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Opinion In search of higher ground: The world’s cities must take action against rising sea levels, before it’s too late

In Jakarta, boys prepare to walk across a makeshift bridge to reach their neighbourhood, which lies below sea level. Indonesia is preparing to move government functions from its crowded, flood-prone capital city to a new capital on the island of Borneo.

Ed Wray/Getty Images


Elliott Cappell is an international climate-change specialist and the former chief resilience officer for the City of Toronto.

There’s something about water that draws people together. For reasons both romantic and practical, humans tend to congregate by oceans, lakes and streams. Almost every major city in the world – from New York and Toronto to London and Dhaka – sits beside a body of water, on a site chosen by founders who sought trade routes, economic hubs, marine resources such as fish and even places for rituals from birth to burial.

But there’s something else that unites many major cities: They’re sinking.

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Climate change and urbanization have combined forces to cause this effect in cities worldwide. As global temperatures rise, glaciers melt and seas get warmer. Simultaneously, our cities face challenges from erosion, subsidence and permafrost melt. In short, sea levels are rising, and the ground beneath many cities is lowering. Taken together, homes flood, the foundations of buildings and other infrastructure crack and cities become inundated by storms. In some cases, entire neighbourhoods can sink to a point where they are assailed by water.

Jakarta – Indonesia’s tropical, crowded capital, which sits near an inlet of the Java Sea – represents one of the most extreme examples of this existential threat. There, water for drinking or washing is drawn en masse from underground aquifers – meaning the city is literally draining the swamp on which it was built. Combined with sea-level rise, Jakarta has sunk more than 2.5 metres in the past 10 years alone. At this rate, 95 per cent of northern Jakarta will be completely under water by 2050. This affects an astonishing number of people: Jakarta is on pace to be home to more than 36 million people by 2030, when it is forecast to become the most populous city region in the world.

Such an enormous challenge calls for a bold response, and the Indonesian government has delivered on that front. Two weeks ago, President Joko Widodo announced a plan to build a new city in the East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo – which has less exposure to climate-change hazards such as sea-level rise or natural disasters such as earthquakes – and relocate the capital from Jakarta to this from-scratch hub by around 2024.

At a cost of about US$33-billion, the planned-capital project is easily the world’s most significant case of “managed retreat,” where instead of fighting a climate hazard, a decision has been made to pull back to safe ground.

As Indonesia’s commercial, cultural and political centre, Jakarta is also home to what is arguably some of the worst traffic congestion and urban air pollution in the world. Moving the administrative population might relieve some of Jakarta’s urban and social stresses while decentralizing political life to a more central, politically neutral geographical location. Both the President and Prime Minister have promised to protect Borneo’s ecologically important forests in constructing the new capital.

It is a big, bold, ambitious plan. As a professional whose work relies on governments and businesses taking climate action, I should be excited about it. Done well, this could be a world-changing project.

And yet, I am filled with dread. This is a fundamentally flawed idea – one that points to a dystopian future in which the world’s poor drown under a rising sea and the rich, powerful or connected jump from the sinking ship.

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Boys swim in floodwater trapped on the land side of a recently built seawall in Jakarta's Muara Baru neighbourhood. In Jakarta's low-lying areas, rain and floodwater often need the help of massive pumps to reach the sea.

Ed Wray/Getty Images

Workmen clear rubbish from standing water in the Pejagalan neighbourhood. Jakarta is one of the world's most densely populated cities, and its out-of-control development and overuse of groundwater have, along with climate change, made it one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world.

Ed Wray/Getty Images

Simply put, there are too many cities and too many people to all be moved to higher ground. About 800 million people live in 570 coastal cities threatened by sea-level rise, according to C40, an international network of cities. Moving that many residents, homes and infrastructure is simply impractical. In fact, the plan to move Jakarta doesn’t even propose to do that; rather, the idea is to move just the bureaucrats and politicians.

