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Mitigating climate risks with data-driven urban planning

As unpredictable weather patterns raise the risk of natural disasters, a climate-sensitive approach to urban planning may be the only way to reduce risks

Mitigating climate risks with data-driven urban planning
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Cities are major economic centers and home to nearly half of the global population. The rapid pace of urbanization has led to a growing population living in cities, putting immense pressure on already strained urban infrastructure and affecting the overall quality of life.

The situation is exacerbated by the conflict between urban development and nature, along with the impacts of climate change, such as increased urban flooding, urban heat islands, heavy rainfall, and heat waves. Consequently, cities are now more vulnerable to disasters, posing serious challenges for urban systems worldwide.

Recent floods in Delhi, a city not typically known for flooding, have drawn attention to the issue of urban floods. Many major urban centers, including several in India, have faced flooding in recent years, even those with state-of-the-art urban planning.

Urban risk and resilience

Urban climate variation puts almost all cities at risk of disasters when risks are not proactively managed. For instance, severe urban flooding in parts of London points to infrastructural inadequacy. Due to climate change impacts, such as increased rainfall intensity and sea-level rise, two-fifths of businesses in London face a high risk of climate-fueled flash floods. However, the risk continuum varies with urban vulnerability, underpinned by factors like poverty, the concentration of slums, the availability of resources, and the state of infrastructure. As a result, the risks are particularly significant in the cities of the Global South — like Manila, Rio de Janeiro, and Mumbai — where slums are prevalent, and infrastructure is fragile. Urban risk, therefore, directly correlates with urban vulnerability.

While the impacts of climate change are far-reaching, urbanization is bound to increase, making urban development inevitable. Resilient cities offer a paradigm shift to enhance coping capacities, enabling proactive management of urban risk and vulnerability. City-level resilience, as defined in the article, refers to the capacity of cities to withstand, absorb, adapt to, and recover from shocks and stresses while maintaining critical services, increasing adaptive abilities, and strengthening preparedness to respond to future challenges. This approach involves preparing cities to deal with acute shocks like floods and chronic stresses caused by poverty, infrastructure deficits, or climate change that weaken cities over time.

Climate-sensitive urban planning

The juxtaposition of cities into spaces of risk and resilience against climate change is underpinned by whether urban development and planning approaches are climatically-sensitive or not. Climate-Sensitive Urban Planning (CSUP) emphasizes urban development that is in synergy with nature and climate. This includes planning new settlements and retrofitting existing ones to address issues such as urban flooding and the urban heat island effect. Some of the urban interventions employed by CSUP may include urban greening, data-driven decision-making, and urban geometry design, to enhance city-level climate resilience. It represents a paradigm shift from conventional planning, enhancing capacities, and building resilience to mainstream climate action plans.

Data-driven climate action plan

A data-driven action plan involves identifying vulnerable hotspots, such as slum locations and areas with infrastructure deficits, within the city. This information is then corroborated with climate data and data on urban disaster risk, such as flood-prone or cyclone-prone areas. For instance, “data analysis, collection, and monitoring” has formulated the basis for the Brazilian city Belo Horizonte’s climate action plan. The city has conducted a data-driven vulnerability assessment for climate change adaptation, serving as a decision-making tool for risk assessment and planning. The vulnerability index considers available data on climate change risk exposures, integrating social and environmental sensitivity and coping capacities of urban systems. Additionally, real-time monitoring of rainfall data allows the city to manage the Rain Alert Nucleus (NAC) for flood warnings.

Unlike some city councils in the Global South, the Birmingham City Council employed a data-driven climate action plan to strengthen its future policies toward achieving net-zero carbon development. Through data analysis, the city identified transportation as the third-largest contributor to its carbon emissions and the most challenging to reduce. The transportation data helped pinpoint specific neighborhoods for implementing local active and sustainable travel projects and policies to meet its ‘decarbonize in a decade’ targets.

A data-driven approach proves effective in assessing city-level risks and vulnerabilities, and therefore, assisting urban practitioners and local governments in their decision-making pertaining to climate change mitigation. Moreover, it lays the groundwork for building anticipatory and resilient systems to address unprecedented crises and enhance capacities by incorporating multi-dimensional measures to prioritize climate action plans across cities. However, to ensure an unbiased, accountable, and transparent system, data democratization, collaborative data efforts, and data governance are crucial factors that should be integrated into data-driven climate action plans.

Views are personal.


Sabine Ameer is an architect-urban planner whose primary research explores the interlinkages between urban heritage, human security, and legitimacy. More

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