Urban resilience and climate change adaptation

How can cities prepare for the inevitable adaption required as a result of climate change?

It is increasingly apparent that in responding to the risks associated with climate change urban resilience requires joined up solutions amongst a range of stakeholders. In particular urban planners and urban designers have a vital role in developing practical solutions to sustain cities in light of likely disruptive challenges associated with these risks.

Much prior research has highlighted how urban adaptation can facilitate enhanced resilience in the wake of sea level rise, the increased occurrence of inland flooding or weather abnormalities, and other associated impacts resulting in climatic change. For example, in 2009 Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change highlighted seven modifications which could be made to the built environment and linked to city design, community orientated development and the use of new technologies which have the potential to enhance urban resilience:

1)      Enhancing renewable energy technologies

2)      Increasing carbon neutral design

3)      Adopting increasingly localised instead of large centralised infrastructure systems

4)      Improving green infrastructures and spaces

5)      Developing a system where energy and material increasingly come from renewable sources

6)      Supporting place-based solutions (linked to the above)

7)      Committing to sustainable transport particularly electrified vehicles, cycling and walkable cities.

Although such a transition was seen as desirable, a series of issues – not least financial constraints especially in the austerity era – were seen as barriers to the realisation of such a vision.

More recently research projects conducted by the University of Manchester (EcoCities) and the European Environment Agency (EEA) have highlighted that ‘urban areas need to build in additional capacity to adapt to the range of threats posed by climate change’ and that city planners were key to the implementation of such schemes and strategies in order to ‘climate-proof’ urban areas. As noted by one of the Manchester researchers:

“It is about building in resilience that relates to current climate extremes. By preparing for current risks, you are actually building capacity for the future.”

Here three key priorities were identified:

  • Safeguarding future prosperity,
  • Protecting the most vulnerable communities,
  • Build resilience into the urban infrastructure.


Similarly, the EEA project report Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe warned that predicted climate scenarios presented a number of threats, including flooding, economic disruption and a range of public health issues. Such threats also risked undermining urban lifelines – infrastructures like energy, waste and transport – which are essential for the day-to-day functioning of cities and their inhabitants. As the authors of the report noted:

“What we are trying to do is to get city managers to anticipate that they will need much quicker event planning, and there are already things that they can anticipate…This is where political leadership is very important – if you have a vision, and understanding that climate change and adaptation is part-and-parcel of running a city today, it is not something you can renege on.”

However, urban areas should not be seen in isolation. The report stresses that a ‘systematic adaptation planning process at and interlinked between all levels – local, regional, national and European’ is vital in enhancing urban resilience.

What connects such endeavours is the critical role of adaptive capacity which reflects the ability of the (urban) system to alter its current modus operandi in order to prepare for and respond to changes in its external environment, and to recover from disruption to internal structures within the system that affect its ability to continue functioning or to protect itself from vulnerability. To achieve this built environment policy makers and practitioners to think and act differently and embed resiliency principles into the design, construction and management of urban areas.

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