This means the state will be sponsoring those with political power and their families to escape to safer ground, while the commercial capital will continue to face the storm surges and flooding of a sinking city. The poorest residents, those with the fewest means to relocate, risk being left behind.

There is a second issue: Capital cities planned from scratch generally do not change how the vast majority of people live. Some urbanists salivate at the idea of being freed from the shackles of how cities are already built; as then-Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt said at a launch event for Sidewalk Labs’ project in a Toronto neighbourhood: “We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” Unfortunately, as Mr. Schmidt himself went on to note, the world doesn’t work like that.

It has been tried in dozens of countries, including Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania and Australia. But compare Brasilia with Rio de Janeiro, Abuja with Lagos, Dodoma with Dar es Salaam and Canberra with Sydney; in each case, a country built a planned capital city, and in each case the pre-existing coastal urban centre remains the de facto heart of the country. The politicians, bureaucrats and associated hangers-on might be high and dry, but everyday Indonesians do not have the means to pull up stakes or access to political jobs, so Jakartans will remain by the water (or under it).

Cities are a natural habitat for humans. The idea that we can just up and move the history and social fabric of a city, its relationships and people or its homes and infrastructure to a safer place is egotistical and, in a way, unnatural.

Indonesia’s plan to move the capital to Borneo may provide temporary relief to some of that city’s stresses, but from what we know today, the plan will do little to help Jakarta adapt. The effort and money spent building a new capital city might well distract from the sinking and flooding that still imperils tens of millions of Jakartans, especially with the political class physically removed from those dangers.

There is still hope, though. After concerns over what would be left in Jakarta, the government announced that US$40-billion over the next 10 years will be invested in the city to “modernize it” – even though that number is a relative pittance for a city this size, and appears to be devoted mostly to transport infrastructure. Final plans and timelines for both the new capital and the old one have not been set in stone. And a project of this size would draw the best expertise from across the region, if not the world.

In Gatineau, Que., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helps fill sandbags near a flooded area on the Ottawa River on April 24. Quebec was hard-hit by floods this past spring, leaving residents of small riverside towns like Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac questioning whether to move or risk paying for more costly disasters in the future.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

A woman rests in front of a nautical-themed mural near a breakwall along the Halifax waterfront. In the next century or so, Halifax's harbour is expected to rise by at least twice the historic rate, submerging much of the waterfront and leaving the rest of the city more vulnerable to storm-related flooding.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

But this isn’t just a localized crisis in Indonesia. Here in Canada, 70 per cent of Nova Scotians lives within 20 kilometres of the coast, where the sea level is rising faster than the global average as the ground subsides. Northern cities such as Iqaluit are contending with melting permafrost owing to climate change, causing the ground on which the city sits to crack or sink. From New Brunswick through Quebec and Ontario, inland flooding from rivers has raised the idea of managed retreat from flood-prone areas.

Canada is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world – and in the North, three times as fast. Climate change’s effect on Canadian communities is really just emerging, in the sense that we are only starting to experience and understand what may be the “new normal” of flooding, wildfires or sinking – a mari usque ad mare.

The new normal brings potentially wide-ranging economic and social changes, especially for the more than 80 per cent of Canadians who live in cities. There are houses that may be uninsurable due to climate risk. Older and taller apartments, which make up as much as 45 per cent of the rental housing in Toronto, may be too hot to live in for weeks of the summer. Outdoor workers will need to contend with hotter summers, as well as more extreme wind and rain. Bay Street firms will need to understand and disclose climate risks in their global portfolios. Relatives from overseas will need more financial support, more often, to deal with extreme weather and disasters.

Thankfully, Canada is home to some of the best expertise in infrastructure, city building and environment in the world. We are lucky, in the global scheme of climate change, to have the wherewithal to make our communities more resilient.

But there are lots of opportunities to level up our ambition. The Jakarta plan, if flawed, is at least a bold way to approach a problem that has been well studied for years. In Canada, we do not have even a national climate-change adaptation or resilience plan, let alone an ambitious one. The federal election has become obsessed with a carbon tax, which would reduce our effect on the climate; none of the parties has proposed a proper plan to help Canadians adapt to the climate’s effect on us.

