Climate Change in Cities: An Atelier Approach for Municipal Action

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Vincent Grond
Participants discussing adaptation possibilities for their spatial adaptation vision. CAA workshop in Kleve (Germany) on June 4, 2014.

In Brief

Adapting societies and natural systems to climate change moderates harm and/or can exploit beneficial opportunities. Municipalities play an important role in setting it up in practice. The Climate Atelier Approach (CAA) is a method for the interactive design of municipal climate adaptation and was created as an alternative to top-down approaches. The CAA shows municipalities how local adaptation can be addressed by developing an integrated vision for 2050 for selected municipal spatial plans. Municipalities gain insight into local climate impacts in a regional context, and understanding of how integrated spatial planning helps counter these impacts. The approach was co-developed in the Netherlands with municipalities, water boards (governmental bodies for water management), and several provinces through trial and error. The CAA focuses on creating climate-proof municipal spatial plans in four steps: 1) goal definition, 2) natural systems’ analysis, 3) climate impact analysis, and 4) interactive workshop—an atelier—designing a spatial vision for climate-proof development. The CAA was applied in 19 cases in the Netherlands and five European ones. Since applying the CAA, 12 Dutch municipalities have initiated adaptation plans.

Key Concepts

  • Climate adaptation is best addressed at the local or regional level, as climate conditions and impacts vary in context. Municipalities, as local authorities, often face difficulties getting started and are not well served by existing approaches that mismatch with municipal realities.

  • Alongside local and regional authorities, like municipalities, Dutch water authorities (water boards), and several provinces, we developed the Climate Atelier Approach (CAA) as a way to integrate with ongoing municipal practices.

  • The CAA shows municipalities how local adaptation can be addressed by developing an integrated vision for 2050 for selected municipal spatial plans, like new housing developments. The goal of the CAA is not to design a municipality’s vision but to provide quick insights on how to get there. In collaboration with local experts, the approach involves an analysis of ambitions, landscapes, projected climate impacts, and observed weather extremes.

  • The CAA has been applied in 19 Dutch cases where adaptation was previously not high on political agendas. Of those, 12 have initiated additional adaptation strategies. We conclude that the CAA is an effective alternative to existing adaptation approaches.

Climate change has consequences for both natural and human systems.1 Adjusting these systems in order to moderate potential harm or exploit opportunities is called adaptation.2 This is facilitated by spatial planning that optimizes (future) land use.3–6 Local and regional spatial planning is particularly important for successful adaptation, as climate conditions and impacts vary at both these scales.7–10 While varied, many current approaches to adaptation are top–down and focused on sectors in an area instead of the area as a whole.11–13 These characteristics often do not link well with municipal practices. In light of this, the Climate Atelier Approach (CAA) was developed as an alternative. The four distinct steps of the CAA are developed with stakeholders through iterative discussions and designed to link into existing municipal practices.

The development of the CAA started in 2011, when the Dutch province of Gelderland sought to support its municipalities in initiating adaptation strategies. Building on positive experiences of organizing adaptation workshops under Dutch research programs such as Climate Changes Spatial Planning and Knowledge for Climate, a workshop—or atelier—was organized with a focus on spatial aspects of adaptation and participants from several municipalities.14 Feedback on these workshops showed that a single representative is insufficient to initiate municipal adaptation planning. The decision was taken by the Province to organize one-day workshops at individual municipalities where every actor relevant for climate adaptation could join. This was the start of a series of CAAs in the Netherlands, as well as several in Belgium and Germany. Here, we explain the approach and then provide examples of successful implementation.

The Problem: A Science–Policy Mismatch

Two types of adaptation approaches can be identified: top-down and bottom-up, both having advantages and drawbacks.15 A typical top-down approach uses global development scenarios—for  example, where different societal and technological developments are described with associated greenhouse gas emissions and climate models to figure out climate impacts at various scales and define adaptation needs.16,17 This provides insight into a range of future changes but often produces results less relevant for municipal contexts. Bottom-up approaches focus on understanding root causes of local vulnerability to climate change and use participatory processes to address these in adaptation strategies.18 This can give less importance to physical factors but provides legitimacy through the involvement of people on the ground. They are also less reliant on climate models—which can have limited value at the municipal scale—and take current local vulnerabilities into account.15,19,20 Most current approaches are top-down and focused on large-scale technological interventions,11,12,21 dominated by natural sciences,22 and are monodisciplinary or sectoral.5,23 This is often in conflict with municipal practice where local adaptations that integrate social elements are central. While both approaches play important roles in planned climate adaptation, merging best practices can be beneficial.15 Unfortunately, few combined approaches exist and practical examples are even more limited.16,22,24,25

