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Assembly 2014: Smart adapting cities

Almost everyone in the UK lives in an urban area, and climate change will affect the way towns and cities develop and how urban communities thrive. This session was jointly presented by ARCC and Core Cities and looked at examples of partnership between academic research and local authorities. Discussion was wide-ranging, with an interesting focus on the future financing of adaptation action.

From all presentations and comments, it was clear that adaptation struggles for attention amongst competing priorities (e.g. an aging population) and reducing resources (e.g. further budget cuts).

We heard about interesting joint activities, such as Kit England of Newcastle City Council describing a sensor network in the city. It was paid for by Newcastle University but joint working between academics and council officers meant that data and expertise was pooled. The result? The research project and the council team both found additional benefits that would not have been realised without this co-operative approach.

Nick Grayson talked about Birmingham’s BUCCANEER project – a knowledge transfer partnership between the city council and the university. For the city, this has meant that local evidence is available to inform local decision-making, with a direct impact on the development of Birmingham’s planning framework.

However, during discussion time, it seemed that these kind of joint activities are often a result of ‘right place, right time’, which makes them difficult for other authorities to repeat.

Both presentations and discussion highlighted that the scale of the adaptation task is beyond the scope of local authority spending, so novel solutions should be considered. Gothenburg in Sweden has recently launched its first green bonds to fund climate change mitigation and adaptation actions in the city. Nick Grayson reminded us that the Victorians delivered vast, robust infrastructure funded through bonds and other financial instruments. So re-visiting Victorian financial innovation could offer the chance of creating a built environment and infrastructure suitable for the 21st century.

Kit England identified some potential  research gaps that would help to address local authority needs, including: changing behaviours to increase community resilience, “weatherising” climate projections to make them easier to apply and he also identified food as an unexplored area of city infrastructure.

But local authority participation in research projects is changing. In the past, councils have usually been willing to offer their expertise for free, but, with pressure on budgets in place for the forseeable future, research projects are going to have to contribute to the cost of local authority participation. Research projects will have to make use of different engagement strategies that could involved payment for council staff time, joint bids that identify clear benefits for all parties, and opportunities for secondment and knowledge transfer projects.

My take-away message from this session? Local authorities, as key deliverers of adaptation, are interested in working with academic partners and there are plenty of good examples out there. For the future, there needs to be new incentives (well-articulated benefits, resources, co-creation) to ensure that local councils can continue to contribute to research.

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