If we are to avoid cities becoming flood traps and “heat magnets”, we may have to build wetland areas and ditches a stone’s throw from today’s town square and shopping centres.
Executive Director, Sintef Community
Several Norwegian waterways are now at risk of damaging floods, due to all the snow in the mountains and in the lowlands. We Norwegians have experienced such floods at all times. But if you live in a city, as three out of four Europeans now do, you are also extra vulnerable to the warmer, wetter and wilder climate that is on its way.
The cities are hit hard because built-up areas and paved streets are impermeable to water. In torrential rain, the water does not have time to drain away.
Blast heat and water on wild roads
Many cities in this country are built along waterways or near lakes. This makes them vulnerable when the snowmelt starts in full swing. In some places, there is now up to three times as much snow as normal.
Many Norwegian cities are also located along the coast. These will be affected by sea level rises.
In addition, city dwellers experience demanding situations when we have persistent heat. Cities amplify heat waves. This is because asphalt and buildings absorb heat and store it.
Warm also in Northern Europe
European cities are already threatened by electricity collapse during prolonged heat waves. This is shown by a recent international study, published in Nature Energy.
According to the report, demand for cooling is increasing as far north as Stockholm. In fact, as much as 68 percent on the hottest days.
All this can make it difficult for the elderly and parents of young children to live in cities in the future. The threats can be limited using both man-made and natural countermeasures. But here at home we have hesitated to implement such measures.
Some cities show the way
However, this is not the case everywhere. Several coastal cities around the world have built defenses against floods.
This applies particularly to densely populated cities with financial resources. Including Amsterdam (breakwaters), New Orleans (ditches/dams), Shanghai (“sea walls”) and Rotterdam (large gates that can close the entire river Maas).
Perhaps we will be able to limit emissions of greenhouse gases in the future. But the forecasts for climate change still indicate that measures against torrential rain and overheating are urgent.
In plain language, vegetation corridors, other green areas, ditches and wetlands should be integrated into urban environments. This is both to soak up and retain rainwater, and to reduce heat absorption.
Such solutions are affordable and can provide health benefits. Plus increase natural diversity, which will be good for both humans and insects.
Several Norwegian municipalities are working actively with plans and measures to prevent rainfall and flood damage. And with promising results. Good examples are Bærum and Stavanger. The list of measures here includes, among other things, innovation partnerships and a plan for handling cloud breaches.
We continue as before – for three reasons
But overall, three conditions have contributed to us largely developing urban areas as we have always done it – that is, without including measures for climate adaptation:
- Roles and areas of responsibility are unclear and fragmented.
- Financing arrangements are missing.
- The understanding that it is urgent is low.
Both political decisions and management strategies are needed if climate-adapted cities are to become more than beautiful promises.
Many municipalities are in arrears
As early as 2010, the municipalities received legal orders to carry out overall risk and vulnerability analyzes in accordance with the Planning and Building Act. Equally, many municipalities have still not considered how they will be affected by climate change.
At the same time, it is a challenge that neither local knowledge of climate vulnerability nor experiences from previous events are used in risk and vulnerability analyses.
We must do this
Construction and urban development projects involve many choices and priorities. And overall goals such as budget and functional requirements can override less clear goals.
It is a human right to live and live safely. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 11 states that we must work to make cities and settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. So what will it take to prevent this from becoming just a celebratory speech?
- State authorities must require that information on climate risk is included in a number of processes. When building homes. In the case of spatial planning. And when building infrastructure across neighborhoods and cities.
- Information about the effects of climate change must be made widely available. Design standards must be updated and regulation strengthened to avoid construction in high-risk locations.
- Local and regional authorities must also be equipped for the task. Here, strategies for climate adaptation must go across several sectors and levels.
- Better coordination, but also “carrot mechanisms”, will be needed for everything from land use management, building regulations and the design of critical infrastructure, to various legal and financial decisions, monitoring and evaluation arrangements.
- Non-profit organizations can play a role by building dialogue between authorities, the private sector and local communities. This both through effective communication and social learning.
On TV, we usually see natural disasters from abroad. But we don’t have to go any further than Voss to find a local community that now has to brace itself for a 200-year flood every 20 years.
Climate adaptation is about ensuring that the inhabitants both here and in a number of other places will have the chance to sleep safely at night.
The article was first published in Dagsavisen on 23 May 2023 and is reproduced here with the newspaper’s permission.