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Report: Planning for Climate Adaptation

Only 26% of cities have an adaptation plan – none have managed full-scale adaptation. The costs of extreme events are damaging and significant, many of which can cause cascading impacts on the economy, natural ecosystems, infrastructure, and our most vulnerable communities. This report combines insights and expertise from multiple disciplines and explores the challenges facing climate adaptation.

Planning is constrained by silo thinking, friction between institutions and a focus on short-term development agendas.

Cities are falling behind on the implementation of urban adaptation. Traditional approaches to urban development are ill-equipped to cope with current and future challenges of climate change, and planning is constrained by silo thinking, friction between institutions and a focus on short-term development agendas.

Adaptation requires an appreciation of the complexity and interrelatedness of urban systems, including the variety of sectors and disciplines at play in our cities. Whilst challenges and barriers can occur within the procor human resources, a lack of momentum to disrupt norms and habits, and failure to innovate eesses of Understanding and Planning for urban climate adaptation, the Implementation phase faces specific barriers to success, alongside the cascading challenges from earlier phases.

Implementation commonly faces barriers such as a lack of financial valuate and learn quickly from adaptation solutions. This makes it a critical domain for imrovement and acceleration.

Handling the complexity is crucial for implementing adaptation. Not only are practitioners and planners working to tackle the threats arising from climate change, but holistic adaptation measures should also positively influence urban mobility, social cohesion and economic prosperity. Coherent action is therefore essential to ensure long-term success as our city ecosystems undergo adaptation transformations.

Building best practices for adaptation planning

By exploring success stories from across Europe’s frontrunner cities, an array of best practices for facilitating acceleration of climate adaptation have been discovered.

Cities are preparing to place adaptation at the heart of urban development, but acceleration is needed to catalyse changes to the norms, practices and habits of adaptation practitioners. Here we have signalled five trends. Building on these, we have identified key best practices for successful urban transformations from frontrunner cities around Europe

The economic losses per person across all EEA countries resulting from climate-related events between 1980-2017.

1. Stronger together: Networks for adaptation governance

In order to optimize and increase the success rate of implemented green and blue solutions that contribute to urban resilience, the managerial approach to leading these efforts is crucial.

“Specific recommendations include taking a polycentric approach…”

Specific recommendations include taking a polycentric approach, which includes different stakeholders with unique perspectives who can contribute to the success of chosen solutions. As many different stakeholders and actors have access to, and make use of, implemented green and blue solutions, it is only natural that they should be included in codetermining the planning and implementation of climate adaptation solutions.

2. Policy instruments for safe and healthy cities

Maximising policy instruments is crucial to accelerating climate adaptation. Policy instruments, such as green space indices, stormwater tariffs and subsidies for innovation, have proven effective in different cities in Europe, where they contribute to increased expansion of blue-green solutions and standards.

Aerial view of the Stockholm Royal Seaport, a green and blue oasis where business, industry, society and nature all meet. And where policy instruments have placed climate adaptation as a top priority. Illustration: Adept & Mandaworks

3. Adaptation across standards and guidelines

Adaptation is required in the public and private domains. Regulatory standards should incorporate climate adaptation considerations across these environments and reflect the complex interconnecting factors that influence planning and design. Standards for the built environment should not relate to new developments alone; it is widely acknowledged that urban regeneration is one of the driving forces of contemporary urban change, so standards for retrofitting and regeneration should be emerging at the same pace.

Neighbourhoods and planning zones require more holistic regulatory mechanisms to improve infrastructural adaptation. Cities are increasingly making the most of opportunities to improve adaptation planning, from embedding certification across sectors to experimenting with their functionality.

Augmented and virtual reality can transform the way that climate adaptation projects are communicated and implemented, placing local communities at the heart of transformations.

4. Planning support tools

Climate change is a complex issue without easy solutions. Planners must plan for the future in the present, accounting for all of the complexities and trade-offs that will emerge over time. To tackle this, planning- and decision-support tools can be used to accelerate success. These tools ensure that policy-makers and stakeholders work cohesively to deliver adaptation planning, from knowledge creation and analysis, to intervention design and selection. At the EU scale, the EU Adaptation Support Tool, the C40 Climate Action Planning framework and ICLEI’s European Resilience Management tool provide guiding frameworks for planning and implementing adaptation interventions.

Jakobsberg, Sweden. A green district for a sustainable future. Design by Ulrica Larsson, Sweco Architects. Illustration: Sofia Kourbetis.

5. Foster funding and resource flexibility

Competing agendas, costly disasters, or “black swan” events like the current global pandemic pose threats to climate adaptation planning. Cities have always needed to balance their resources and maximise their impacts. Planning for climate change adaptation requires similar forward-thinking. Municipal planners, landscape architects, civil engineers and non-governmental organisations co-create the planning and design adaptation measures. Why shouldn’t they co-fund these measures too?