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The first step in developing such a strategy is to significantly improve our understanding of climate risks. When we have a good understanding of them, Canadian governments and the private sector have typically responded with strong ideas. For example, the $1-billion Don River naturalization project in Toronto – a suitably daring response to flood risk – came about after years of study to understand the flood risk to Canada’s commercial capital. We could invest more to understand climate risks in other areas, such as Northern and coastal communities.

Canoeists and kayakers journey down Toronto's Don River in 2005 for an annual event to raise money for a river regeneration project.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

The federal government deserves praise for its world-class efforts to advance our national understanding of climate change through reports such as Canada’s Changing Climate and Canada’s Top Climate Risks, both published this year. But while Britain made it mandatory in 2008 for the government to complete a national climate-risk assessment every five years, Canada is just starting out.

Provincial and local efforts are also pushing ahead. British Columbia recently completed the first provincial climate-risk assessment, and the Ontario government – yes, Doug Ford’s Ontario government – has promised to do the same. Myriad communities, businesses, municipalities and academics are bursting with enthusiasm in tackling climate change, as cities from Vancouver and Edmonton to Kingston and Halifax have declared climate crises. But these efforts need to be scaled up and supported with the expertise and money needed to take real action. In the United States, “resilient-by-design” competitions in California and in post-Superstorm Sandy New York captured that local energy, directed it to designing locally supported climate-resilience projects and earned funding from the federal government to the tune of more than US$1.3-billion. Canada’s federal and provincial governments, or even philanthropists, could support communities in developing and implementing local climate-resilience plans.

Canada can also leverage one of our cities’ greatest strengths: our incredible green infrastructure, such as urban forests, ravines and parks. While we still rely on grey infrastructure – roads, bridges, power lines – the way we have traditionally built cities can contribute to problems such as sinking. Concrete and asphalt do not absorb water well, and the runoff can cause more erosion and flooding. So cities around the world are increasingly turning to green infrastructure as a complement to the traditional grey. For instance, the biggest project from New York’s rebuild-by-design competition, the “Big U,” plans to surround Lower Manhattan with a naturalized wetland, which would serve as a park in dry times and a flood plain as required. And from Gibsons, B.C., to Gibraltar Point on the southern tip of the Toronto Islands, Canadian municipalities are already doing incredible things on their own with green infrastructure.

Adapting our cities to climate change should be a national priority, to ensure that cities can continue to provide jobs, homes and community to the many millions of Canadians who live in urban centres. Globally, hundreds of cities need resilient solutions, and if we applied Canadian skills and resources to the issue, there would be a global market for Canadian climate-adaptation expertise.

We may have more breathing room than Jakarta, but time is not our friend. There is a huge opportunity for Canada to get ahead of the issue, but it starts with having the ambition to tackle it and the data to understand it. At the same time, we can support our communities and businesses to make our cities resilient to a changing climate.

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Let’s not wait until we’re in deep water to start taking action.



A 19th-century illustration shows a bird's-eye view of the Canadian Parliament buildings, with the Ottawa River flowing behind them. In the 1850s, the city was chosen as the capital of the United Province of Canada after that job had bounced around for decades between Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City.

Library of Congress

What if Canada moved its capital?

For cities around the world facing down the challenges of climate change, winter is coming – or rather, depending on where you are, thick, sweltering summers, springs of torrential rain or stormy autumns. Indonesia’s bold move to pull up stakes entirely and move its capital from the bustling but sinking city of Jakarta to a new planned city in Borneo is radical, but they haven’t been alone: Nigeria, Belize and Australia have moved their seats of power in the past 60 years alone, for reasons ranging from hurricane damage to a desire to decentralize power. So if Canada was forced, for one reason or another, to move its capital city from Ottawa, where would it go? Here’s how some Canadian planners responded to this hypothetical game of thrones.