Theoretical Background

In setting up the CAA approach, a literature review and stakeholder consultations helped to identify characteristics of effective adaptation approaches. Research shows that the way climate change issues or events acquire different meanings from different perspectives plays an important role in presenting and approaching it.26 De Boer et al. established a framework to provide insight into four typical ways of framing climate adaptation (Table 1).27,28

Fea_Masselink-chart 1
Table 1. A framework of decision strategies, based on the clarity of climate impacts and on adaptation goals at the municipal level. Adapted from de Boer et al (2011).

In municipal adaptation, the inspirational strategy is often considered most appropriate for two reasons. First, municipal adaptation goals are often unclear, partly due to a lack of climate change considerations in existing standards, codes, regulation, or legislation.30–34 Some extreme weather policies do have climate considerations, like normative precipitation standards for drainage systems, but other phenomena, like the urban heat island effect, do not. However, instead of setting standards, the Dutch government encourages municipalities to explore climate impacts and think of their own standards. The CAA can help this explorative process. As stakeholder consultations have identified, this lack of standards and legislation can be a reason why municipalities experience difficulties in addressing adaptation. Initially, municipalities are challenged to justify allocating means to addressing issues that have low legislative priority. However, the CAA can show how adaptation can be addressed in plans without much additional expenses and makes clear that sometimes investments can be made to prevent additional future costs. Second, local climate impacts are often unclear. Interviews with the CAA participants indicated that before applying the CAA, many only had general climate change knowledge and lacked insight in local impacts and vulnerabilities. Impact and vulnerability analyses typically work with high spatial resolutions, so when zooming in to municipal resolutions the value of existing studies decreases.35

Implementing these strategies requires appropriate social settings, methods, and tools. The inspirational strategy is best served by creating a long-term vision in an informal setting that includes the development of learning scenarios, which the CAA supports.27

The Climate Atelier Approach Explained

The CAA aims to develop an integrated vision for 2050 for selected municipal spatial plans, puts adaptation in a municipal context, provides local insight into climate impacts, and shows how integrated spatial planning helps counter these impacts and capitalize on arising opportunities. Spatial developments—like constructing a residential area—are at the heart of the approach. This contrasts most other approaches where climate change is central. It uniquely presents complex geospatial data into easily understandable maps, which are effective communication tools for spatial planning.35,36 The approach consists of four linked steps (Figure 1):

Luuk Masselink
Figure 1. The CAA framework to arrive at a spatial adaptation vision.

Step 1: Define municipal spatial ambitions

Step 2: Analyze landscape characteristics

Step 3: Assess climate impacts

Step 4: Create spatial adaptation vision in an interactive workshop/atelier

Results from Steps 2 and 3 are currently presented in maps created in the graphics program Adobe Illustrator® so different sources and formats of information can form a coherent image. However, these maps are difficult to adjust once new information becomes available. Thus, the CAA’s goal is to familiarize municipalities with adaptation processes, and once they start developing strategies, other methods might be better.

The maps are important for developing the spatial adaptation vision in Step 4. In the Netherlands for example, many current municipal practices use the layers approach in designing spatial plans.37,38 This approach looks at the landscape in three cross-sectoral layers. A ‘ground’ layer represents the soil and water systems and a ‘network’ layer includes physical and invisible routes and links, like roads, waterways, and ecological and energy networks. Finally, an ‘occupation’ layer consists of habitation, employment, and recreation patterns.38 Visualizing the landscape in these layers instead of separate sectoral functions improves coordination between sectors and contributes to integrative planning.39 The first workshop was in the province of Gelderland, with following workshops at Gelderland municipalities such as Barneveld, Doetinchem, Ede, Wijchen, and Winterswijk focused on natural systems, which are still very visible in the maps and process. As more workshops take place, new elements and other systems are added and old ones adjusted, in an adaptive process that will itself continue. The CAA has grown through iterations in almost 20 case studies this way already.

