayor and wanted to screw him over.

He can say what he wants about pedestrianizing streets and installing bike lanes, and the usual checklist of to-dos, but in the end, those changes are wildly outweighed by the massive highways, suburban sprawl, and corrupt housing projects that eat into all sorts of supposedly protected lands. The mayor ultimately is helpless against those larger forces.

If people are honest about and aware of those conflicts, and organize around the issues that they care about, then perhaps one can create the political will to overcome those conflicts. I think mayors who just say “we’re doing the right things” or “we want to do the right things”—it’s not enough.

The Pearl River in Guangzhou. The river has flooded throughout its history, but climate change is making annual floods more severe, threatening an area vital to global supply chains and manufacturing.
Carlos Jiménez Ruiz: Flickr/Creative Commons

It’s a central issue in our country. How can cities and a large majority of Americans somehow guarantee basic services and rights when the federal government is broken or actually hostile to the majority? I think that begins with an honest conversation about the limitations of local government, and about creating new networks. Some of which I think should lean on those very foundations and private sources which have maybe not been as motivated to implement real change, but have seen themselves more as encouraging governments to say the right things.

And so there has been a kind of atmosphere of, not self-promotion exactly, but somehow that just saying the right things one has done enough. We’re at a condition now where clearly that’s not going to suffice.

What lessons can people take from these stories to help the situation? What can an everyday citizen do?

That’s a very good question. There are local and global answers. Locally, we need to think of cities as organic places, places that change and can change that are shared by other people. The process of making change is an ongoing obligation. It’s a social obligation. We have to accept that as part of being a citizen, and engage on a local level, whether it’s fighting for decent neighborhoods, fighting against the dominance of the automobile, or fighting for green spaces and public squares.

Becoming part of the conversation creates healthier cities and citizens, who become more able to organize and more likely to help withstand the challenges that climate change poses. That’s one of the lesson that I think one can extract from the Dutch: that a strong citizenry is more capable to deal with what’s ahead.

On a larger level, beyond political organization, we need to have really serious, constructive conversations—which we don’t do here because we have so many immediate crises—about the kind of steps that would need to be taken to make long-term, healthy communities.

In New York City, we haven’t really had the difficult conversations about where we should and shouldn’t live. We haven’t [hashed] out the real larger questions about the larger infrastructure investments we need to make. We tend to avoid those conversations. They’re hard. Incremental change is a lot easier. The big changes we need to make, they run up against the cycle of political elections. This has always been a problem for us.

But think of the Manhattan grid: It began in 1811. It was finished decades later. It required successive administrations to continue to believe in it and invest in it, and I think it’s fair to say without it, New York City never would have become what it is. It was the kind of commitment, made across generations, to build what was at the time an unimaginable thing: a global city. It’s not that it can’t be done. We’ve just got out of the habit of thinking that way.

That’s why I’m interested in places like Penn Station. It’s an emblem of the difficulties we have in making difficult decisions. But they’re also opportunities for enormous, game-changing development. We have to convey better to the public, and the public needs to buy into the idea, that these things are difficult but will yield potentially huge benefits.

This interview has been edited and condensed.