Rollin Stanley on the northern option

Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as our country’s first capital in 1857 because the site was between Montreal and Toronto, effectively the geographical, if not gravitational, centre of Canada. Things have changed, of course; economic hubs now stretch from coast to coast to coast.

But recent capital moves have largely found them more toward the actual geographic centre. When Brazil created Brasilia to replace Rio de Janeiro in 1960, it was built closer to the country’s middle, in an effort to redistribute population inland, away from the overloaded coasts. With this clean slate, its architect had Brasilia look like a plane when viewed from above – a reflection of the era’s love of air travel.

So what if we could capture this moment and these trends, while staying true to the Queen’s vision?

While Canada’s middle point is up for some debate, a point just south of Yathkyed Lake – 300 kilometres west of Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut – is the location ascribed by the Canadian Cartographic Association. Why not move our capital there?

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Federal infrastructure investment could stimulate the northern economy through infrastructure, internet access and career opportunities. It would drive winter-living innovation, which seems increasingly necessary. It would offer a balm to the east-west and English-French divides that have long riven us. And by migrating the capital 2,387 kilometres northwest of its current location, it would send a message about our Arctic sovereignty – all while creating a more defensible stronghold if the planet warms so much that the powerful United States begins to creep north toward our rich natural resources.

Yathkyed Lake would be the world’s second-most northern capital after Reykjavik, and it would be an incredible opportunity to learn from and partner with Indigenous people, whose traditional means of living in harmony with our environment have a lot to teach us about living sustainably. Could there be a better name for a capital city than “Dene,” meaning “the people?"

It will be cold, but studies have found that northern geothermal resources can offer a reliable source of direct heating. It will be a huge challenge to build on muskeg, with its 900-per-cent moisture content, but it could inspire us to become world leaders in the growing field of geopolymerization, which could solidify the muskeg soil with naturally occurring wood-fibre mulch.

And in homage to Brasilia, and this era’s obsession, what better shape for our new capital than of a polar bear, a symbol of climate change’s dangers? We can use the Northwest Territories’ licence plate as the model.

- Rollin Stanley is the former chief planner of Calgary and the former head city planner for the mayor of St. Louis. He also spent 21 years in Toronto’s planning department.


Condo towers are seen under construction above the New Westminster Quay in New Westminster, B.C.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Amina Yasin on the B.C. option

Coastal cities in developing countries and low-income communities across North America not only face the challenges inherent in extreme weather and other climate-change effects, but also the environmental injustices that have already long existed in these communities. There are several explanations for the disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income and other at-risk populations, including access to adequate housing, economic opportunities, transportation and a lack of investment in climate-resilient infrastructure. Moving a capital shouldn’t just be about protecting those living there, but also serve as an opportunity to take aim at these issues in another place, too.

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As such, if pressed to move Ottawa, we should consider a place like New Westminster, B.C. The city boasts one of the Lower Mainland’s most dense, walkable and transit-oriented communities, leads in social equity and justice policies, maintains a fast-growing and racially diverse community (42.3 per cent of whom are members of visible-minority groups) and has installed the strongest protections in the region against the inequitable housing practices of “reno-victions” and tenant displacement, which have contributed to the country’s homelessness crisis.

New Westminster is also poised to take a leadership role in Canada when it comes to climate resilience. It was among the handful of Canadian municipalities to declare a climate crisis, a step that affirms the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings that the world must work to limit global warming to 1.5 C, and allows more scientifically precise language to inform policy. It’s the foundations of something strong, and something that the political, economic and cultural heft of a capital can build upon.

Amina Yasin is an urban planner based in New Westminster and the co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners’ social equity committee.


In Scarborough, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Toronto Mayor John Tory before a press conference this past April to announce housing funding. Could this Toronto neighbourhood work as the home of the federal government?

