Guest Article #79

The Future of Europe Depends on Smart and Resilient Cities

Europe is increasingly suffering from extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heat and cold waves, which have an immediate impact on our lives, economies and environment. Regardless of how successful our mitigation efforts will be, we need to build resilient societies to adapt to climate change.

As centres for social and economic activities, cities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The so-called urban heat island effect makes cities hotter than their surrounding areas as heat is stored in artificial surfaces, while buildings and infrastructure hinder the flow of fresh air. Sealed surfaces where water cannot drain make urban areas more prone to flooding. Such risks are exacerbated by socioeconomic trends. Urbanisation and a growing concentration of people increase regional water scarcity; an ageing population is more vulnerable to heat waves; and in times of austerity local governments' means to act are constrained.

Cities will need to make massive investments over the next couple of years to keep ageing infrastructure functioning and to deliver basic services. When extreme weather events disrupt health services or lead to the collapse of infrastructure, failures in past political decisions are typically the underlying reason. Cities exposed to the same risks in the same geographic region can experience dramatically different levels of vulnerability. ICLEI is supporting cities to become resilient through integrated urban management and innovative solutions. ICLEI – Local Government for Sustainability is an international association of more than 1,200 cities that are committed to sustainable development.

Adaptation measures can take various forms and shapes across a range of policy areas, from new investments, to doing things in smarter ways. A set of tools and our Integrated Management System guide local governments through adaptation planning and implementation in a systematic, coherent and inclusive manner. ICLEI members like the Dutch harbour city of Rotterdam demonstrate that adaptation provides opportunities to capitalise on - it can create new jobs, attract investments and turn urban areas into more attractive places to live and work in.

Rotterdam is pioneering innovative ways to deal with rising sea levels and heavier rains. So-called water plazas, for example, serve as playgrounds, water gardens, or ice skating rinks; according to weather conditions they can either store or release water. Floating houses at the waterfront have become premium-priced real estate. The city is also building 40,000 square metres of rooftop gardens a year. They absorb rain water, carbon dioxide and reduce the urban heat island effect.

Other ICLEI forerunner cities include Tatabanya (Hungary) with its heat alert system that considerably lowers health risks. Lyon (France) is implementing green infrastructure for cooling, improved quality of life, and flood risks and water scarcity management. Bologna (Italy) has incorporated adaptation concerns such as requirements for rainwater storage into building codes, and Almada (Portugal) has adopted climate-oriented spatial planning.

This wealth of experience is feeding into a major ICLEI-co-led project that kick starts the EU's engagement and support for cities in developing and implementing adaptation strategies. Under the slogan Adapt! It's hot! It's cool! It's better!, the EU Cities Adapt initiative aims to mainstream urban climate adaptation throughout Europe.

ICLEI is involved in various policy processes to shape an enabling multi-level governance framework for action. Through the EU Adaptation Steering Group, ICLEI is actively involved in the development of the European Commission's 2013 Strategy on Climate Adaptation. We are also feeding local government input into international policy processes such as the UNFCCC. At COP17, for example, ICLEI succeeded in strengthening the position of cities as governmental stakeholders through the Durban Adaptation Charter.

Besides capacity building, the development of a solid knowledge base and advocacy, ICLEI is closely cooperating with various actors such as the European Environment Agency, the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign and the Council of Europe. Exchange of knowledge and good practice are at the heart of ICLEI. Since 2010, we convene the Resilient Cities conference, a milestone event in the field of urban adaptation attracting over 500 local government leaders and adaptation experts.

Europe's future depends on strong and resilient cities. Cities are home to two-thirds of Europeans and drive the generation of wealth. It is time to make our cities resilient and turn them into better places to live and work in. [ICLEI Europe Website] [EU Cities Adapt Website]