Municipal Spatial Ambitions

Municipal spatial ambitions or planned developments are at the heart of CAA, which creates plans to achieve them while incorporating climate considerations. An example is the region of Rheden in the Netherland, where CAA was applied. This municipality has a high elderly population that is expected to decline over the coming decades.40 The municipality’s goal is to maintain city structures while keeping it attractive for new generations and stimulate local economies. A neighborhood to be constructed was also analyzed. Goals are discussed during a preparatory meeting and, if feasible, are adopted for application in the CAA. Once these plans and goals were identified and discussed, the landscape analysis began.

Landscape Analysis

Different sources, spatial resolutions and (model) assumptions make it challenging to integrate this knowledge on a single landscape map, so three maps are made. For accuracy, the information is discussed and interpreted with municipal experts who know the local system well. This exchange also increases mutual understanding amongst experts and supports integrative planning. The water systems (Figure 2) and landscape map (Figure 3) for Rheden are shown.

Climate Impact Assessment

Vincent Grond
Figure 2. Hydrological analysis map of the municipality of Rheden, adjusted for publication. (1) Floodplains; (2) River system; (3) Current waterlogging areas; (4) Heavy runoff areas; (5) Water fluctuation zone; (6) Ground water protection area.

Making local climate impact assessments is a challenging task for municipalities because of mismatches between supply of information and municipal needs, scientific information visualization and provision, municipal knowledge, and resource constraints.22,23,35 After an initial data gathering phase, the CAA, alongside scientists, landscape architects, and municipal experts, creates a single regional climate impact map (Figure 4). Developing such maps has proven to be a positive experience of co-creation with stakeholders.35 This process combines scientific information and local expert knowledge to provide insight into potential climate impacts on the city and its surrounding area and is easily understandable for non-experts. These impacts are visualized in a similar fashion as the landscape map.

The climate information used in these maps originates from both top-down and bottom-up sources. The top-down information is from the Climate Adaptation Atlas,41 an online portal with a wide range of climate change and impact model results. The data can include changes in mean temperature, flooding extent, urban-heat-island extent, risk of water logging, etc. Where possible, the atlas visualizes these for different scenarios. Most European countries have a similar portal available or more generic portals like ClipC, SWICCA, and ClimateAdapt. 42 Bottom-up sources include municipal experts and climate scientists who explore regional and local consequences of climate impacts and determine sensitivity to climate change. Indicators of sensitivity include sandy, drought-prone areas, elevation related to flooding, and dense urban areas that create urban heat islands. Current extreme weather vulnerability data is also gathered. This information is often well-known at the municipal level. In the Netherlands for example, fire departments pump water from streets or residential basements after extreme flooding. They often record these occurrences, inadvertently creating a database of flooding vulnerability. With the CAA, this local knowledge is then linked to the top-down climate information to determine local climate impacts and create a map providing an overview of relevant climatic themes and locations in the region.

Both landscape analysis and climate maps can be generated before the workshops and are usually discussed at the beginning with all participants. These discussions help to identify any missing information and allow people to exchange ideas and perspectives on climate change. The following two examples of adaptive information these maps provide are from Rheden (Figure 4).

  • Flooding: analysis shows greater future river discharge fluctuations that (without adaptation) will increase dyke breach risk. The maximum flooded area is determined using an elevation map and indicated on the impact map with blue. No quantification is given to probability, flow speed, or depth, solely an indication that this area is flood prone.
  • Wildfires: The atlas shows higher frequency of heatwaves and longer periods of drought, changes associated with increasing wildfire risks.43 The eastern area is part of a national park, much of which is mixed deciduous/coniferous forest and heath. This risk area is indicated on the map with green. As softwood is more at risk for fires, this area is highlighted.

The Atelier and Creation of a Spatial Adaptation Vision

Vincent Grond
Figure 3. Integrated landscape analysis map of the municipality of Rheden, adjusted for publication. (1) Moraine; (2) Heathland corridor; (3) Dry valley (steep); (4) Heathland; (5) River system; (6) Floodplains.

In a workshop/atelier, municipal experts design an integrated vision for 2050 and beyond, providing guidance for climate-considered spatial developments. Spatial planning can support adaptation,3–5 making regional and local spatial planners important workshop participants. Climate change also influences other municipal policy fields, and other experts should be invited, including from mobility, green maintenance, water management, and housing departments. If relevant, external provincial or other water board actors are invited. This multidisciplinary group forces participants to think outside their own field and seek new links. Between 10 and 40 people have participated in each workshop, with groups of six people of mixed backgrounds designing their own spatial vision. The workshops last six to eight hours and consist of three phases: discussing available information and maps, spatial vision design, and a closing discussion. With some exceptions, citizens or NGOs were not invited to these initial workshops, as the goal is to first discern possibilities for integrative adaptive planning. Once municipalities start to actually develop plans, we promote the inclusion of all interested parties and stakeholders.

