Marcin Dąbrowski and Dominic Stead, in collaboration with Peter van Veelen (acting as a chair/discussant), organised a science-to-practice session at the recent Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam (10-13 May 2016). The conference was huge, with about 1700 participants, and extremely rich in excellent presentations and discussions. The session we organised “Devising Solutions to Adaptation Challenges in Cities” was intended to stimulate a debate on urban adaptation between the researchers and practitioners. The presentations from the session are available here, while below you will find a summary of the contributions and the debates that followed.

Being home to half of humanity and concentrating most of the global economic activities and assets, cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Efforts to adapt to those impacts, however, face a combination of spatial, institutional, economic and social challenges calling for innovative solutions spanning across sectoral and disciplinary boundaries. This session explored the causes of and the potential solutions for overcoming these challenges from a range of perspectives: from flood risk management, economic modelling, vulnerability mapping, to spatial planning, and stakeholder engagement. Drawing comparisons between cases from across the world, from China, Europe, North America and Africa, this session stimulated a lively and insightful debate.
2016-05-12 12.37.34Faith Chan’s (Nottingham Ningbo University) stressed that future coastal flood risk is surprisingly ignored in the highly vulnerable Chinese coastal megacities. He advocated exploring opportunities to re-think and connect the current coastal management, shoreline land use and climate change adaptations strategies, which should be accompanied by better public participation, education, and raising awareness of the growing flood risk.

In a similar vein, my presentation (co-authored by Dominic Stead, Feng Yu and Jinghuan He) stressed the governance challenges in the cities of the Pearl River Delta, focusing on the insufficiently recognised flood risk that stems both from climate change effects and the unprecedented urbanisation at break-neck speed. Their work underscored the importance of vertical and horizontal coordination for better integration between spatial planning and flood risk management and for stimulating the urban governments’ willingness and ability to devise adaptation strategies. The research also highlighted the role of institutions, ideas and conflicting interests and policy priorities among the key stakeholders for understanding and building the capacity of cities to adapt to climate change.

Lars de Ruig (VU Amsterdam) and colleagues also looked at flood risk and assessed the potential damage and risk in Los Angeles for various sea level rise scenarios. They devised a model for evaluating the cost/benefit ratio for the different adaptation measures, from large hydraulic  engineering project to small-scale resilience measures, which could indeed be extremely useful for risk assessment and planning of adaptation measures.

Then, Marco Hoogvliet (Deltares), by contrast, examined the often-overlooked question of the involvement and role of the construction companies in urban adaptation actions. He argued that these crucial actors are under-represented in the adaptation policy networks in The Netherlands and called for building a healthy market for adaptation measures in which innovation would be rewarded with commissions for construction. This could indeed boost the adaptation agenda and promote more innovation in this field.

Shifting the focus to Africa, Vanesa Castan Broto (UCL) critically analysed the participatory planning exercise in Maputo, Mozambique, intended to develop climate change adaptation plans for the city’s neighbourhoods. She argued that participatory planning was vital for institutional development, as it focused on a people-oriented approach to urban governance. Drawing lessons from this research, she argued for municipal governments to embrace participatory methodologies as a means to build cross-sector partnerships and improve the efficacy of planning in addressing the needs of the people living in informal settlements.

Finally, moving back to The Netherlands, Frank van der Hoeven and Alex Wandl’s produced detailed risk assessment and vulnerability maps for Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect in Rotterdam. To achieve this they drew on a combination of methods (from remote sensing, crowd sensing, GIS and 3D modelling, to regression analysis) and incorporated a variety of factors from temperature to social and physical characterics. The resulting social and physical heat maps and the underlying data paint a fine-grained and nuanced picture of the mechanisms that make urban residents vulnerable to heat waves, providing useful insights and tools for planners.

The stimulating debate on these issues was expertly led by Peter van Veelen (TU Delft), who benefits from a double perspective on the adaptation issue having worked on it both in academia and for the Municipality of Rotterdam. The debate revolved mainly around two cross-cutting issues. First, it focused on the role and meaning of scientific research for urban adaptation for practice and the ways in which it could better support and inform urban adaptation strategies. Is academic work on adaptation in tune with the needs of the practitioners? Are academics doing enough to communicate their findings and ideas across to the practitioners’’ side?  The comments tended to emphasise need to engage more boldly in the dialogue between the two communities, even though several commentators (most notably Dominic Stead, TU Delft), stressed that in reality this dialogue was happening already and the boundary between the worlds of academia and practice war more or less fluid, depending on the organisation and the attitudes of the individual researchers and local government officials.

2016-05-12 12.38.24Second, the debate focused also on the governance and institutional challenges touched upon in several of the contributions, and on the ways to overcome them. These solutions should indeed be pragmatic and based on an acknowledgement of the limitations of the institutional systems (which are hard to change). At the same time, they should seek ways to work with the already noted positive trends and seek opportunities to engage the stakeholders in closer collaboration around the already hotly debated issues that could be strategically linked (e.g. waterlogging, urban redevelopment as opposed to expansion, regenerating urban nature) and to promote the urban design features sought after by the developers and inhabitants alike that also help to reduce flood risk. Blue-green infrastructure or multi-functional water storage and barriers that are already being put in place in cities like Ningbo, Shenzhen or Hong Kong, are not labelled as climate adaptation but rather as features creating an attractive and marketable urban environment. That being said, they could well serve as adaptation goals, particularly if they were recognised as adaptation measures by the local governments, practitioners, construction companies and the inhabitants, and also integrated into the wider strategies for urban development and, importantly, into the criteria for tendering and development of new urban areas or renewal of the existing ones. Moreover, several of the presentations provided useful ideas on how to overcome the said challenges. The speakers underlined the importance of efforts on awareness-building, concerning both the costs of the damage caused by climate change and the opportunities that adaptation may bring in other fields (e.g. improvement of spatial quality for instance). These efforts should be aimed not only towards the local and regional governments, but also developers, builders and the wider urban communities, as was advocated by Hoogvliet. De Ruig’s presentation, in turn, provided a potentially crucial tool for calculating the actual future costs of non-adaptation and the damages incurred by the raising sea level, which could help convince the reluctant decision-makers to think beyond the 4 or 5 year electoral horizon. Likewise, the work by van der Hoeven & Wandl demonstrated the usefulness of multivariable mapping of climate change vulnerability for informing risk assessment efforts and devising more integrated interventions to mitigate this risk. Finally, Castan Broto stressed the need to acknowledge that even micro-level bottom-up actions can add up to a significant improvement in urban adaptation capacity and overcome institutional weaknesses, which led her to advocate greater involvement of the local communities in adaptation planning. This reflected Hoogvliet’s argument, drawn from observations in Rotterdam, that encouraging a multitude of even small scale infrastructural or architectural adaptation features – through regulation, incentives and pro-active stakeholder engagement – can add up to a big change.

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