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Field notes from CitiesIPCC: Day 3

The Cities and Climate Change Science Conference (CitiesIPCC) runs from 5 to 7 March in Edmonton, Canada. To learn more about this event, see Future Earth's conference web page here.

Read our summaries of Day One and Day Two.

On Thursday, 8 March, most of the CitiesIPCC attendees will make the long drive through the plains of Alberta to catch their flights back home. It is also International Women’s Day, which has not gone unnoticed during the conference.

On Tuesday night at a reception at Rogers Place, home to Edmonton’s hockey team the Oilers, the conference’s women attendees gathered for a group photo. But a better reminder of the upcoming day came from Priya Kurian. Kurian is a professor at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. Speaking in the opening plenary of Day Three, she urged the audience to look at climate change dialogue with a “gender lens” – which she was careful to note is about more than women.

“If you look at whose voices are being heard in the realms of science, government, business around climate change,” Kurian said, “it seems evident that there is a masculinisation of environmentalism, with men’s voices dominating these realms, marginalising the voices of not just women but the less powerful – youth, indigenous.”

The message resonated with a number of people in the audience:


Theme of the conference

And it’s one I carried with me as I attended my first session of the day focusing on informal settlements and economies. The last two days, I described my theme of the day. Today, Debra Roberts, who convened the session, beat me to the punch by saying that “informality” has been the biggest message of the conference.

Estimates suggest that three billion people could live in informal settlements, largely in the Global South, by 2050. Because those communities don’t have access to most government services, they have come up with a wealth of ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change, Roberts said. She is Chief Resilience Officer for South Africa’s eThekwini Municipality. Those impacts include worsening floods and dwindling water supplies. The question facing researchers is how to tap into that knowledge.

I talked with Roberts, also a member of the Urban Knowledge-Action Network, about why informality merits the designation of theme of the conference:


The session began with a talk from Michael Uwemedimo of The Human City Project about his work with informal settlements around Port Harcourt, Nigeria. These informal settlements, spread over 49 waterfronts and made up of nearly half a million people, are the heart of the “oil capital of Nigeria.” Here, people produce nearly 150,000 barrels of oil a day in unofficial, or “artisanal,” wells. This oil fuels cars across Africa, but these communities also face the constant threat of being evicted from their homes.

“This is an example of how the formal and informal constitute each other,” Uwemedimo said. “Quite frankly, it happens because some people don’t matter. It’s as simple as that.”

But Uwemedimo, like all of the speakers in the session, also railed against the idea of viewing people living in informal settlements as victims. His group, for example, worked with youth and others in Port Harcourt to launch a public campaign to bring attention to these communities. It included a “jingle” with the line, “Can you hear a voice louder than bullets broadcast from the slums?”


The session laid out ideas for how researchers can work with such settlements. First and foremost, informal settlements want formality, said Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa. “We want recognition. We want citizenship. We want to be part of the management of a city,” Mbassi said.

To that end, researchers can play an important role in highlighting what cities can gain by recognising the legality of informal settlements and economies, said panelist Gale Tracy Christiane Rigobert. She is Minister of Education, Innovation, Gender Relations and Sustainable Development for Saint Lucia. Such benefits can include the work of waste pickers, who collect and recycle trash in India and other nations across the globe.

Gale Tracy Christiane Rigobert. Photo: IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

Researchers can also work in collaboration with informal settlements to map and gather other basic data on these communities, said Sheela Patel, chair of the board of Shack/Slum Dwellers International. Her organisation collaborates with informal settlements around the world to do just that – making invisible communities visible.


I talked with Patel after the session. She stressed that researchers must work as equal partners with informal communities, not merely extract data and leave. You can watch our conversation here:


Patel ended the session with strong message: She said that as informal settlements grow and organise, the scientific community and others will soon have no choice but to partner with them to design ways to make cities more sustainable. “Our time has come,” she said.

I also caught up with Patricia Romero-Lankao, who I mentioned in yesterday's summary, about how governments can protect the most vulnerable communities from floods and other impacts of climate change:


Looking ahead

Since it was the last day of CitiesIPCC, there was a lot of talk about how to keep the momentum of our three days in Edmonton going. You can watch the closing plenary of the conference to dig into some of those conversations here.


What stood out for me was the need to continue building strong relationships between cities and the research community. Throughout these three days, I heard several people say that they had never seen such close contact between scientists, city officials, urban planners and other practitioners.

In the final press conference, Debra Roberts said that for the first time in her long career, she “heard the science humanised.”

“Over the last three days, science came to where real people live and are trying to forge a new urban future,” Roberts said. “This to me is the excitement of what we’ve achieved here in Edmonton. We’ve broken down barriers between science, practice, policy.”

In a document released Wednesday, Future Earth and partners, including three prominent city networks, laid out plans for how they would continue to break down those barriers after the conference. We’re inviting other organisations sign onto that commitment, too, which you can read about here.

But our own Anne-Hélène Prieur-Richard laid out the most concise idea for strengthening those relationships: “One thing I think any kind of city could do is when you start a project – it can be restoring an ecosystem; it can be new building and transit – just invite a few scientists at the beginning of a project to start a discussion.”