Transatlantic Recovery and Renewal: Social Mobility and Climate Action

How can cities recover from the pandemic and build resilience to threats like climate change? The New Urban Progress working group on Sustainability and Social Mobility explores how social and environmental issues are interrelated. In this post, the group sets the scene for a transatlantic dialogue that results in more green and just cities. 

Transatlantic Recovery and Renewal

By Alexander Czeh, Alison Noehrbass, Andrea Gonzalez, Julia Diringer, Sanjay Seth, Steffen Haake, and Victoria Herrmann

In German and American cities, recovery from shock events like the current pandemic or shocks related to climate change is influenced by their housing, transportation, economic stability and growth, public health, and other factors of city development and governance. 

German and American cities are united by stories of recovery, rebuilding, and renewal. Whether after major economic shocks, global wars, and pandemics – or after smaller shocks, like loss of a job, a local flood, or a death in the family – ensuring that cities work to sustain and equitably improve opportunities is a task of responsible urban governance. 

What can we learn from comparisons of American and German cities that can help residents respond, recover, and rebuild after shocks to improve social mobility and life outcomes? How, in the face of major shocks, can we learn from each other across the Atlantic to ensure that cities have less segregation, less income and wealth inequality, better educational and vocational opportunities, improved social capital, family and economic stability, and an ability to act to address current and future threats like climate change and pandemics? 

Historical legacies shape the level of resilience

Historical differences in American and German cities in infrastructure investments, social policies, governance, and more have historically resulted in varied access to the resources that can protect them from shocks like climate change and protect the determinants of social mobility. Moreover, residents in these cities have significant differences in life outcomes and trajectories before and after a shock, often causing inequalities in social mobility and economic outcomes present before a crisis to grow even more after such an event.

Today, there is inequality between those who have access to resources and public spaces to protect themselves and improve their outcomes and those who do not. The residents who experience a disproportionate impact of shocks like economic downturns, pandemics, and climate change are often the residents who have contributed the least to the creation of those shocks. Clearly, there is a negative correlation between income, access to public resources and public spaces, emissions and the negative impact of shock events. Additionally, in considering the health of residents in American and German cities, residents with lower incomes often experience greater amounts of particulate emissions, noise, and other impacts associated with urban development and climate change. And those most impacted by emissions from American and German cities are sometimes the farthest away from the dense urban areas where they are generated, including indigenous residents of Arctic regions whose livelihoods and stability are threatened by the emissions-heavy approach to development across the globe. 

Mitigating the unequal effects of climate change

To address these inequities, the provision of services – such as urban mobility – should be targeted by considering whether or not residents have access to public transport services, are financially stable, are physically able, or have skills and educational backgrounds that allow them to weather these shocks. In order to balance the scales between those who benefit from negative impacts like emissions and those who experience their burdens, German and American cities need to learn from each other. They need to understand how to both recover economically and renew their approaches to social mobility and climate action. 

The success of recovery and renewal from shocks depends on the determinants of social mobility, such as access to transport services and housing. And while the pandemic and the rise of remote work have begun to change the relationship of central cities to the broader metropolitan region, whether in the United States or Germany, most cities are facing a significant housing affordability or supply crisis. As a result, residents are spending more of their incomes on housing, which increases their sensitivity to smaller economic and social shocks, while reducing their ability to spend on healthy foods, quality health care, educational and vocational investments, and other priorities. This increase in spending for day-to-day living means that residents have fewer resources at hand to build wealth and recover from disasters, thus increasing their risks of experiencing a major shock like an illness or a loss of a home that can have long-lasting, generational effects on their life’s outcomes. 

Rising housing costs and the threat of displacement

In American and German cities, low-to-moderate income residents often experience the threat of displacement, increasing commute times and costs as they move further out towards metropolitan areas to find affordable housing that fits their needs. As a result, cities face economic and racial segregation processes, driven in part by housing and transportation policies that reduce residents’ resilience to shocks, increase their sensitivity to changes in the economy and society like a pandemic, and change the spatial distribution of poverty across metropolitan regions in ways that reduce access to the key services and infrastructure that can support social mobility. 

For example, facilities and services are often financed by local property taxes. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, this can result in fewer resources, fewer public spaces, and fewer amenities to protect and support the development of children. This lack, in turn, undermines housing and transportation policies, leading them to provide less support and increasing sensitivity to shocks. This reduces the opportunities that a child who grows up in a particular district of a metropolitan area has at surviving and thriving even in the face of smaller shocks, much less a global pandemic. The current approach to housing, design of neighborhoods, national and local investment policies, and addressing the inequalities of residents all have negative impacts on social mobility and climate-related outcomes.

Learning from one another across the Atlantic

It is clear that there is a need to learn how cities can increase access to affordable housing, quality education and employment opportunities, improve the quality and quantity of neighborhood amenities and institutions in a manner that does not result in displacement. Approaches should instead reduce the impacts of socioeconomic segregation, and continued disinvestment in particular neighborhoods or areas caused by land-use policies, development and urban management motivated by racism (e.g. redlining in the United States). 

During the New Urban Progress Program our group “Sustainability and Social Mobility” will intensify the discussion about how measures in the areas of mobility, housing and environment can have a positive impact on social mobility and resilience. The group’s idea is to present, compare and discuss relevant approaches and projects from both the US and Germany. Some of the core questions that we are interested in exploring are as follows: 

Core questions for the fellows to explore: 
  1. How has the pandemic affected American and German cities in similar and different ways – and what lessons can we learn for social mobility and climate adaptation to increase resilience to risks like a pandemic or other disasters in cities? 
  2. How have approaches taken by American and German cities supported residents to thrive in the face of climate change – and how do those approaches address the impacts of climate change and affect social mobility and resilience? 
  3. How have differences in public decision-making around urban policy and planning affected the ability for residents to achieve social mobility and resilience outcomes in their communities in German and American cities? 
  4. In which ways do American and German cities take action towards improving social mobility? 
  5. What are interesting examples in American and German cities regarding both achieving sustainable development and improving social mobility? 
About the Working Group

The New Urban Progress Fellows are organized in three working groups, each looking at current challenges and opportunities for cities and urban spaces on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to Sustainability and Social Mobility, the two other groups are Networked Governance and Democracy as well as Inclusive Growth and Innovation. Each group is made up of young urban leaders living across Germany and the United States. They meet digitally on a regular basis to exchange ideas and discuss progressive policy for the cities of tomorrow. During the fellowship, the groups will produce analyses, op-eds, debate papers, travel blogs, and more – watch this space or subscribe to our newsletter to keep up-to-date with all of the fellows’ latest posts.

The Sustainability and Social Mobility working group analyzes the intersection between the environment and socio-economic factors. The group members include Alexander Czeh, Alison Noehrbass, Andrea Gonzalez, Julia Diringer, Sanjay Seth, Steffen Haake, and Victoria Herrmann.

About the Authors
  • Alexander Czeh is Research Assistant at the Institute of Transport Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Consultant for Cargoroo.
  • Alison Noehrbass is Business Development Executive at Commonplace, a London-based startup.
  • Andrea Gonzalez is Consultant for startup capital and workforce development at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
  • Julia Diringer is Research Assistant at the German Institute of Urban Affairs (DIFU).
  • Sanjay Seth is Climate Resilience Program Manager for the City of Boston, Massachusetts. 
  • Steffen Haake is Consultant for PD and a member of the city council in Aurich.
  • Victoria Herrmann is Managing Director at the Arctic Institute.