The authors of this article argue that urban communities are under threat because built-up areas and asphalted streets are impermeable to water. Rainwater run-off is ineffective during torrential cloudbursts. The photo shows how torrential rain has created traffic chaos in Lysaker in Oslo. Photo: Mattis Sandblad/NTB

We need to adapt our cities to a changing climate. But in Norway it’s still business as usual

If we are to avoid our cities becoming ‘heat magnets’ one day, and overwhelmed by flooding the next, we have to incorporate wetlands and ditch systems into our urban infrastructure.

Several Norwegian catchments are currently at risk of damaging floods due to the volumes of melting snow in both upland and lowland areas. In Norway, we have experienced this kind of flooding throughout the centuries. But if you live in a town or city, which three out of every four Europeans now do, you are even more vulnerable to an unruly, changing climate that brings with it much warmer and wetter conditions than we are used to.

Urban communities are under threat because built-up areas and asphalted streets are impermeable to water. Rainwater run-off is ineffective during torrential cloudbursts.

An unruly climate brings explosive heat waves and torrential rain

Many towns and cities in Norway are built along rivers or close to inland lakes. This makes them vulnerable when snowmelt is at its peak. In some places, we are now seeing up to three times more snow than is considered normal.

Moreover, many Norwegian towns are located along the coast, and these will be impacted by sea level rise.

Furthermore, some city dwellers are experiencing challenging situations caused by prolonged periods of high temperature. The fact is that the way our cities are designed actually reinforces such heat waves. This is because buildings and asphalt surfaces absorb the sun’s heat and store it.

Northern Europe is feeling the heat

A recent multinational study, published in the journal Nature Energy, has reported that the larger European cities are already being threatened by power grid failures as a result of prolonged heat waves.

According to the report, the demand for grid equipment cooling is increasing in places as far north as Stockholm – in fact by as much as 68 per cent on the hottest days.

All this may make it difficult for the elderly and young families to live in cities in the future, but we do have man-made and nature-based mechanisms at our disposal that we can use to mitigate these threats. In Norway, however, we have been very slow in implementing such measures. 

Role models

But this is not the case everywhere. Many coastal cities across the world have implemented flood protection measures.

Most notable among these are densely populated conurbations with adequate financial resources. Examples include Amsterdam, which uses breakwater systems, New Orleans (floodgates and levées), Shanghai (sea walls) and Rotterdam (a floodgate system that can regulate the flow of the River Maas).

Of course, it is possible that we will succeed in limiting our future global emissions of greenhouse gases.  However, all current climate change prognoses indicate that there is no time to lose in implementing the measures we need to protect communities from the effects of heat waves and torrential rainstorms.

Urban wetlands

Make no mistake, we should be integrating vegetation corridors and other green areas, ditch systems and wetlands into the fabric of our towns and cities. All with the dual aim of absorbing and storing rainwater, and reducing heat uptake.

Solutions of this type are relatively inexpensive and may offer health benefits. They may also promote species diversity, especially insect life, which will also be of benefit to local communities.

Many urban municipalities in Norway are working actively to implement plans and initiatives designed to prevent damage caused by heavy rain and flooding – in some cases with promising results. There are some good examples both in Bærum in Viken county and in Stavanger in Rogaland. Among the measures implemented are innovative partnerships and plans for cloudburst impact management.

Three excuses to continue as usual

However, in general here in Norway, there are three factors that contribute to the fact that for the most part we continue to develop urban areas as we always have done, with little or no focus on climate change adaptation:

  • Roles and areas of responsibility are unclear and fragmented. 
  • Financing provision is lacking or inadequate. 
  • Poor awareness of the fact that there is no time to lose.

Both political decisions and governance strategies are sorely needed if the concept of climate-adapted cities is to become more than just an empty promise.

Behind the curve

As far back as in 2010, all Norwegian municipalities were mandated to carry out high-level risk and vulnerability analyses pursuant to the Norwegian planning act. However, many are still yet to run assessments of how their communities will be impacted by climate change.

It also remains a challenge that neither local knowledge regarding climate change vulnerability, nor experience from previous extreme weather events, are being utilised in risk and vulnerability analyses.

What action can we take?

Town planning and construction projects all entail a multitude of choices and prioritisations, and high-level targets such as budgets and functional requirements may take precedence over targets that are less well defined.

However, it is a human right to live in a safe and secure home. UN Sustainable Development Goal number 11 states that by 2030, all cities and human settlements shall be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. So, what do we have to do to prevent this from simply ending up as a lofty political promise?

  • Public authorities at national level must require that information about climate change-related risk is integrated into processes such as  house building, area planning and infrastructure development both at neighbourhood level and for entire cities. 
  • Information about the impacts of climate change must be made widely available. Design standards must be updated and regulatory frameworks strengthened to prevent building in high-risk areas.
  • Local and regional public authorities must be adequately equipped to address the task in hand. Strategies must be implemented to ensure that climate change adaptation is achieved across all sectors and levels of society.
  • Better coordination, combined with ‘carrot mechanisms’, must be implemented in connection with issues from area use regulations, building regulations and the design of critical infrastructure, to legal and commercial decision-making, monitoring and assessment procedures. 
  • Not-for-profit organisations can play a role by employing effective communication techniques and social learning to promote dialogue between the public authorities, the private sector and local communities. 

The television news is often dominated by natural disasters occurring overseas. But we really don’t have to look any further than Voss in Vestland county to find a local community now having to prepare for a 200-year flooding event every twenty years.

Climate change adaptation is all about people both in Norway and elsewhere having the opportunity to sleep safely in their beds at night.

This article was first published in the newspaper Dagsavisen on 23 May 2023 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.