How Cities are Getting Hyper-Local to Solve the Massive Challenges of Climate Change

Dr. Michael Shank
3 min readApr 3, 2023

On 20 March the IPCC again sounded the alarm that “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).” But it also noted that there is still time, provided meaningful action takes place. What would this mean for the cities in which the majority of the world’s population now lives?

The good news is that there are several remarkable shifts happening across city ecosystems — which will be further boosted by the European Parliament’s vote on 14 March to decarbonize buildings across the EU. Cities across our 21-strong Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance are increasingly investing in new approaches to engage the community in the co-creation of climate action and policymaking.

First, our cities are rethinking their roles and identities and hiring climate and environmental justice directors, chief heat officers, green new dealers and climate budgeters to work across all city departments. These new hires work outside silos, and they send important messages about governance — that this work is intersectional and multi-disciplinary, and that just and equitable participation is essential.

Second, our cities are revamping their approach to the community, using appreciative inquiry approaches to co-design the future with all stakeholders across a city ecosystem. They’re launching action networks to mobilize entire communities around carbon reduction initiatives, and they’re shifting power by establishing community-operated resilience hubs within local neighbourhoods.

Third, our cities are radically reconfiguring their municipal infrastructure. One of our cities –Copenhagen — is reworking its entire municipal structure, getting rid of city scaffolding that might get in the way of engagement, and embedding local climate officers within the community for up to five years at a time. The strategy they’re using is based on asset-based community development thinking.

These municipal staff aren’t reporting to a city desk and a city office every day but are based in the community for years at a time. Their office is the community. Their desk is the day-to-day goings on within the locality. Their job is to both represent the city to the citizenry, but also to advocate for the community to the municipality. They have two bosses, in essence — the public as well as policymakers.

The new approach restructures the way in which the community engages with the city and vice versa. It begins to decentralize climate action in Copenhagen and democratize climate action and policymaking by ensuring a more seamless and constructive dialogue and partnership between city staff and city residents.

It’s innovative, and it’s the way forward for cities rethinking citizen engagement. There’s a growing recognition among cities that past precedent and prior approaches to engagement — which have often taken the form of missives from government to the public in unidirectional fashion — haven’t moved or mobilized the masses in the direction needed to slow climate change. Thus, the new approaches are very welcome and much needed now.

Copenhagen’s new approach, launched last year, to post climate officers within local communities is already yielding results. The city is witnessing a more engaged public, a richer conversation on climate policies, a more actionable climate agenda, and more human resources available to make it all happen.

The community of the willing — to advocate, activate, and actualize — has grown substantially as a result. And that’s going to be critical if Copenhagen is to meet its aggressive climate goals, which are some of the most ambitious goals of any city in the world. It’s going to require everyone on board the community’s, and the city’s, climate agenda to make it a reality.

This step is an exciting one, and it’s appropriate that such a climate leader like Copenhagen would lead in this way. Now it’s time for other local governments to consider how to decentralize city infrastructure and decision-making and shift power to the community, especially if we want to move on climate fast enough — and move together, united.

The public wants it, and they’ll undoubtedly make good use of it. And it’s a shift that’ll move both systems and behaviour change simultaneously. Local governments: it’s time to go hyper local.