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Adapting to Climate Change: Cities and the Urban Poor

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Adapting to Climate Change: Cities and the Urban Poor

International Housing Coalition.


The International Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization focused on urbanization and shelter for the poor, recently published Adapting to Climate Change: Cities and the Urban Poor, a report discussing global climate change and its potential disproportionate effects on cities and the urban poor.

Global climate change will significantly affect urban areas in the developing world. The known effects of climate change — increased temperatures, rising seas, and increased incidence of severe storms — will be especially significant for cities because many are located along the coast, placing both the population and national economies at risk.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and more poor people move to urban areas, the challenges of climate change are exacerbated. Approximately 51 percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities just over a generation from now. This rapid migration to cities has triggered infrastructure and housing needs that outpace governments’ ability to respond.

As a result, poor migrants often build housing on difficult or undesirable land that is more likely to be in low-lying areas, on steep slopes, in ravines, and in other risk-prone areas exposed to extreme conditions such as floods and landslides. The urban poor are often financially unable to move to more protected areas or further inland. Low and unstable incomes as well as limited access to housing finance means that the poor often cannot afford standard building materials or upgraded structures. The resulting housing, built with found or substandard materials, is of poor quality and vulnerable to wind damage and flooding. Despite being among those most threatened by climate change, poor urban dwellers often are politically marginalized and not empowered to protect themselves. Many are living on their land illegally and cannot advocate for better protection from extreme weather conditions or access local or national aid.

In addition, many of the world’s largest cities are located in low elevation coastal zones (LECZs) — areas at less than 33 feet elevation — that are more susceptible to environmental events. An estimated 23 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast and at less than 350 feet of elevation. These LECZs, which house factories, ports, and other valuable economic assets, are especially prone to flooding and coastal storms such as hurricanes. The cost of upgrading existing infrastructure will also increase as stronger, more expensive materials are needed to withstand the increasing number and severity of storms.

The IHC report recognizes that much work must be done to combat the effects of climate change in cities and on the urban poor. Further deterioration of urban conditions can be prevented if governments, private investors, and researchers integrate climate change into future plans and policies. Cities are encouraged to improve their capacity to adapt to climate change. Local and international governments, private donors, and investors are challenged to assist and support existing efforts in urban adaption to global climate change. Researchers are also challenged to think of innovative solutions to these problems. In addition, the report highlights current international support for urban climate change adaptation that may serve as models for future investments in combating climate change effects in urban areas.

The International Housing Coalition (IHC) is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC that focuses on urbanization and shelter for the poor. IHC seeks to promote housing for all and raise the priority of improving the living conditions of slum dwellers on the international development agenda through advocacy and education. Adapting to Climate Change: Cities and the Urban Poor is available at


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.