Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation Planning - A Global Survey

Submitted by Daniel Morchain | published 8th Jun 2012 | last updated 10th Feb 2020

Based on a survey of 468 cities worldwide conducted in 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has published a report that offers an insight into how cities worldwide are facing the challenge of adapting to climate change impacts. Although most respondents are city governments in the United States and other high-income countries, about ten percent of respondents represent cities in the Global South. 

The report clearly shows that an overwhelming majority of local governments (LG) do perceive relevant climatic changes as having an impact in cities in recent years, with a subsequent increase in natural hazards. These climate manifestations mostly refer to higher temperatures and increased precipitation (except in Australia, with decreased precipitation), which generate concerns with respect to the handling of increased storm water runoff and the need for a better water management, to cite two priority examples. Damage to city property from disasters and changes in flora and fauna were also listed by LGs as top climate change impact concerns, followed by rural to urban migration. 

Looking separately at regions, Latin American cities perceive climatic manifestations as having relevant impacts on loss of economic revenues and job loss. In Africa, migration is perceived as a high-ranking impact, and in both regions there is a wide perception that climate change impacts will affect vulnerable populations through exposure to elements, illness and changing disease vectors.

The survey also concludes that a considerable number of the responding cities are taking action to adapt to climate change (whether planning or already implementing) – it must be said, however, that the cities surveyed are all members of ICLEI, an organization working with and linking LGs to sustainable practices; a fact which may create a certain bias of the sample and reduce its representativeness. The activities cities engage in are, primarily: “(1) meeting with local government departments on adaptation; (2) searching the web or literature for information on adaptation; (3) forming a commission or task force to support adaptation planning; and (4) developing partnerships with NGOs, other cities, businesses, or community groups.” Predominantly, cities are conducting internal activities (such as internal cross-departmental meetings) rather than external ones (such as partnering with businesses) – see figure below. This may be seen as an indication that adaptation, as an integrated complex, cross-sectorial issue, is a growing practice and that there exist uncertainties as to how to tackle it and to conceive optimal adaptation measures.

Also, approaches to adaptation can vary considerably. In the survey, for example, cities in Latin American and in the United States report framing adaptation from a strategic, holistic perspective, whereas African cities focus more on sectorial plans, and cities in Asia have a high rate of integration of adaptation into community level planning.

 Another clear result of the exercise is that the biggest obstacle for LGs to conduct adaptation work is lack of funding. Indeed, the top three adaptation challenges identified are “(1) securing funding for adaptation; (2) communicating the need for adaptation to elected officials and local departments; and (3) gaining commitment and generating appreciation from national government for the realities of local adaptation challenges.”  The authors of the report conclude that strong commitment from local officials, as well as engagement, integration with, and awareness of local realities by national level actors would facilitate the planning and implementation of adaptation measures.

Furthermore, survey results show that, although data unavailability and data inaccuracy remain a challenge, LGs consider that to be a less relevant obstacle than the prevailing lack of funding for adaptation actions and for LG staff time. Indeed, accounts of city representatives (unrelated to this survey) indicate that, for some cities, knowing the general trend and main impacts that they may expect is sufficient information for triggering relevant adaptation actions. Supporters of this view consider it inefficient to dedicate additional resources to expanding the local scientific information base because of its complexity and, often, considerable levels of uncertainty. Other cities weigh risks and decide that they need very detailed information to act, in order to make a properly informed and responsible use of resources. And, of course, others conduct adaptation work without even knowing it, or labeling it adaptation...

The MIT report is fully available here.

Reference: Carmin, JoAnn, Nikhil Nadkarni, and Christopher Rhie. 2012. Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation Planning: Results of a Global Survey. Cambridge, MA: MIT.