Dr. Ayana Johnson “Cities can’t stop climate change,”
by Jasper Cunneen posted Jun 15th, 2020 at 2:11pm
At first glance, urban metropolis and environmental steward seem like an unlikely pair. Skyscrapers, crowds, and concrete streets are far from the idyllic scenes of pristine forests, lakes, rivers, and fields that many think of when they turn their minds to conservation and the natural environment.
But with more than half of the world’s population already living in urban areas (a number poised to surpass two-thirds by 2050), cities have a critical role to play in what the environment of the future will look like. Because of the effects of rising sea levels, coastal cities, in particular, are going to act as bellwethers for humanity’s ability to confront and adapt to our changing world.
To that end, one marine biologist is using policy initiatives and community engagement to drive legislation and make coastal cities leaders of the environmental movement. Set to launch next year, Urban Ocean Lab describes itself as a “think tank for the future of coastal cities.” It is a nonprofit that seeks to reimagine how coastal urban centers can use infrastructure, renewable energy, education, and natural ecosystems to prepare for and mitigate the impact of rising seas.
The founder of the nonprofit is Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a policy expert and native Brooklynite whose extensive career and breadth of work has included stints at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She has influenced national policy proposals like the Green New Deal, and she is a regular op-ed contributor to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and Huffington Post. She recently penned a candid op-ed in the Washington Post about how racism impacts her work and why the struggle for climate justice is a struggle for racial justice.
Dr. Johnson believes that even a megacity like New York can develop a smart, sustainable relationship with the ocean that harnesses its gifts without depleting its resources beyond repair. Doing so would not only benefit the natural ecosystems in and around the city, it could potentially help the city protect itself from extreme weather events in the future. Not only that, restoring ocean ecosystems are vital in the long-term strategy of reducing atmospheric carbon.
The ocean is often an afterthought when it comes to carbon sequestration. Generally, people tend to focus on land-based solutions like planting vast tracts of trees or implementing techniques that use soil to store carbon. But, as noted on the Urban Ocean Lab website, marine flora and ecosystems like wetlands, seagrasses, and mangroves not only help with storm surge mitigation, they are important carbon sinks.
Through Urban Ocean Lab, Dr. Johnson wants to show coastal cities how to restore their ocean ecosystems and adapt to climate change in an equitable way and, in turn, show the world that cities can indeed become valuable environmental stewards. Read about Ocean Currents: