Cities around the world face a growing flood risk as a result of climate change, bringing more extreme weather, more rainfall and more frequent and more severe storm surge events, pushing sea water into the streets. This problem is exacerbated by the rapid urban development, leading to expansion of cities onto flood-prone, low-lying areas, or even expansion directly into the sea on reclaimed land, without taking into consideration the changing climate.  While this challenge is widely acknowledged, it may be surprising to see that in many of the cities that are the most exposed and vulnerable to this threat actually little is done about it. The cities in the Pearl River Delta, China’s manufacturing, trade and services powerhouse and a magnet for millions of migrants and investors, are a good example of this. For instance, Guangzhou, a mega city being part of this massive and expanding urban region, has been ranked as one of the cities that are the most exposed to future coastal flooding (see Hallegate et al., 2013), and already experiences frequent water-logging events bringing its busy central areas to standstill. Despite this, there is little evidence of serious consideration of the growing flood risk in the city’s spatial planning practice and ambitious plans for further expansion of the city’s residential, economic and industrial areas into newly reclaimed areas directly exposed to future storm surges. Why this is the case? What determines the capacity of cities to adapt to climate change?

The burgeoning literature on urban climate adaptation and resilience identifies multiple barriers for implementation of climate change policies, such as the mismatch between priorities at different scales, difficulties in cooperation across levels of government or across the sectoral departments of municipal governments (e.g. between water management and spatial planning), or lack of technical knowledge and financial resources of the municipalities needed to diagnose and act to reduce the exposure and vulnerability to flooding. However, we know much less about how these barriers emerge (for instance, are they due to the municipalities’ lack formal competence in managing flood risk or lack of formal channels for cross-level coordination; or rather to the less tangible factors related to the local policy actors’ interests and perceptions of the problem); how they are interrelated with each other; why they persist; and, critically what can be done to overcome them.

Building on the notion of adaptive capacity (e.g. Gupta et al., 2010; Pahl-Wostl, 2009) and an analytical framework of the ‘three I’s’ (institutions, ideas, interests), Marcin Dąbrowski, Dominic Stead (Aalto University / TUD), Jinghuan He & Feng Yu (South China University of Technology) attempt to bridge this knowledge gap in a study focusing on Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta, China, which has been just published in Urban Studies. We highlight a number of emerging innovations in both cities, in terms of technical solutions to combine flood risk management with urban (re)development and in terms of governance practices that span policy sectors and pave the way towards integration of flood risk concerns in spatial planning. However, we also observe that this potential is underused. The paper investigates how and why barriers for developing adaptive capacity in cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen emerge, even though the problem of flooding due to urbanization at break-neck speed and the changing climate is increasingly tangible and burning. It also points to ways to some ways to mitigate those barriers and put urban development that is more adaptive to climate change on the planners’ agenda, albeit underscoring the “thorny ethical and political questions about who benefits from such urban adaptation measures, particularly from the new (often expensive) developments that they may end up promoting.” Have a look at the full paper here:

The research on which this paper builds was funded by the Urban Studies Foundation (Marcin Dąbrowski’s post-doctoral research fellowship), Urban Knowledge Network Asia, and State Key Laboratory of Subtropical Building Science at South China University of Technology (SCUT). It also benefited from the support of the joint research centre on Urban Systems and Environments, bringing together researchers from TU Delft and SCUT.


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