By Leonor Berriochoa Alberola and Giulia Macagno
The risk of floods and other increasingly extreme weather events is a major headache for planners in historic cities, who can do little to change the dense, narrow streets of old centres.
That’s why Florence, whose centre is about as historic as they get, is putting into effect a plan to create areas around the Ema, a tributary of the city’s biggest river, the Arno, that will sop up future floods like a sponge. When the river isn’t in flood, these areas will be parks to be enjoyed by citizens.
It’s a clever plan and it’s something that more and more cities all over the world are going to be doing. Cities are adapting to the consequences of climate change with nature-based solutions that also make the city more attractive and pleasant for residents.
The European Investment Bank has a long relationship with Florence, making many loans to the Tuscan city over the decades. Recently the bank has responded to the climate crisis by encouraging all kinds of borrowers to think about what it means for them. In the case of cities, of course there are some obvious measures that can be taken. Buildings can be made more energy efficient, for example, with better insulation, heating systems and windows. Meanwhile, energy can be generated through solar panels, rather than through polluting fuels.
A role for urban climate adaptation
Energy efficiency and renewable energy schemes fall into the category of climate mitigation. They reduce the net emissions of greenhouse gases and, thus, counter global warming head on. That’s important, because most of the emissions heating up the global climate come from cities.
But cities also need to face up to the often disastrous impact of climate change as it already affects them—and as it’s likely to continue to affect them in coming decades, even under the most favourable scenarios. This adaptation to climate change is important in cities, because of the economic and social consequences of floods or extreme heat waves on unprepared populations.
None of this is easy. Every mayor knows their city has to adapt and is developing climate strategies. But the implementation and financing of climate-resilient projects is a challenge. Technical and financial teams in public administration need to work together to:
- understand climate risks and vulnerabilities
- integrate into projects the right improvements and safeguards to protect the city against climate change
- understand the budgetary framework to finance these new resilient projects.
The Hub for urban climate adaptation
Here’s how the European Investment Bank worked with the City of Florence on the definition of its climate strategy and climate-resilient projects that could be financed by the Bank.
Through the European Investment Advisory Hub, a partnership between the bank and the European Commission, we recruited a consultant to work with the Florence municipality to improve upon a planned flood protection scheme, so that it would also tackle additional climate change risks. The study aimed to create new Green-Blue infrastructure on the Ema to:
- reduce heat island effects
- improve the Ema’s water quality
- improve sustainable mobility with bicycle paths connecting local towns and nearby cultural sites
- reduce urban runoff and potential water pollution
- provide alternative water resources in case of water scarcity
- increase biodiversity.
Thus, the study developed a plan to improve the capacity of the area around the Ema outside the city centre to absorb rising water levels. This would lead to less damaging floods in the city centre.
With the consultant’s help, Florence coordinated with two smaller municipalities on its borders and developed a project that utilises a park around the banks of the Ema for a nature-based solution to the problem. Instead of building concrete tanks to collect flood water, they built hills and valleys in a park that can absorb the flood and, when there’s no flooding, double as a place for recreation, including bike paths.
The adaptation project may be included in an existing €225 million loan from the European Investment Bank that will help finance other urban infrastructure schemes.