Discussing available information and maps. Discussion topics include the following: What are climate change consequences for specific policy fields? What are links with other fields? Does everybody recognize problems and opportunities? The goal is threefold. First, discussions aim at providing all attendees with knowledge of municipal goals, landscapes, and potential climate impacts. Second, it aims at improving or adjusting knowledge visualized on the map, as certain topics of importance might be missed in first analyses. For example, soil subsidence due to mining activities was missing in a first map for a German municipality. Even though this subsidence is not caused by climate change, it can play an important role in determining future vulnerability to climate impacts like flooding. Finally, discussing all information creates mutual understanding of others viewpoints. Adaptation measures for one sector can cause problems in others, and this aids in arriving at a mutual vision.

Vincent Grond and Luuk Masselink
Figure 4. Integrated landscape analysis map of the municipality of Rheden, adjusted for publication. (1) Urban Heat Island effect (indication); (2) Floodplain dike breach; (3) Soil subsidence; (4) Wildfire risk; (5) Erosion risk; (6) Dike locations.

Spatial vision design. Most of the time is spent on (re)designing spatial plans to achieve municipal ambitions while incorporating climate change considerations. Part of the focus is on maintaining or restoring natural system functions to increase robustness,23 as current methods to design climate adaptation in a spatial planning context are limited.35 Guiding models are thus used to link the two. These models represent landscape principles and connections between hydrology, geomorphology, climate change, and suitable adaptation measures.35,38,44 For example, connections between soil types and surface water bodies become apparent. The adaptation suggestions might include, based on soil types, where water infiltration zones can be constructed. The models, which have already been developed for every major Dutch landscape type, allow participants to identify suitable adapation actions, after which ideas for climate-friendly spatial developments are suggested. Designs are captured with pencils on a paper of the background image of the region. These illustrate how climate change adaptation can be integrated in spatial plans—often with no or little additional financial investments—and create opportunities for livability, nature, recreation, and economic pursuits. It can also be used in future spatial developments to maintain a consistent vision.

Results from the town of Velp, within the Rheden municipality, are shown in Figure 5. An integrated adaptation strategy with no-regret measures—those that are beneficial regardless of climate change—was created and included the restoration and extension of streams into residential areas. This improves water storage in periods of drought, helps counter urban heat islands, and acts as a buffer after heavy precipitation. Designs for water and green structures within one neighborhood also improve livability.45 The orange structure represents a firebreak between the neighborhood and the forest. All these measures increase livability, improve the functioning of natural systems, and ultimately buffer climate change impacts.

Vincent Grond
Figure 5. An example of a long-term vision for climate-proof spatial developments. (1) Continuous streams and stream valleys north to south for storage, recreation, and nature, with wind corridors for cooling; (2) Large-scale green and water storage; (3) Water basin for peak precipitation storage; (4) Fire break between forest and urban developments, with green clusters at outskirts; (6) Tree-lined avenue.

Closing discussions. The different groups come back together to present and discuss their designs, as exchanging ideas often shows how there are multiple solutions. Lessons learned are also discussed: Have new insights emerged? Should particular practices be reviewed or changed? Is this the appropriate direction for municipal adaptation? Creating a climate-proof spatial vision is a first step, but moving it towards implementation is the next goal. Can new development plans be adjusted? Is new policy or legislation part of this vision and can it be realized? Who is responsible for the implementation? How will plans eventually be implemented? Is mainstreaming—integrating measures into ongoing planning processes—the way to get them implemented? The motivation and inspiration emerging from the CAA also stimulates a plan of action for subsequent steps towards this.

Practical Application and Evaluation of the Climate Atelier Approach

The CAA has been applied by 15 Dutch municipalities, two groups of collaborating municipalities, one water board, and once at the provincial level. As part of cross-border municipal collaboration projects, the approach was also applied in one Belgian and four German municipalities. After each workshop, the CAA was evaluated through discussions with participants, digital questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders. As the CAA is developed through iteration and all workshops were different, systematic evaluations are difficult. However, some trends emerge from these evaluations.

