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Roni Deitz

Global Director, Climate Adaptation

Climate change isn’t coming – it’s here. From scorching heat waves to devastating floods, periods of heavy rainfall to periods of drought, cities are feeling the tangible effects of climate change every day. This reality places tremendous strain on our infrastructure, disrupts our daily lives, and threatens to displace communities and cultures that have been around for centuries. And even if we could completely eliminate our carbon emissions today – which is an impossible task – climate change thresholds have already been surpassed. All of this points to now being the opportune moment to build resilience in the places where we live, work, and socialize, including the development of sustainable cities.

How we adapt urban areas to meet these challenges should be seen as an exciting opportunity rather than just a pragmatic necessity. Investing in climate adaptation infrastructure, when executed thoughtfully, transcends the conventional notion of mere ‘flood protection’ or single-purpose infrastructure. It involves reimagining infrastructure as a multifunctional asset that enriches communities year-round.

Picture buried floodwalls, not just as barriers but as vibrant public parks where families gather and children play. Imagine a ‘living roof’ atop a building, generating clean energy and promoting sustainable water use. Envision waterfront districts transformed to minimize the impacts of heat and harvest rainwater. When we redefine our relationship with infrastructure in this manner, we not only fortify our cities against climate change but also enhance their livability and resilience every single day of the year.

These successes emphasize how climate-adapted cities will be the places where people will prefer to live and do business. These communities will thrive, capable of overcoming the challenges we see daily and know will only become more frequent in the future. We can achieve this vision at scale by focusing on several core areas, helping to accelerate our adaptation initiatives and create cities that can withstand the impacts of climate change.

Multi-purpose nature-based solutions

Adaptive systems that consider both the needs of the community and the natural environment are the key to climate resilience. Nature-based solutions provide a multitude of benefits, mitigating climate change risks such as flooding and heat while simultaneously improving quality of life in cities. They are not just better for humans, but for all manner of aquatic and terrestrial life.

All around the world, our work at Arcadis responds to the impacts of a changing climate – from floods to heat – while maximizing habitat creation and other environmental benefits such as erosion resistance and carbon sequestration. This often involves an all-encompassing approach, from the design and planning of nature-based solutions to providing a business case for the delivery for projects all around the world. It can include working on road improvement projects such as London’s Lower Thames Crossing, where we are evaluating a range of habitat creation options for carbon offsetting; or wetland restoration work along the Louisiana coast where we’ve restored wetland habitats while reducing the vulnerability of the area to future storms.

These projects not only offer multiple benefits but also enhance the overall value of infrastructure to a community, delivering advantages every day of the year. Take, for instance, a city susceptible to flooding, which may necessitate the construction of a stormwater park to manage occasional excess water. While flooding events might occur infrequently, designing a multipurpose recreational space that includes leisure amenities and community gardens serves the community for the majority of the time. During rare emergencies, it functions as a protective barrier against stormwater. This approach optimizes budgets by consolidating various benefits into one environment, safeguarding communities while also providing invaluable green space that enhances their quality of life.

Innovative ways to finance climate resilience

In many cities around the globe, climate adaptation is competing for funding against a raft of other projects, from education and healthcare to rebuilding and repairing aging infrastructure. Budgets are already stretched, and climate adaptation will create additional financial stress. Traditional funding mechanisms are falling short of providing the investment needed to protect urban areas against climate risks, and the budget gap is only going to grow.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reports that there is a large discrepancy between the funding that’s required and the amount currently being delivered. According to the UNFCCC, the financing needs in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of 78 countries amounted to $5.8 trillion up to 2030. However, the combination of private and public financing equated to $640 billion as of 2020, or roughly 11 percent of what’s required.

We need to embed climate resilience into new infrastructure and make urban adaptation a key factor at every level of decision-making, and not just a tick-box exercise. In the face of this financing crisis, one of the most critical things we can do to accelerate adaptation initiatives in cities is to advocate for and create new and innovative ways to finance climate resilience projects.

Climate resilience should be ingrained into decision-making at the highest levels, supported by new and innovative financing models. This includes new sources of funding for resilience-focused projects as well as innovative financing mechanisms, such as resilient assessment districts or leveraging revenue from new development benefiting from the resilience investments. Building financial mechanisms to deliver urban resilience – including stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors – can help increase the speed of returns on investment and stretch available budgets further.

Beyond financing mechanisms, it's crucial to integrate climate resilience and resilient design standards into our infrastructure development and maintenance practices. This entails not only constructing new infrastructure with climate resilience in mind but also retrofitting existing infrastructure to withstand the challenges of a changing climate. By incorporating lessons learned and best practices from diverse urban contexts, cities can accelerate their progress towards building resilient, sustainable communities.

As we explore new and innovative financing mechanisms, it's crucial to consider not only who benefits but also who bears the costs, ensuring that we do not inadvertently exacerbate disparities or disproportionately impact socially vulnerable communities. This entails conducting thorough equity assessments to understand the potential distributional impacts of financing strategies, particularly on marginalized populations.

Community education and engagement builds meaningful support

It’s also important to actively involve community members, especially those most affected by climate change, in the decision-making processes to ensure their needs and concerns are adequately addressed. By prioritizing equity and inclusivity in our approach to financing climate resilience, we can work towards building more resilient and equitable cities for all residents, regardless of socio-economic status or background.

Community engagement lies at the heart of effective climate adaptation. The people living in the cities where we work feel the impacts of climate change firsthand, and therefore know better than anyone else about the consequences of excessive heat, water, or droughts.

Meaningful community engagement needs to be accessible, inclusive, and a constant dialogue from a project’s onset. Empowering local communities through inclusive planning and design processes fosters a sense of ownership and advocacy for initiatives from their inception. Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity in community engagement is paramount, requiring a blend of digital and non-digital solutions, multilingual approaches, and engagement with diverse age groups. Recognizing the long-term impact of infrastructure projects, active involvement of youth is also vital.

What does life look like in climate-adapted cities?

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to climate adaptation; each city faces unique challenges, from climate risks to local needs, environmental considerations, and funding constraints. This underscores the importance of meaningful dialogue and innovative thinking. Whether it's protecting urban areas from rising seas or mitigating intense heat waves, finding the right solution requires collaboration among all stakeholders to craft a plan that addresses everyone's concerns.

By working together, we can develop transformative climate-adaptive solutions that not only respond to the impacts of climate change but also enhance the quality of life for people in cities every day of the year. This includes creating greener spaces that improve air quality, offer recreational benefits, and effectively manage intense rainfall or flooding events.

Climate adaptation isn't just a challenge; it's an opportunity to reimagine urban living. By embracing innovative financing, nature-based solutions, and community engagement, cities can define their own future. With effective planning and an inclusive attitude, we can look at climate adaptation as an investment opportunity that will deliver benefits to us all.

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