The Climate City. Waterfront by the old harbour basin in Middelfart, Denmark. Illustration: GHB Landskab

Climate adaptation opens new doors for sustainable urban development

Climate change Insights

21.05.2019 / Helle Baker

One of the greatest social and financial challenges of the future is to ensure that towns and cities are prepared for major storm events. When investing in climate adaptation, municipalities have a great opportunity to set new standards for sustainable urban development and create even more value for their citizens than merely protecting them against the water masses. However, that calls for long-term thinking and close collaboration across disciplines.

In the latest edition of the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report, failure of climate-change adaptation and mitigation is ranked as the second largest threat facing our world, both in terms of impact and likelihood.

The wider economic impacts of climate change and more incidents of extreme weather events are surely increasing. The US National Centres for Environmental Information have calculated the average price of each severe storm event to be USD 2.2 billion.

The severe impacts are not unique to the US. In the summer of 2011, Copenhagen in Denmark experienced an extreme 100-year rainfall event. During this particular storm, rainfall measured almost 100 mm in just 60 minutes, resulting in damage worth close to USD 1 billion.

In many ways, this proved a revelation for Danish municipalities, and soon it became evident that climate change was causing new challenges, which the municipalities had to deal with.

But there is also a positive side to it. Although climate change leads to a range of new challenges and extra costs for municipalities around the world, it also leads to new opportunities in terms of innovative thinking and setting new standards for sustainable urban development.

Climate adaptation as a driver for sustainable urban development

This was indeed the case for the Danish town of Middelfart. Located next to the Little Belt, the strait between the island of Funen and the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, it is highly exposed when sea levels rise, and to mitigate this risk, the Climate City and the Climate Waterfront projects were initiated.

The projects are two of several large-scale innovative climate adaptation projects in Middelfart that act as ambitious responses to local climate challenges. Yet the projects do a lot more than merely manage growing water volumes.

Besides protecting the town from being flooded, the projects create more value for the town's inhabitants through urban development focusing on multifunctional design of urban spaces and structures. And strategically, by managing rainwater on ground as a supplement to pipes underground, and thereby developing a town that is greener, healthier and more fun.

The activity forest – part of the Climate City project in Middelfart, Denmark. Illustration: ADEPT

A strong business case

The solutions in Middelfart have another important benefit: The price is lower. In fact, the decision to realise the ambitious climate adaptation strategy was based upon a preliminary study documenting that climate challenges can be a strong economic driver for urban development. The local wastewater utility company had already spent tens of millions on expanding the capacity of the sewer system, and the preliminary study made it clear that it would prove both too costly and inadequate to expand and install additional pipes within the historical town project area.

As an alternative, handling part of the water on the surface by means of recreational facilities and local water drainage solutions would create additional value to the town, thus using investments in climate adaptation as leverage for urban development.

Long jump bridge in the activity forest, Climate City in Middelfart, Denmark. Illustration: ADEPT

More than buried pipes

An example of this is the old pierhead below the asphalt on the Havnepladsen square in Middelfart. The square has been reinterpreted by means of archaeological studies and now act as inspiration for a new, large bridge-shaped water basin.

This way, the square will function as both an attractive urban space for the town's residents and tourists while the new water basin will manage torrential rainfall, letting overflowing water cascade over the quay edge into the Little Belt.

The vision for the Climate City and the Climate Waterfront projects is both the overall process design, with its underlying DNA of co-creation and multiple value creation, as well as the concrete solutions and the principles behind the projects. Collectively, this has proven to be a source of inspiration – both nationally and internationally. 

However, sustainable urban development also comes with a range of challenges. One of these being that the municipality needs to take on a leading role across many different disciplines. Co-operation between the municipality and a wide variety of local stakeholders is central, such as utilities, local citizens and companies.

This calls for the ability of the municipality to lead quite complex projects and acknowledge its new facilitating role with a wide range of stakeholders.

Fortunately, their efforts have been rewarded. In 2018, the Climate City project won the prestigious award as the best climate adaptation project in Denmark.

The Climate City. Vestre Kirkegård cemetery, Middelfart, Denmark. A trough-shaped path leads water to the Little Belt. Photo: Helle Baker.

Rotterdam innovates multi-functional floating pavilions to cope with increasing amounts of water

Rotterdam in the Netherlands is also known as a top performer within sustainable water management. The Dutch city must cope with increasing water masses, both from rising sea levels and flooding. At the same time, it is low-lying and has no place to delay the water masses.

As a consequence, the city has taken a pro-active approach to water stewardship, with local government officials dedicated to building resilience and a comprehensive set of packages aimed at improving and maintaining the cities’ relationship with its local water bodies.

Among a range of innovative solutions, Rotterdam has installed floating pavilions offering multiple uses and benefits while coping with varying water levels. During normal conditions, the pavilions are dry and contain playgrounds, sports facilities and urban spaces for relaxation.

However, during heavy rainfall, the squares fill up with water and thereby protect the surroundings from the water masses.

In the beginning, the planners had to overcome barriers from the citizens of Rotterdam, for instance in convincing them that the structures were safe for children, but today the structures are highly appreciated

Need for protection as leverage for change

Many other cities around the world are preparing to meet climate changes.

As indicated by the examples above, it is possible to create sustainable solutions that not only achieve protection against the water masses, but at the same time use the need for protection as leverage – not least economically – for creating multi-functional urban spaces, making cities more attractive and liveable for their citizens.

However, it requires that many different disciplines are committed to collaborating and engaging in new solutions and ways of working.

Looking at the speed of urbanisation and impact of climate change ahead, the need for collaboration on innovative and sustainable urban solutions has only just begun.

Meet the expert

During my career as an architect, I have specialized in strategic city and harbour development in urban areas. The foundation for all my work is a value-based approach. What motivates me is the co-creation process, working across disciplines on innovative and complex projects, thus developing projects which have a larger and sustainable agenda.

Get in contact

Helle Baker
Project Manager
Urban Planning and Transport, Denmark

Tel: +45 56403418