Firstly, the CAA is well received. About 80 percent of questionnaire respondents think that it can facilitate adaptation planning. About half indicate that they have general knowledge of climate impacts but expect to obtain knowledge on local climate impacts and opportunities. After the workshops, participants did note better understandings of the impacts as well as regional adaptation strategies. Of the generated maps, the regional climate map was considered most informative and usable, as it provides a clear overview of potential climate impacts and is an excellent discussion initiator. However, some commented that for actual planning, more detailed analyses are required. That is, all maps can be used during agenda and policy setting but not all are useful in the decision and implementation phase of the adaptation cycle.

Vincent Grond
Gathering ideas and highlighting important landscape elements are integral steps in designing the spatial adaptation vision. From the CAA workshop at the Province of Gelderland (Netherlands) in November 2011.

Collaborating with a range of experts and scientists on a single plan contrasts with the sectoral approach municipalities usually work with, and the CAA’s focus on spatial planning can still be considered sectoral, albeit a broad one. However, interviews showed that the CAA was nonetheless considered useful in its aim to give municipalities insight into the consequences of climate change and dealing with threats and opportunities. Discussing different views and ideas resulted in integrated plans that were highly valued. About nine out of ten participants said they would recommend the workshops to colleagues.

Final Thoughts

Determining whether the CAA results in climate-proof municipalities is difficult as those are long-term processes. Nevertheless, the approach can be considered a success. Most municipal agendas barely included climate adaptation. However, 12 of the 19 CAA municipalities have taken up additional adaptation processes. This adaptation takes many forms: some integrate the results in spatial visions, others organize conferences to discuss the topics, and others have moved to involve citizens in the adaptation process. No matter how the process was formalized, in the 12 municipalities, the CAA helped to initiate additional adaptation processes. Seven municipalities have not continued adaptation explicitly. Perhaps these municipalities need more time to initiate these processes, or adaptation is already integrated in ongoing processes but not made explicit, or perhaps the conditions were not right. For an overview of the municipalities that have and have not taken additional steps after CAA application, see Table 2.

Fea_Masselink-chart 2
Table 2. Dutch municipalities, collaborating municipalities, water boards, and provinces that have applied the CAA.

Is the CAA the right adaptation approach for all municipalities? As addressed, framing plays a role in choosing an appropriate approach. We believe the CAA links well with inspirational strategies, and is not necessarily suitable everywhere. Examples of this were found in the pilot studies. For example, a water manager did not want to participate in the workshop, as it was not specific enough and he felt it would result in ’empty’ plans. This person might be better served with a quantitative computational strategy. The CAA is designed as an alternative to available adaptation approaches, not to replace them; municipalities should work with what fits their context best.

Step-by-step guidance is available to walk municipalities through this process without external help. However, experience has shown that having an external facilitator fuels the creative process. The national government has made funds available for more pilot studies, where all necessary data is provided and a consultant firm guides the process. The results of this exciting new approach were not available at time of writing.

The Dutch national government also recognizes the value of the CAA and has incorporated it into their new Spatial Adaptation Program, which aims to support municipal adaptation to climate change. The CAA has also been adopted in the Natural Alliances approach, a spatial planning approach available for municipalities. This approach takes a broader perspective not only aimed at preparing an area for climate change but other aspects of sustainable development as well. The foundation for the Natural Alliances approach was laid in 2008 in the city of Nijmegen, where the focus was on the integration of water in spatial plans. Within this, the CAA can be seen as a starting point for people to understand how to use landscape and climate analyses in spatial planning. The Natural Alliances approach further develops this with guidance for developing integrated sustainable spatial plans, a long-term process.46

Ultimately, the most important feedback that came from the CAA participants is that through the atelier, climate change and adaptation planning can change from an elusive problem into something that could actually be integrated into municipal spatial planning. The municipalities, water boards, and provinces that have continued with the CAA-identified climate adaptation strategies show that it can be an effective alternative to top-down planning.


Part of this research is funded through the European Climate–KIC program. The initial Ateliers described in this paper were financed by the province of Gelderland. The German municipal Ateliers were partly financed through the European Interreg IV A program, called Klimakommunen in der Euregio Rhein-Waal (KliKER). These German ateliers were organized in collaboration with the FiW Aachen. The authors would like to thank everyone involved in developing the CAA and facilitating workshops.


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