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Armi de Francia on the Greater Toronto Area option

If we had to relocate Canada’s capital city, it would provide many opportunities to respond to climate change in a more holistic way. Given the country’s climate realities and colonial history, Canada would greatly benefit from a more equitable, innovative, and resilient city.

Selecting a new capital based solely on climate-related disaster management at the municipal level does not address the risk of political constraints and limited methodologies that can sometimes also be more expensive. Mitigating and adapting to climate change requires going beyond western scientific methods and enforcement of by-laws developed from colonial systems. Creating the capital city we’d need requires examining levels of social capital and non-western cultural perspectives.

To that end, Scarborough makes itself a top-of-the-list option – thanks, in large part, to the momentum of its diverse people-power.

Omni Forest Mansions, for instance, exemplifies community collaboration in recycling and reducing waste. Residents, volunteers and management have combined to implement significant waste-reduction initiatives, which include clothing swaps and a repair café. In Mornelle Court, resident Angela Brackett started a volunteer program to lead walking groups and help children get to and from school safely, enabling active transportation. And Scarborough Cycles has three community bike hubs with programs allowing residents to pursue a carbon-free and healthy transportation choice.

And Scarborough’s diverse population – more than 450,000 people identify as racialized people – offers the possibility of sharing their knowledge with politicians and policymakers on all issues, including land use and disaster mitigation.

Given its location in Toronto and in Ontario, Scarborough also benefits from relatively updated flood mapping data. After the cancellation of Environment Canada’s Floor Damage Reduction Program, Ontario was one of the few provinces that continued flood mapping. A 2017 report by Dillon Consulting found that while all Ontario municipalities researched have an emergency plan, Toronto was one of the few that had a risk-specific plan for flooding. Through funding from the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, the City of Toronto is funding shoreline rehabilitation from Scarborough to Etobicoke.

If the capital crown needs to be moved from Ottawa, Scarborough’s community- and government-generated assets make it an interesting option indeed.

Armi de Francia is based out of the GTHA and is working with communities to encourage and enable active transportation.


The Parliament buildings loom in the distance as the Ottawa River's waters churn under the Portage Bridge on April 28.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

John Godfrey on the stay-put option

While climate modelling to predict future events is constantly improving, our ability to downscale models for specific locations such as, say, Ottawa, or any other Canadian city, still has a long way to go. In short, it’s still nearly impossible to judge how the country’s capital will face down climate-change headwinds.

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That said, there are things we do know. Ottawa follows the general rule of cities: It sits firmly on a body of water, in this case, the Ottawa River, with the Rideau River flowing through it. Ottawa South, where I used to live, sees regular flooding along the Rideau. But Ottawa is not Jakarta, which borders the ocean, is built on swampland and is rapidly sinking, and where 40 per cent of the city of 10 million people is below sea level.

Ottawa sits at 70 metres above sea level. It does not border an ocean. It is not built on swampland. In its greater area, it has 1.4 million reasonably prosperous residents. It has excellent public infrastructure (thanks, in part, to the unintended generosity of Canadian taxpayers across the country), and its buildings are designed for severe weather conditions.

Another of Ottawa’s strengths, happily shared with most Canadian cities, is the social cohesion and resilience of its population. This strength is hard to measure, but it’s reflected in the relative equity of incomes, education, and social opportunity. It is also seen in the vibrancy of its political, civic, cultural and voluntary organizations. When the bad times come, it is not simply the resilience of physical infrastructure which matters, it is the quality of civil society, its nimbleness, ingenuity and generosity which makes the difference. The people of Ottawa have all of these in large measure.

So until we get more specific, localized data about the threat of future climate events to Ottawa or any the Canadian city, why move? Where it sits right now might just already be the best place for it.

John Godfrey is the former federal minister of infrastructure and communities and the former special adviser for climate change for the Ontario government.


Editor’s note: (Sept. 9, 2019) Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this story. A quote previously attributed to Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff was in fact said by then-executive chairman of Alphabet, Eric Schmidt. This version has been corrected.

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