Kian Goh: Can Adapting to Climate Change Negatively Impact Marginalized Communities?

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As cities adapt to climate change, how should urban planning decisions be made? And who gets to make them? 

Kian Goh is an urban studies and climate justice scholar, architect and assistant professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.  

Kian Goh | Courtesy of UCLA
Kian Goh | Courtesy of UCLA

Goh’s recent research has focused on three cities, Jakarta, Rotterdam and New York, and the pressures from public officials, community activists or outside bodies that determine cities’ responses to a warming planet. 

Goh will talk about resilience Monday, Nov. 9 as part of the UCLA Arts series “10 Questions: Reckoning,” which brings UCLA faculty from across campus together to examine 10 essential questions. She also spoke to the UCLA Arts podcast “Works In Progress” about the power structures that dictate how cities respond to climate change.

Cities have changed their environments for as long as they’ve been around. Goh pointed to Boston, which in the 19th century filled in swamps to build its streets. But now, cities face rising sea levels, extreme storms, catastrophic wildfires and the increasing heat island effect from the spawl of concrete and asphalt. In Los Angeles, the desire for more housing has pushed the city into the wildland urban interface, impacting wildlife and putting people at risk of wildfires.

Headwaters of the Ciliwung River near Puncak, West Java, May 2017 | Kian Goh
Headwaters of the Ciliwung River near Puncak, West Java, May 2017 | Kian Goh

Poor and marginalized populations are often pushed into more environmentally risky areas, Goh said. In the Indonesian capital city Jakarta, the urban poor live in informal settlements known as kampungs. These are not considered part of the modern city, even as the city has grown around them.

Discussions of urban resilience often focus on a physically bounded entity, rather than a more expansive consideration of the metropolitan area that includes social and environmental connections, Goh said. For example, a watershed that can lead to urban flooding often extends well beyond the defined boundaries of a city.

“You’re not really able to address why and how these kinds of flooding conditions are happening, and may actually be made worse by infrastructural solutions that are only looking at particular bounded places,” Goh said.

Goh’s forthcoming book, “Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice,” focuses on design responses to climate change in New York, Jakarta and the Dutch port city of Rotterdam.

Pluit Reservoir in North Jakarta, July 2013. | Kian Goh
Pluit Reservoir in North Jakarta, July 2013 | Kian Goh

A massive coastal development project in Jakarta includes a giant sea wall along the coast to prevent flooding, as well as the construction of a new city for 1.5 million people. Jakarta sits below sea level and is prone to flooding during the annual monsoon season. With continued skyscraper development and groundwater extraction, experts estimate that the city will be entirely underwater by 2050. Critics say the poor are paying the heaviest price. Kampung settlements have been cleared, and their residents forcibly evicted. The sea wall would also displace fisheries and harm mangrove swamps.

In New York, following the devastation caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development held an urban design competition called Rebuild By Design. While the designers engaged in an extensive community engagement process, critics say “green gentrification” will displace poor urban residents who live in public housing projects in low-lying neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Red Hook or Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“Even if some reasonably effective relationships were fostered in the start, they seem to have faded away as the city moves along with its plans for these neighborhoods,” Goh said.

New concrete embankments at the Ciliwung River, Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, May 2017 | Kian Goh
New concrete embankments at the Ciliwung River, Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, May 2017 | Kian Goh

Goh points to a common element of these two huge urban planning and water management projects – the role of Dutch designers and engineers. A consortium of Dutch companies has designed and planned the giant sea wall in Jakarta, and the government of the Netherlands is helping to pay for it. As Goh points out, Indonesia was a Dutch colony for more than three centuries, and the Dutch built Jakarta’s canal system. The post-Hurricane Sandy recovery was led by Henk Ovink, the Dutch special envoy for international water affairs.

Around Rotterdam, a series of large-scale construction projects called the Delta Works was built to protect a large area of land in the southwest of the Netherlands from the sea. That project began after a large flood in the mid 1950s and was completed just before the turn of the last century. But in Jakarta, Goh said, residents question whether solutions that have worked in the Netherlands will necessarily work in Indonesia.

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Ciliwung River at Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, Jakarta, July 2013 | Kian Goh
Ciliwung River at Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, Jakarta, July 2013 | Kian Goh

The struggles in New York and Jakarta bring up a difficult question for planners and designers, such as “What can we do to ensure that the kinds of engagements on the ground with communities who have been marginalized in the past, actually stand to be implemented in ways that are more just as these projects are built?” as Goh said.

Goh will participate in the UCLA Arts panel discussion “What Is Resilience?” as part of the series “10 Questions: Reckoning.” Resilience, the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstance, is generally discussed as a virtue. But one quote has Goh thinking differently about urban resilience. It comes from Tracie Washington, a New Orleans lawyer, activist and single mother who had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina with her 12-year-old son. “I’m sick and tired of people saying ‘y’all are so resilient;’ resilient means you can do something to me. No! I’m not resilient. I have a right not to be resilient,” Washington said.

Because the conditions before the disaster were already oppressive, bouncing back from shocks and stresses is less appealing than repairing the pre-existing unjust conditions. Goh cites a more empowering, grassroots notion of resilience. She said youth activists in Red Hook “are taught to think about resilience not only as a kind of individual ability to get back up when you’re pushed down, but that you have a community, you have a social network around you, who will help you if you cannot do it for yourself.”

Urban studies and climate justice scholar Kian Goh will join musician Duane Benjamin and biologist Tracy Johnson Monday, Nov. 9 to discuss the question, “What is Resilience?” as part of UCLA Arts’ annual public program “10 Questions.” You can learn more and RSVP here.

Top Image: New concrete embankments at the Ciliwung River, Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo, May 2017 | Kian Goh

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