Getting a grasp on urban challenges and futures in face of the climate crisis: The collaborative scenario-based techniques.

Climate crisis is happening here and now… and we must act! But do we know the whats, wheres, whens, and hows?

We are witnessing an escalating climate crisis worldwide. Urban areas, accommodating a large portion of the world’s population, experience growing concerns from climate-related impacts in relatively compact space. Increasing risks of heatwaves due to extreme temperatures or flooding events caused by rain outbursts are threatening cities in ever-increasing intensity and frequency. This is affecting the natural environments and the communities living within them. Cities respond to these unpleasant trends by integrating climate adaptation and mitigation approaches in urban planning and policy. Planners and decision-makers implement adaptation techniques – so-called nature-based solutions (NBS) – such as planting trees, expanding green spaces, re-naturalising buildings and sealed surfaces, revitalising rivers and other natural sites, or setting land use regulations and standards for new development to integrate NBS to prepare cities for changing climate. 

Knowing the climate change impacts and possible solutions alone will however not fix the situation. If cities want to successfully carry out the climate adaptation process, they must know what drives urban development and understand the adaptation challenges in their full depth. Here, we view the city as a complex socio-ecological system formed and shaped by a wide range of drivers, such as land-use change, energy consumption, demography, economic growth, and policy discourse, that are interlinked to both, natural and human environment. Given the dynamic nature of these drivers and the changing conditions in the biosphere we live in, it is uncertain what future we might face. Or even better, what futures?

How can we help cities to deal with uncertain future and challenges?

Despite that future is uncertain, it is not impossible to get a sight of it either. Thanks to scenario-based techniques, we are capable of comprehending what futures we might face. Scenarios are not to make the prognosis of exact futures, instead, scenarios serve us to explore and better understand the following: What possible challenges and realities the future city and communities might face? Which places may become critically exposed to climate-related problems? Who becomes vulnerable? What does it all mean for the city as a whole? How should the city prepare for such an uncertain future? And what should the desired future look like?

Within the research project Urban Adaptation Challenges: Promoting Sustainable Planning Using Integrated Vulnerability Analysis (funded by Technology Agency of the Czech Republic), our research team combines exploratory and normative approaches to participatory scenario-building. We start with envisioning plausible futures by asking: What could the future look like? And what is the desired future? This is what we call an exploration phase. As different stakeholders have different needs and preferences, it is essential to create a shared vision that defines the desired future and that reflects this diversity. Once the plausible futures are explored and shared vision (desired future) is established, we proceed to an exploration of possible future pathways, marked by key milestones and policy targets that are critical for meeting the desired future by using a back-casting approach. Now we start with the shared vision (desired future) and tracking back the trajectory of changes (policy targets and milestones) that need to be executed. We question ourselves: How did we get here? What has had to be achieved to reaching our vision?

Figure: The phases of the scenario-building process and policy cycles. (Source: IPBES)

The scenario-building process, including the phases of exploration and target-seeking, help cities to establish shared visions and explore possible future development pathways to meet the desired futures. Such an approach can help to uncover barriers and opportunities, conflicts and common objectives in planning for climate adaptation.

The Department of Human Dimensions of Global Change is engaging with cities in the Czech Republic to support urban adaptation planning.

You have probably noticed that we talk about the ‘collaborative’ or ‘participatory’ process. These are not the must to have keywords, but a reference to actual activities. Collaborative processes are growing in importance as joined forces across the science, policy and decision making, and planning practice can lead to discovering better ways of strategic climate adaptation. Both, scientific and stakeholder knowledge is important to the enhance resilience of cities through more effective implementation of NBS. Therefore, we must partner up across the fields and sectors to muster in diverse knowledge pools and perspectives.

Moreover, while scientists put efforts in explaining the natural causes of the climate crisis and how society should adapt to their impacts, uncertainty that stems from fast-changing and difficult-to-predict socio-economic dynamics, that take on various forms in different urban contexts, extend beyond the scientific knowledge. This is where the collaborative scenario-building steps in.

A collaborative scenario-building process proves as an effective tool allowing for exploration of possible future pathways of urban development that can lead to (un)desired futures. Our research team is involved in such a process with several cities in the Czech Republic, applying scenario-based techniques to produce a more robust knowledge basis in support of strategic climate adaptation planning.

Strategic planning for climate adaptation requires understanding the city as a complex socio-ecological system that evolves over time and under influence of various drivers. This is why planners and decision-makers are encouraged to consider possible futures including development pathways that lead to these futures. Such an approach allows one to step out of common procedures, to change perspectives, and view urban development as a plastic process that is influenced and shaped by many variables.

Author: Simon Vaňo; Co-author: Lenka Suchá

Please note: The research team running the project ‘Urban Adaptation Challenges: Promoting Sustainable Planning Using Integrated Vulnerability Analysis’(funded by Technology Agency of the Czech Republic), is currently processing the project outputs for further dissemination targeting policy-makers, planners, and academia. The results will be available soon.

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