The cities adapting best to climate change

Extreme weather events are becoming more common as the planet heats up. While cities put plans in place, which look to be the most effective to combat climate change will preparing for the damage already done?

By Silvia Pellegrino

Climate change is a pressing issue for every city on Earth, but no two cities in different parts of the globe have the same plan or must adapt to the same risks. 

climate change cities
A person waits for the subway wearing a filtered mask as smoky haze from wildfires in Canada blankets a neighbourhood on 7 June in the Bronx borough of New York City. New York topped the list of most polluted major cities in the world recently, as smoke from the fires continued to blanket the East Coast. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

According to various reports, including the Economist’s Safe Cities Index and Savills’ 2023 Climate Resilient Cities Index, Berlin, Wellington and Toronto are the leading metropolises to tackle or prepare adequately for climate change, thanks to their innovative projects and ambitious plans. 

But what is the driving force behind these cities’ initiatives and, most importantly, how can they become more prepared for climate change?

Berlin, Germany

Germany’s capital has an advantage compared with the other cities on the list: its geographical position. The city’s flat topography on the Northern European Plain allows its climate to be mild and balanced rather than leaning towards an extreme. Indeed, the 2023 Savills Climate Resilient Cities Index puts Berlin in first position, followed by Toronto. 

“Although they may still be vulnerable to significant climate hazards, its geographic position, combined with other factors including city authorities having the plan to mitigate risk and higher proportions of ‘green’ real estate, make [Berlin] the most resilient overall of the cities,” the Savills report says. 

In addition to it being an inland city without a history of extreme climate-related events, Berlin does not have any climate-related pressing emergencies. Rather, it has various smaller issues that are receiving significant support. Matti Schenk, associate director of research at Savills Germany, explained: “Longer periods of drought, as well as more frequent and more severe storms and heavy rain events, already pose challenges for the city. 

“Berlin’s state government is trying to address these issues through urban planning instruments and guidelines, such as more green roofs.” 

The Berlin Energiewendegesetz (Energy Turnaround Act) is also behind many innovations in the city since it has been providing the legal framework for the capital’s climate neutrality target of 2050 since 2016. 

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Overall, Berlin is being proactive and quick to solve the challenges it faces, and this makes it one of the most sustainable and climate-resilient cities in the world.

Wellington, New Zealand 

New Zealand’s capital Wellington is considered the top city for environmental security by the Economist’s Safe Cities Index.

According to Swiss Re, global GDP could go down by 18% by 2050 if global temperatures rise by 3°C, and this is why Wellington put a lot of its resources into climate mitigation. Via initiatives like price regulation of carbon, investment in innovations and infrastructure renovation, the city was able to build a more climate-resilient environment.

Thanks to Wellington’s Adaptation campaign, many actions were taken to respect the flow of the inevitable changes that climate change will bring in the next few decades. In particular, the rising temperatures affect mostly sea levels and extreme weather events that, consequently, could lead to flooding. This is why the capital focused on developing the high-risk areas first, such as the coasts and low-lying neighbourhoods. 

Even if the consequences of climate change have not been disastrous yet, it is important for the city to be proactive. This is why it is planning to:

  • avoid development in vulnerable areas
  • redesign infrastructure and services to accommodate climate change impacts
  • construct protection of assets and services; for example, sea walls and sand dune revegetation
  • retreat from vulnerable areas over time
  • promote growth in flood-prone areas, in order to increase vegetation cover and upgrade the water network

When it comes to plans that are already in motion, Wellington is working on improvements to stormwater infrastructure, maintenance of seawalls, better access and education about future risks and community engagement. 

Toronto, Canada

According to the most recent Safe Cities Index, published by the Economist, Toronto is in the top two environmentally secure cities, only after Wellington. 

In particular, Canada’s metropolis set out a Resilience Strategy to drive action from businesses, academia, non-profit organisations and residents to contribute to a city where climate change will not have a disastrous impact. 

Even if the strategy focuses on all social aspects, including city safety and education, the climate and environmental section is one of the most important. Toronto is focusing on the use and protection of natural resources, preparedness for weather events and its relationship with the natural world. 

As the city is becoming hotter yet wetter, registering a 100mm increase in annual precipitation from 2005 to 2021, one of the main actions the city is taking is in regard to flood prevention. Under the Flood Resilience section of Toronto’s Resilience Strategy, the main objective is to “centralise resources towards a city-wide flood planning and prioritisation tool”.

