Turning the urban challenge into an opportunity

Change language
Article Published 27 Apr 2012 Last modified 11 May 2021
7 min read
Photo: © Risager
Copenhagen, 2 July 2011. Up to 150 mm of rainfall in two hours – a city record since measurements began in the mid-1800s. Homes destroyed. Citizens and emergency services struggled to cope. This is one example of how excessive extreme weather events can affect a European capital – events that are expected more often under climate change.

A forthcoming report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) highlights this stark reality facing Europe’s cities and urban areas regarding the need to prepare for climate change.

The report,Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe, acknowledges that climate change is taking place and that mitigation efforts will limit but not prevent it. It states that there will be severe consequences for cities if adaptation efforts are not forthcoming. As cities are the backbone of Europe’s economy, urban climate change impacts will affect Europe as a whole. It provides examples of innovative adaptation practices and where they are taking place. In highlighting such activity the report hopes that other urban administrations can take guidance in view of their own adaptive activity, supported by national governments and the EU.

Providing advice on successful delivery of adaptation solutions to groups as varied as governments, the private sector and research bodies, the report stresses the need to follow a systematic adaptation planning process at and interlinked between all levels – local, regional, national and European - and to take into account a number of key principles.

Increased impacts from climate change across Europe

Events in recent years make for sobering reading. The European heatwave during the summer of 2003 was estimated to have caused up to 70 000 excess deaths during a four month period in Central and Western Europe. 2002 proved to be a record year for major flood events in six EU countries - Austria, Czech Republic, France Germany, Hungary and Romania. The total number of deaths was 78 with material damage rising to more than USD 21 billion.

Meanwhile, the total area, within the EU, affected by water scarcity and droughts has doubled from 6 to 13 % during the last 30 years with related economic impacts being estimated at EUR 100 billion.

Expected increases in severe heatwaves, flooding and water scarcity can all affect cities. The report analyses the potential impacts of expected increases in such climatic events and assesses how the European urban environment could potentially be affected

Copenhagen city’s cloudburst plan

Copenhagen’s reaction to the extreme rainfall event of July 2011 is highlighted within the report. This event really forced the city to sit up and take notice. The emergency services were within minutes of having to evacuate the city’s two biggest hospitals because of flooding and power cuts. Insurance damages alone were estimated at EUR 650-700 million.

The city’s immediate reaction and subsequent planning can now be viewed as a European good practice model. Preparation focused on a so-called ‘cloudburst plan’ containing the following four steps:

  • a new rescue plan from the emergency services;
  • improving communication with citizens, businesses and public institutions;
  • optimising the city’s existing sewage system;
  • using a system of small canals to divert excess water either to streams, the harbour or other areas for subsequent storage.

Reflections on these measures, and other advice, were also provided in the city’s long term climate adaptation plan, released in October 2011.

Working with nature - rather than battling against it

The new report highlights the need to raise awareness about urban vulnerability to climate change as well as the opportunities that exist. Reflecting on efforts to improve cities’ interaction with nature rather than via additional construction is displayed in the use of green infrastructure. One example illustrating this comes from the United Kingdom, where the city of Manchester has increased green spaces in order to reduce average surface temperatures.

This concept of ‘green infrastructure’ has been defined by the European Commission as ‘a strategically planned and delivered network of high quality green spaces and other environmental features. It should be designed and managed as a multifunctional resource capable of delivering a wide range of benefits and services.’ (

At the EEA, we have profiled urban issues over recent years – highlighting the potential of clever, far sighted urban design to an audience that ranges from school children to the international press and the EU Environment Commissioner.

In 2010 our living façade project ‘Europe in bloom’ drew a map of Europe, illustrating the relative diversity of flowering plant species across the continent. This project brought together the UN Biodiversity Year and to highlight the potential of urban areas in terms of providing green spaces and urban gardens. For most urban dwellers, the perception of ‘greenery’ in or nearby their cities is an integral part of what constitutes quality of life.

Such areas can improve air quality and noise conditions and despite being highly artificial can, by intelligent design, offer additional habitats for pollinators and birds, help to maintain ecosystems services and thus limit the ecological footprint of cities and provide climate mitigation and adaptation opportunities.

