What kind of world do we want to be? Designing a climate justice world

With an Open Call, the Van Eesteren-Fluck & Van Lohuizen Foundation is calling on transdisciplinary teams to get to work on Designing a Climate Justice World. The theme of Climate Justice is explored in this article, which is based on a conversation with Caroline Newton, designer and holder of the Van Eesteren Fellowship (TU Delft), Sandor Gaastra, director-general Climate and Energy (Ministry EZK), Hilde Blank, urban planner, director of BVR Adviseurs and chair of the EFL Foundation and Maarten van Poelgeest, partner at consultancy firm Andersson Elffers Felix, former alderman of Amsterdam and chair of Uitvoeringsoverleg Gebouwde and board member of the EFL Foundation.


Designing a climate justice world

Author: Marieke Berkers

The climate challenge creates complex tasks at the spatial level. Add to that the theme of justice and it does not get any simpler. But it does become more urgent. Based on the conviction that the transition will only happen if it happens fairly, taking the theme of climate justice into account when distributing the scarce space is not an option, but a must.

What kind of world do we want to be?
In the current building assignments, little attention is paid to the long-term consequences. The mantra 'build, build, build', which sounds ever more exhilarating because of the acute housing shortage, stimulates the technical search for solutions and the distribution of scarce space on the planning map. Climate has our attention, but are we also working towards a living environment that is better balanced in terms of justice?
Linking the theme of climate justice to the spatial domain is not yet an obvious action, but it is a promising one. It provides opportunities to formulate and substantiate tasks, spatial choices and their consequences more clearly. It gives us an opportunity to discuss the planning and design of our living environment in a more fundamental way. What kind of world do we want to be? By adding the theme of justice, long-term consequences, for example social, economic or spatial, come into sharper focus. Moreover, it helps to keep a better eye on the various perspectives and interests involved in tasks. What do the plans I advocate mean to others? Not just now, but also for generations to come. Or for the people on the southern side of the world? Embedding the ecological boundaries of the world in models exposes a lot of injustice.


The power of design
The power of good design is of great value. Designers are capable of sketching spatial alternatives for people who are disadvantaged by climate change in the way they currently work or live. Take the housing challenge, for example. From a climate perspective, it seems obvious to look for new building locations on the high sandy ground instead of in the low-lying polders. But what are the consequences in people's daily lives if they are forced to move there? Will there be enough facilities and jobs, and is accessibility and energy capacity in order? Housing is a very important issue in relation to climate justice because it is so closely linked to everyday life, to people's basic needs.
Or how to deal with our production landscapes? In the light of climate change, the way the food-producing farmer works is no longer tenable everywhere. What if he starts working with new crops? Crops that also provide a healthier diet. Designers can visualise the spatial consequences of such a choice and link the task to the regional scale. How do you ensure, for example, that the surrounding residential areas have access to that healthy food? What are the perspectives that will benefit people who are currently experiencing the burden of climate change in the short and long term? Such perspectives are important because they give society a push to start moving more now.

Long-term thinking
The latter appears to be a difficult task. It is difficult for people to feel the urgency of taking action if they themselves have not yet been affected by the consequences of climate change. It is this tragic fate of humanity that creates a mismatch between policy and reality. How different is it in a country like Cambodia where people experience the effects of a changing climate every year when they stand with their feet in the water? But look at the long term. Then the Netherlands and its delta turn out to be the Cambodia of Europe. Because with a rise of only three metres in the sea level, the west of our country will disappear under water. There will be so much water that it can no longer be pumped away by engineers. In short, without long-term thinking we will get nowhere.
In the Netherlands, water issues are already causing more and more inconvenience to citizens and entrepreneurs and are making the urgency of the climate challenge painfully tangible for more and more people. Think of the floods that residents of Limburg, Germany and Belgium had to endure in the summer of 2021. Not only is climate change causing these kinds of heavy showers to occur more frequently, but the amount of precipitation per rainfall has also increased significantly. So you better prepare for the future. At the same time, other areas of the Netherlands are experiencing acute drought and salinisation. Farmers and water boards are increasingly bothered by this, because it is jeopardising the way in which we currently farm and is lowering the level of our national supply of drinking water. The water boards indicate that they can maintain their current water level management and the occasional changes in water level during times of extreme drought for another ten years. After that there will simply not be enough freshwater available to continue working in the traditional manner.

City and countryside
For many city dwellers, these tasks still seem a 'far cry'. City dwellers are often insufficiently aware that tasks in the countryside will eventually affect them as well, for instance due to shortages of basic necessities such as healthy drinking water and food. Nevertheless, the relationship between city and countryside is under pressure more than ever. Climate change is exposing an even stronger relationship than before. The cities, especially in the west, have seen their population grow substantially in recent years. The transitions around energy and water management, but also logistics - think of the large data centres or logistics boxes that are needed to satisfy the urban hunger for internet and delivery - will mainly take place in the surrounding countryside. How fair, then, is it if city dwellers protest against windmills or data centres on the edges of their city, but pay no heed to the placing of such structures in the surrounding countryside far away? How can the city contribute to preventing even more water from being abstracted from the soil or to making new forms of cultivation successful?

Necessary behavioural change
We transport much of our responsibility. We think it is quite normal to drive to a petrol station and fill up the tank, and we would like to have it at the cheapest price too, but we are not aware that it causes pollution elsewhere. Think, for example, of the environmental pollution that oil production causes in Saudi Arabia. If we want to change this, we will have to travel differently. This requires different choices regarding transport and infrastructure. Another theme for which alternative perspectives are desirable. Residents of urban residential areas plug into the wall socket and are not affected by the negative consequences of generating and supplying energy. But everyone who lives in the vicinity of infra projects such as a solar field, or the large plugs at the sea, lose something in terms of spatial quality. Our behaviour here is linked to tasks elsewhere. If we want to design a fair world, we citizens must dare to think beyond our own interests. As a spatial designer, you have to act accordingly.

Integral solutions
Building a climate-just world requires the ability to work on tasks in an almost kaleidoscopic way; constantly shifting between different policy aspects and taking all interests into account when making considerations and choices. This approach is not new. The Omgevingswet and Omgevingsvisies are examples of how this approach is already being used at national, provincial and local level. But often the integrated approach remains stuck at the abstract level of vision creation and the drawing up of maps. Plans are then insufficiently elaborated towards implementation. Consideration of what choices will mean for various groups during implementation is not given enough consideration. For example, what happens if I draw windmills at sea? The cutter fishermen would then be the ones to suffer; there would be no room for them. What solutions can be found to give these fishermen a new perspective?
It helps to think more transdisciplinarily, from the start in processes. Look for cooperation with experts of different cultural backgrounds, genders, ages, with scientific and non-scientific fields of work. This will contribute to the quality of new perspectives and insights on climate justice. Together, we can then search for a language and type of interventions that citizens understand and will embrace. A necessary step to achieve much needed behavioural changes, a prerequisite for a climate just world.

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