Urban climate adaptation is the next step for European cities that need to protect themselves – and their citizens – against the inevitable effects of climate change. Here are some ideas about how to do it.

The risk of floods and other increasingly extreme weather events in historic cities is a major headache for planners, 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 climate change by encouraging all kinds of borrowers to think about what the climate crisis means for them.

Florence and urban climate adaptation

Cities need to face up to the often disastrous impact of climate change as it already affects them – and as it’s likely to continue doing 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 heatwaves on unprepared populations.

Here’s how the European Investment Bank worked with Florence in an advisory assignment completed in 2019 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 river for a range of measures from reduced heat island effects to improved water quality and increased biodiversity (hear how urban planners are confronting the effects of global warming on our climate podcast adaptation episode). In short, 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 study’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.

Adaptation in Athens

Athens is a good example of a city that has really made adaptation central to its resilience strategy.

The urban fabric of Athens is made up of dense constructions that cover 80% of the city’s surface. So much asphalt and concrete retains heat during the extended heatwaves to which the city is increasingly exposed. These urban heat islands in the city centre can be more than 10°C warmer than the suburbs. But asphalt and concrete are not just a liability when the weather’s hot. They also stop water seeping away into the ground during rainstorms. The result: frequent local flash floods.

The city set out to solve these problems, which are the result of climate change. Athens is entering into a set of innovative climate adaptation projects financed by the Natural Capital Finance Facility, a programme run by the European Investment Bank in cooperation with the European Commission that focuses on nature conservation, biodiversity and adaptation to climate change through nature-based solutions. The project also includes advisory work from the European Investment Advisory Hub that was completed in 2019.

The Athens Natural Capital Finance Facility project is expected to create at least 25% more green areas and introduce several climate adaptation measures that include birdhouses and trees. Green corridors are very important for biodiversity, because they allow species and air masses to move.

They’re also very pleasant for city residents (read more about Athens pioneering the design of green infrastructure).