The planned flood system, in addition, will also be sustainable and resilient, meaning that it will not interfere with the natural world or take up too many natural resources.  

Madrid, Spain

Via the introduction of Madrid 360 Environmental Sustainability Strategy, a roadmap to climate neutrality by 2050, the planting of a 75km urban forest with nearly half a million trees, and the Green Office, a tool to promote sustainability in residential building stock and point citizens towards sources of public funding for refurbishment projects, the Spanish city deserves the recognition. 

Specifically, Madrid 360 aims to reduce emissions in the city by 65% by 2030 compared with 1990 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This initiative is in collaboration with other environmental projects such as the European Green Deal in 2019, the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Funds and the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

In order to achieve carbon neutrality more efficiently, Madrid joined the Deep Demo Climate-KIC, a project of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, in 2020. This collaboration involves assessing and innovating the processes and mechanisms of Madrid’s infrastructure and society to transform them into more environmentally friendly procedures. 

In 2021, Madrid’s councillor for the environment and urban development, Mariano Fuentes, announced that the city would be investing in a 75km forest “To fight the heat island effect that is happening inside the city, to absorb the greenhouse emissions generated by the city, and to connect all the existing forest masses that already exist around the city.”

The project aims to absorb 175,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, as well as encourage human activities by promoting cycling and walking rather than driving. 

Stockholm, Sweden

The ocean, social-ecological systems, food systems and resilience are all themes close to Stockholm’s heart. Savills, as well as the Economist, put Sweden’s capital on the list of most climate-resilient cities, partly thanks to the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), founded in 2007.

The institution is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beujer Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The research provided by the centre is used to better understand the complex and dynamic interactions between people and nature, and it has motivated the country’s ambition to reach net zero by 2045 and the city’s project to be fossil-fuel-free by 2040. The Strategy for a Fossil-Fuel Free Stockholm is also in line with the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. 

The city’s efforts are already paying off since its greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by almost a third compared with 1990. Stockholm is now focusing on smaller targets to reach the end goal, such as setting a milestone per capita emissions of 2.3 tonnes of CO2 and phasing out coal by 2023. 

With increased sustainable energy usage, fuelled by collaborations with energy companies and renewable fuels, increased regulations on heating systems and the establishment of an energy consumption ceiling, Stockholm is one of the most prepared cities for climate change. 

Sydney, Australia

Sydney, Australia, also took action to be as prepared for climate change as possible, as recognised by Savills. However, this city had an uncertain prospect since there is a fundamental lack of national-level political commitment to climate change adaptation. This led the city to take the reins and set up a policy development committee.

As a result, the Sydney Climate Adaptation Strategy was born, operating across various jurisdictions in the city’s local government. Alongside the policymakers, there is also a scientific reference group to support all theories with science and precise analysis, as well as a citizens’ panel to make sure all decisions were reached with a democratic approach.

The plans are already seeing results, with initiatives like the Urban Forestry Strategy, which planted more than 10,000 trees. Sydney made parks and public spaces drought-proof by setting up water recycling schemes and retrofitting the biggest water users such as office buildings, aquatic centres and park irrigation systems with more efficient fixtures.

The city also subdivided pavements by colours to reduce the urban heat island effect. Urban spaces usually suffer from higher temperatures due to darker surfaces like roads and buildings that absorb more heat energy from the sun. This is why the Australian city decided to repave sections of the urban area with lighter-coloured pavements, alongside planting tree canopies along the roads and also repainting the roofs. Reducing the heat island effect can significantly improve Sydney’s life quality and lessen the risks of heat stroke and heat deaths. 

When it comes to numbers, these initiatives have seen impressive improvements. For instance, the additional trees have improved Sydney’s air quality and added an extra 23% of the urban tree canopy.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, was voted the fourth most sustainable city by TimeOut and by the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index in 2022. The Economist’s Safe Cities Index, in addition, positions it in sixth position when it comes to climate change resilience.

Since 2011, when the Climate Adaptation Plan was adopted, the Danish capital has been prepared for extreme weather events and the long consequences of climate change. For instance, in 2011 there were heavy downpours that flooded cellars, parks and streets but, thanks to a Wastewater Plan, a new Strategy for Biodiversity and a Green Structure Plan, the city recovered quickly and was able to prevent further damage.

After covering insurance payments of €0.8m, the city immediately started planning measures to prevent natural disasters as well as fixing the damages by refitting urban spaces for local retention of water, climate-proofing buildings and transport infrastructure. 

