News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Building Urban Resilience to Climate Change: Lessons from the Arctic

| July 26, 2023

As the Arctic warms three to four times faster than the global average, life in Arctic cities is becoming increasingly challenging. Climate-driven hazards, such as permafrost thaw, sea ice loss, sea level rise, erosion, flooding, and wildfires, pose severe risks to urban infrastructure and the health and livelihoods of urban residents.

Although roughly two-thirds of the region’s four million inhabitants live in urban areas, Arctic cities have been underrepresented in discussions on Arctic resilience. However, increasing Arctic cities’ capacity to anticipate, plan for, respond to, and recover from climate shocks will be critical for local authorities to maintain essential services for residents and for Arctic cities to continue to drive regional economic development.

An April seminar co-organized by the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative and the Arctic Mayors’ Forum, “Building Climate Resilience in the Urban Arctic,” brought together mayors and climate officials from the municipalities of Bodø, Norway; Umeå, Sweden; and Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska, to discuss how climate change was impacting their cities and how their cities were responding to those impacts. The speakers also drew out lessons that other climate-vulnerable cities elsewhere in the world could learn from the Arctic experience.

Defining Climate Resilience in the Urban Arctic

While the definition of climate resilience varied from speaker to speaker, several common themes emerged during the discussion. 

The remoteness of many Arctic cities was cited as a major challenge to local climate adaptation work. The vast distances between Arctic cities make human mobility and transportation of goods more expensive and limit residents’ access to services. “Our closest urban community is about 300 miles away,” emphasized Bryce Ward, Mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough. “So, the difficulty is…how do you connect those communities together so that infrastructure can support each other?” 

The panelists spoke about building resilience in terms of striking a balance between self-sufficiency and cooperation. All three officials saw increased circular city development as key to a low-carbon economy and insurance against supply chain disruptions. At the same time, all three said their cities were actively cooperating with local, regional, national, and international stakeholders to develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. “In Umeå, we say that we have it a ‘do-it-yourself’ spirit. I think that's common for many cities here in the Arctic where the distances are long,” said Annika Myrén, Development Strategist for Umeå. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cooperate.”

The panelists also identified a need to strengthen public awareness of and develop creative solutions to address climate change impacts. “People in the Arctic have to be prepared for [higher waves and stronger storms] in another way than, for example, in Barcelona or Brussels,” said Ida Maria Pinnerød, Mayor of Bodø. “We need creative solutions for ordinary and daily problems.” Ward added that reframing discussions around improving efficiency and lowering costs was often effective at motivating citizens to make more sustainable choices. 

Pathways for Enhancing Climate Resilience in Arctic Cities

While technology is expected to enhance climate resilience in Arctic cities significantly, solutions must be tailored to the specific local context. Pinnerød described Bodø’s efforts to reuse materials from a former fighter base for urban construction as part of the EU-funded City Loops project. In Fairbanks, where electricity generation is very expensive, Ward explained the importance of using energy-efficient designs in public and private buildings to reduce heating and lighting costs. According to Ward, allowing “a level of freedom for the community to explore what works” given available resources could achieve innovative results. 

The panelists also saw promise in integrating social sustainability principles into local climate adaptation work. Myrén stressed that local policy actions should be human-centered and focused on the residents’ needs. For example, Umeå has conducted surveys and collected data on mobility to target the relevant groups in developing its policy actions. “Travel surveys [show] that if the men living in Umeå traveled like Umeå’s women, the sustainable mobility goals for our city would be reached already,” said Myrén. Ward added that there is “much to gain” from learning from Arctic Indigenous Peoples. He pointed to a Fairbanks North Star Borough organization working with local Alaska Native communities to incorporate aspects of their traditional home designs to create more efficient, sustainable buildings.

The panelists emphasized the importance of including cities in regional and international climate adaptation and resilience discussions. Myrén pointed out that cities worldwide, including many Arctic cities, are driving innovation and making progress on climate issues, even in the absence of national regulations. For example, she pointed to the Umeå Climate Roadmap Network, a collaborative effort by forty small and large businesses and academic institutions to implement coordinated actions to reduce CO2 emissions in the city and help Sweden meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. “Strong local commitments can compensate for international negotiations that are not going so well,” said Myrén. 

Watch a recording of “Building Climate Resilience in the Urban Arctic” below. The panel featured Ida Maria Pinnerød, Mayor of Bodø, Norway; Annika Myrén, Development Strategist of the City of Umeå, Sweden; and Bryce Ward, Mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska. Arctic Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow Nadezhda Filimonova moderated the discussion.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Filimonova, Nadezhda. “Building Urban Resilience to Climate Change: Lessons from the Arctic .” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 26, 2023.