The façade attracted pollinators and butterflies not seen in the city before and was the basis for a surge in interest in the interconnectedness between urban and green issues amongst the international press, locals and visitors, architects and town planners. The project was widely covered in the international press including the Guardian in the United Kingdom, which listed the project third in its top 10 global events celebrating the International Day for Biodiversity.

Making Copenhagen buzz

It even aroused the interest of bee enthusiasts and resulted in an additional project with ByBi is a prize-winning and ground-breaking social enterprise that is bringing millions of bees to the city. From May 2011 the EEA made the heart of Copenhagen buzz with life, when 120 000 bees moved into their new home in an apiary on the roof of the Agency.

In addition to its environmental value, the project provides new opportunities for disadvantaged people who can be trained to look after the bees around Copenhagen. Bybi also aims to educate residents and businesses about the opportunities to contribute to a greener, more colourful and sweeter city. Our Bybi project also received widespread public and press attention including an article in Danish sustainability magazine Samvirke a year after the project’s birth.

Climate change adaptation could provide the impetus for urban renewal and rethinking

Climate change and the need for cities to adapt to it may provide a model for city planning of the future. Adaptation-based urban initiatives need to be innovative and provide multi-level benefits in order to allow for their subsequent implementation.

In general, climate adaptation should not be considered as just a reactive or defensive response strategy but rather as a proactive implementation of a long-term economic and sustainable development strategy.

The floating houses of the new island neighbourhood IJburg in Amsterdam for instance are a response to the demand of houses near or in water. This reflects growing awareness of the need to build away from areas at risk from flooding and is certainly one solution to address sea level rise. This example demonstrates the great potential of climate change adaptation to act as a stimulus for innovation.

Other examples illustrating good practice within European cities are available. In Rotterdam there are plans for so-called water squares - low-lying public spaces which can be used for temporary water storage during heavy precipitation or flooding events. Meanwhile, in Vienna the sewage system itself provides storage. The loading of the sewer system is monitored continuously and interventions are possible through centrally controlled sluices and pump stations to optimise the full storage capacity of the 2300 km long system and prevent outflows during high precipitation events.

Planning for the future

Cities need to adapt, but a supportive national and European framework is crucial in this regard. Europe’s future depends on strong and resilient cities working towards a joint approach to cope with climate change.

The examples outlined above can indeed be taken as sources of information and good practice. Yet, as the forthcoming EEA report acknowledges, anticipative planning has to take place in order for people and infrastructure within our urban areas to be sufficiently prepared to address the risks of a changing climate.

Starting action now ensures preparedness to climate change and lower costs for adaptation. Massive investments in infrastructure are required in cities anyway – climate change adds the need for robust and flexible solutions.

Additional information

Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe, a new EEA report will be officially launched at the Resilient Cities congress in Bonn, Germany on 14 May 2012. The congress will focus on the themes of urban risk, resilience and financing. The EEA report will be available for download here:

The European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT) (a joint activity between the European Commission and EEA) is a web-based platform to support policy-makers at EU, national, regional and local levels in the development of climate change adaptation measures and policies. The platform can also support cities in their adaptation actions. (

Other EEA urban reports:


Key urban messages:

  • In Europe, where the overwhelming majority of people live in urban areas, tackling the interlinked challenges between biodiversity and its network of towns and cities is crucial to help halting biodiversity loss.
  • Urban areas can be an opportunity or a threat for biodiversity. Seizing the opportunity demands that we mix high quality urban green areas with dense and compact built up zones.
  • Quality of life in cities depends on the existence of sufficient attractive urban green areas for people and wildlife to thrive. But equally important for urban life are the ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity in green areas outside city boundaries.
  • Although biodiversity and ecosystem services are global common goods, local and regional authorities have the legal power to designate conservation areas and to integrate biodiversity concerns into their urban and spatial planning. Public commitment is apparent in the numerous participatory Local Agenda 21 processes aimed at building sustainable communities that identify biodiversity as a precondition for resilient cities.
  • Besides protecting areas, it is essential to integrate biodiversity into spatial planning at regional and local levels, including cities. Developing the European Green Infrastructure concept presents an opportunity to do this.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage