By Michael Shank

How cities in Europe are retrofitting to reflect new climate realities and community needs

  • The problem: People are disengaged on climate and distrustful of government.
  • Why it matters: We need everyone on board with no-one left behind.
  • The solution: Embedding city staff within the community to act as a go-between can help to build a bridge between the public and policymakers.

As we conclude the UN climate talks in Dubai and the hottest year on record, the need for governments to go above and beyond business as usual in scaling climate action has never been clearer.

Now it’s time for other local governments to consider how to decentralise city infrastructure and decision-making and shift power to the community, especially if we want to move on climate fast enough – and move together, united.

The good news is that there are several remarkable shifts happening across city ecosystems. Cities are disrupting the status quo and increasingly investing in new approaches to engage the community in the co-creation of climate action and policymaking.

New roles to fit the new reality

First, our cities are rethinking their roles and identities and hiring climate and environmental justice directors, chief heat officers, green new dealers and climate budgeters to work across all city departments. These new hires work outside silos, and they send important messages about governance – that this work is intersectional and multi-disciplinary, and that just and equitable participation is essential.

Second, our cities are revamping their approach to the community, using appreciative inquiry approaches to co-design the future with all stakeholders across a city ecosystem. They’re launching action networks to mobilise entire communities around carbon reduction initiatives, and they’re shifting power by establishing community-operated resilience hubs within local neighbourhoods.

Third, our cities are radically reconfiguring their municipal infrastructure. One of our cities – Copenhagen – is reworking its entire municipal structure, getting rid of city scaffolding that might get in the way of engagement and embedding local climate officers within the community for up to five years at a time. The strategy they’re using is based on asset-based community development thinking.

These municipal staff aren’t reporting to a city desk and a city office every day but are based in the community for years at a time. Their office is the community. Their desk is the day-to-day goings-on within the locality. Their job is to both represent the city to the citizenry, but also to advocate for the community to the municipality. They have two bosses, in essence – the public as well as policymakers.

The new approach restructures the way in which the community engages with the city and vice versa. It begins to decentralise climate action in Copenhagen and democratise climate action and policymaking by ensuring a more seamless and constructive dialogue and partnership between city staff and city residents.

Citizen engagement for a new age

It’s innovative, and it’s the way forward for cities rethinking citizen engagement. There’s a growing recognition among cities that past precedent and prior approaches to engagement – which have often taken the form of missives from government to the public in a unidirectional fashion – haven’t moved or mobilised the masses in the direction needed to slow climate change. Thus, the new approaches are very welcome and much needed now.

Copenhagen’s new approach, launched last year, to post climate officers within local communities is already yielding results. The city is witnessing a more engaged public, a richer conversation on climate policies, a more actionable climate agenda and more human resources available to make it all happen.

The community of the willing – to advocate, activate and actualise – has grown substantially as a result. And that’s going to be critical if Copenhagen is to meet its aggressive climate goals, which are some of the most ambitious goals of any city in the world. It’s going to require everyone on board the community’s, and the city’s, climate agenda to make it a reality.

This step is an exciting one, and it’s appropriate that such a climate leader like Copenhagen would lead in this way. Now it’s time for other local governments to consider how to decentralise city infrastructure and decision-making and shift power to the community, especially if we want to move on climate fast enough – and move together, united.

The public wants it, and they’ll undoubtedly make good use of it. And it’s a shift that’ll move both systems and behaviour change simultaneously. Local governments: it’s time to go hyper-local.