Conclusion and reflections

Urban climate adaptation is essential for the health and sustainability of our cities in the future. But current progress lags behind ambition. In order to deliver effective and equitable climate solutions, cities will need to accelerate and mainstream adaptation measures across all sectors of society.

only 26% of cities have an adaptation plan – none have managed full-scale adaptation

Proposal of stormwater management in central Gothenburg, Sweden. Opportunities on the way to Gothenburg’s 400th anniversary in 2021. Design by Sweco. Illustration: Sofia Kourbetis.

Many cities are struggling to implement holistic climate adaptation

Implementation is challenged by a multitude of barriers, from inflexible organisations to incompatible regulations. Cities need to think about how they can match urban trends and challenges for successful planning with innovative, flexible and transferable practices. Cities face their own contextual challenges but often experience similar barriers within their organisations, cultures and communities. A city that builds adaptation planning processes holistically can generate solutions and interventions that are appropriate and effective in their localities.

Achieving future-proof adaptation solutions requires long-term visions, in which uncertainty is accounted for, citizens and the environment are prioritised, and smart and synergistic infrastructures are used to connect competing agendas for sustainability, carbon neutrality, development and economic growth. It is critical that we look to expand and translate inventive solutions to the barriers and challenges to the implementation of adaptation measures.

By exploring success stories from across Europe’s frontrunner cities, an array of these best practices for facilitating acceleration of climate adaptation have been discovered.

Driven by motivated leaders, cities are now frequently working together, in networks like the C40 Cities Group, ICLEI and the Global Resilience Cities Network, to learn from and share with each other. Opportunities for acceleration are not only applicable to large cities. Small and medium-sized cities should look to translate solutions to their local contexts, whether by co-creating solutions with experts from frontrunner cities or targeting niches for funding and knowledge. They should be unafraid to leapfrog towards the implementation of transformative adaptation measures as living labs for innovation and experimentation.

Planning for Climate Adaptation

About the authors

Jonathan Leonardsen is Senior Expert in Climate Change Adaptation and Urban Planning at Sweco Denmark. He works with a socio-economic mindset, focusing on mapping, analyzing and describing risks, and cost and benefits of projects across actors in the urban community. Jonathan has previously developed impact frameworks for C40, ADB (Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Oceania), Copenhagen, New York City, the city of Jeddah, and in New South Wales. Jonathan holds a MSc in International Finance.

Enrico Moens is Program Manager and Senior Expert Climate Change Adaptation in the Urban Planning and Environmental Division at Sweco Netherlands. He holds a degree in Land and Water Management from Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Enrico was key member of the Dutch national knowledge programmes “Living with Water” and “Knowledge of Climate Change and Spatial Planning”. He was one of the founders of the Rotterdam Centre for Resilient Delta Cities (RDC), a triple-helix network of public, private and knowledge institutes.


George Parsons is an intern in the Urban Planning and Environment Division at Sweco Netherlands. He is currently studying for a MSc degree in Water Science and Management from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. George also holds a BSc degree in Physical Geography from the University of Exeter. He is especially interested in urban water management and climate adaptation. His Master’s thesis explored the dynamics
of adaptive capacity and urban climate adaptation planning.

Special thanks to

Dr. Carel Dieperink, Assistant Professor Multilevel Water Governance /
Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development
Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University
Kasper Fraenkel, intern at Sweco DK, Aalborg University.
Jonathan Fich, intern at Sweco DK, Aalborg University.
Amy Hand, intern at Sweco NL, Utrecht University

Bent Braskerud, Chief Engineer Stormwater Management, City of Oslo (Norway)
Stephen Brenneisen, Zurich University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland)
Peter Fehrmann, Policy Advisor, Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Change, City of Berlin (Germany)
Annette Figuerdo, Greater London Authority (United Kingdom)
Kristen Guida, London Climate Change Partnership (United Kingdom)
Soren Heinecke, CALL Copenhagen (Denmark)
Lykke Leonardsen, Director of Urban Resilience, City of Copenhagen (Denmark)
Christina Salmhofer, Sustainability Strategist, Stockholm Royal Seaport & City of Stockholm (Sweden)
Wojciech Szymalski, Warsaw Institute for Sustainable Development (Poland)
Tim van Hattum, Program Leader Green Climate Solution, Wageningen University & Research (The Netherlands)
Tara van Lersel, Heat & Drought Advisor, City of Rotterdam (The Netherlands)
Paul van Roosmalen, Programme Manager Sustainable Real Estate & Rooftop Development, City of Rotterdam (The Netherlands)

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