Published on Sustainable Cities

The Old Man is Snoring

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Flooding in Bangkok‘It’s raining, it’s pouring. The old man is snoring.’ Truth be told, I apparently snore, and I suppose I’m not that young anymore. But hard to believe, I’m sure this nursery rhyme is not about me. And despite the recent Noah-like floods in Europe, Bangkok, Calgary, Dhaka, Jakarta, New York and Toronto, it’s not really about any one city, or any one country, or even any one continent. But, ‘went to bed and bumped his head. And won’t get up in the morning,’ aptly describes our current political paralysis.

Many children know this song. Soon they will learn how their grandfathers and fathers slept through the rain.

Here in troubled Toronto and gritty Calgary, there was the inevitable debate on whether or not the recent floods could be attributed to climate change. ‘If it’s this bad now, what’s the future hold?’ people wondered. ‘Sleepwalking into trouble,’ came to mind for many.

Quality studies abound. We know with fairly high confidence what’s in store, and even more important, why. We even know what individual cities are likely to have to pay as they adapt to a changing climate (hint, try to get flood insurance in Miami, Guangzhou and New York). You can debate when and the scale, but you can’t in good conscience debate that the climate is changing. More floods are coming.

More mayors and citizens, regional and national politicians, need to wake up to the fact that their cities are now truly, irrevocably, in a different world than just a few years ago. By in large, just about everywhere, cities are bigger and many are growing faster than ever, unemployment is higher, tensions are strained, climate’s changing, sea level is rising, things move much faster than they used to. A flexible, smarter, integrated, more inclusive response to city-building and management is needed. This is not a ‘Kumbaya moment’ nor is it ‘leftie arm-waving’ or fringe. This is reality. ‘All hands on deck – we’re taking on water.’

Infrastructure needs to be hardened; self-support community groups encouraged; communication improved; insurance offerings – availability and limitations – need to be clearer; land use planning enforced; drains and recharge systems better built and maintained; urban greening, upstream management, and coastal zone management encouraged; and, metrological systems improved. Now.

As we get older we are supposed to become more set in our ways. But we can’t afford that luxury. Old men need to wake up. The roof’s leaking and the kids need help.

Photo: Flooding in Bangkok, November 2011; photo source:  ebvImages


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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