The Climate Adaptation Plan says: “We need solutions that improve the city’s physical environment and create attractive urban spaces. Climate adaptation can be used to raise the quality of life for Copenhageners.”

There are a few goals to keep in mind:

  • Preserve and care for existing green areas.
  • Supplement the city with more green and blue surfaces to absorb rainwater, reduce temperature, create habitats and augment the functionality of buildings.
  • Create coherent green networks to achieve a new kind of urban nature to blend urban nature into a hybrid environment.

Some of the most sustainable buildings in the city, for instance, are the BIG-designed CopenHill and the 3XN-designed UN city, alongside the Klimakvarter housing development. All of these are green-roofed and flood-proof.

Singapore, Singapore

According to Phase 1 of the Second National Climate Change Study by the Centre for Climate Research Singapore and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, Singapore’s climate will become significantly warmer and more prone to heavier storms and rising sea levels by 2100. 

Singapore’s resilience lies in its Resilience Framework, which helps to identify the risks and possible solutions and formulate plans to minimise the impacts of climate change. There are six main points in the framework, which outline the focus of the climate-related action the city needs to take:

  1. Protect the coasts from sea level rise with hard structures such as seawalls, rock slopes, and roads near coastal areas. 
  2. Manage the water and minimise floods by ensuring continued water supply for all also thanks to NEWater plants, which get water from alternative sources such as desalinated water, and also by building detention tanks for floods and raising ground levels across Singapore.
  3. Protect biodiversity and greenery by inspecting trees at least once a year and by establishing natural parks, such as the Sisters’ Islands marine park, to preserve biodiversity.
  4. Strengthen resilience in public health and food supply by setting up a heat stress information system for the public and boosting farmers’ productivity to rely less on imported goods.
  5. Keep the essential services running, such as public transport, air connectivity and sea connectivity.
  6. Keep the buildings and infrastructure safe, by checking their structural integrity and fixing cracks due to slope failures.

Milan, Italy

A new air and climate plan for Milan was announced in 2022. Called PAC, this plan aims to render the city completely carbon-neutral and cycle-pedestrian by 2050. 

Italy’s second city, the fifth most climate-resilient city in the world according to the Economist, is going through a journey of new governance models and citizen engagement processes, alongside innovative financing systems to tackle energy efficiency issues. 

One of the main projects is the gradual creation of a cycle-pedestrian city, a 30km per hour area built to reduce traffic and motivate people to either walk or cycle. In addition, to reach the same objectives, many vehicles considered too polluting have been gradually banned in selected areas of the city (such as the city centre) since October 2022. 

From an energy efficiency point of view, Milan also needs to work on the energy refurbishment of public heritage buildings to reduce fossil fuels by up to 50% by 2030. In order to do so, over 60,000 square metres of photovoltaic panels will be installed on public buildings. 

A significant problem, due also to Milan’s structure, is the formation of heat islands in the urban part of the metropolis. To reduce them, the city will invest in de-paving, and increase urban green spaces and forestation. For instance, the Forestami Project plans to plant three million trees in Milan. 

Washington DC

Since the Derecho storm in 2012, Washington DC in the US has been working towards a more sustainable and resilient path. The Climate Ready DC strategy was launched not only to reach those objectives but also to ensure a greener, healthier and more livable city.

The plan is a holistic process, meaning that the capital worked alongside technical and statistical experts to develop climate change projections, as well as conduct a vulnerability and risk assessment of infrastructure, community resources and residents. Around 77 actions have been identified to adapt to the always-changing climate conditions, and they include four different sectors:

  • utilities and transportation infrastructure
  • buildings and development
  • neighbourhoods and communities
  • governance

One of the main points is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2032 and 80% by 2050. The other objectives surrounding the four aforementioned sectors include, for instance, the upgrade of existing and the design of new buildings to handle climate change impacts, improving infrastructures and services to remain viable in case of extreme weather, educating neighbourhoods and preparing them, and creating new policies and evaluation procedures to ensure successful implementation and adaptation. 

All of Washington DC’s initiatives have both environmental and economic benefits. The former is due to the fact that these initiatives are completely natural, involving planting trees, living shorelines, habitat creation and water quality improvements. For instance, in 2022, 14,137 trees were planted and 18,000 square metres of green roofs were installed. When it comes to economic benefits, solar power, energy efficiency and green infrastructure will heavily contribute to not only improving buildings’ resilience but also minimising the costs of energy bills and water usage. 

[Read more: Which cities are most affected by climate change?]

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