Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 1801–1810 | Cite as

A role for strategies in urban climate change adaptation planning: Lessons from London

Original Article


Global cities are taking a leadership role in climate change adaptation. Increasing numbers of cities are creating climate adaptation plans and strategies, and a wide range of international organizations are developing tools and programs to promote and support further planning, despite the fact that the few studies to date that have evaluated adaptation planning have found it to be ineffective: focused more on broad visions than specific actions. To understand why cities continue to engage in adaptation planning, what benefits planners anticipate, and whether these benefits can be achieved through vision-oriented strategies as well as action-based plans, this study reports on a qualitative case study of the creation and adoption of the 2011 London, United Kingdom, Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. Results from interviews with participants and stakeholders indicate the London Strategy was consciously developed as a vision-setting strategy and was successful in: raising awareness of cross-sectoral risks, coordinating pre-existing adaptation efforts, validating stakeholder engagement, providing political authorization for use of resources and personnel, and creating continuity of purpose across changing political administrations. To accurately capture these benefits in other urban adaptation planning efforts will require a new evaluation approach. Based on the London case, this paper proposes future adaptation strategies be evaluated according to how well they build the adaptive capacity of city institutions to enable ongoing adaptation.


Adaptation Climate change Evaluation Governance London, UK Urban planning 


Urban governments are playing an increasingly critical role in managing climate adaptation (Rosenzweig et al. 2010). A recent survey of 350 member cities of the global group Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) found 75% were engaged in climate adaptation planning (Aylett 2014). A wide range of international and national risk mitigation, environmental, and development organizations have created tools, guidelines, and programs to support and promote urban adaptation planning (e.g., Institute for Environment and Development: Dodman and Carmin 2011; World Bank 2011; United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: Valdés et al. 2012; United States Agency for International Development: USAID 2015). And yet, there is little empirical evidence to demonstrate the utility of urban adaptation planning.

Urban planning evaluation has a long history (Mastop and Faludi 1997; Talen 1997), but efforts to evaluate adaptation planning are still emergent, with few studies dedicated to the subject (Berke et al. 2006; Birkmann et al. 2010; Quay 2010; Tang et al. 2010; Davoudi et al. 2011; Preston et al. 2011; Baker et al. 2012; Berke 2014; Jabareen 2014). These works have primarily concluded that local adaptation planning is ineffective due to a lack of concrete action items and implementation frameworks. These studies have also been primarily document-based: scoring documents against researcher-determined criteria or evaluating implementation efforts rather than goals of participants or the effect of the planning process. In their quantitative evaluation of city adaptation plans, Baker et al. (2012) compared adaptation planning documents to a pre-determined set of scoring criteria and awarded scores of 5.7 to 42.5%. Following a similar approach, Preston et al. (2011) scored documents from 16 to 61% with an average of 37% . As the scoring criteria emphasized implementation and specificity, action-oriented plans scored higher than vision-setting strategies, regardless of the intent of the documents’ creators. Preston et al. concluded that “rigorous adaptation planning processes” are “lacking”. Conversely, Quay (2010), drawing on both document review and interviews with participants in a series of qualitative case studies, determined that three US city adaptation planning efforts had successfully reached a second stage of adaptive governance by creating flexible adaptation strategies.

Despite these results, city officials around the world continue to engage in adaptation planning, and many continue to produce broad strategies rather than specific plans. This raises questions: What benefits do planners see in the creation of adaptation strategies? Are these benefits being realized? If so, how? And are they being captured in current evaluation methods? To address these questions, this article presents the results of an in-depth qualitative case study of adaptation planning in London, UK. The study used a planner-oriented grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 1967) that considered both outcome documents and the planning process. Mechanisms of change are identified, several unrecognized in the adaptation planning evaluation literature to date, by which adaptation planning may achieve meaningful change. These findings have broader implications for continued efforts to plan and to evaluate adaptation planning.


Case selection

London, United Kingdom, is routinely ranked among the most resilient (Cohen 2011), sustainable (Batten and Edwards 2015), yet vulnerable cities in the world (Barkham et al. 2014). Tidal flooding from the Thames River, surface water flooding, extreme heat events, and water scarcity all pose risks and are expected to be exacerbated by climate change (Nickson et al. 2011). Like many urban centers, London must address these concerns while simultaneously expanding provision of services to a growing population and maintaining or replacing aging infrastructure (Kessler 2011; Skinner et al. 2015). London’s size; economic, historic, and cultural status; and leadership role in promoting global urban adaptation have made London’s climate change efforts an exemplar (Bulkeley and Schroeder 2008; Swart et al. 2009). London’s climate change adaptation strategy, Managing Risks and Increasing Resilience: The Mayors Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (Nickson et al. 2011) (hereinafter the London Strategy or Strategy), was considered an example of best practice when published in 2011 (Gallucci 2013). London therefore serves as a paradigmatic case (Flyvbjerg 2006) to understand how development, adoption, and implementation of a climate adaptation strategy may affect urban climate resilience. Although case study results are not generalizable predictors of outcomes in other cases, the insights gained generate questions to inform future research and policy formations (Flyvbjerg 2006; Creswell 2012).

Data collection

Open-ended qualitative interviews with 26 London and UK-wide urban planners, climate adaptation practitioners, academic experts, and government officials formed the basis of the case study. Key informants, such as authors and contributors to the London Strategy, were initially targeted for interviews; these key informants were then asked to recommend further contacts in a modified snowball sampling approach. Participants in a process may have biased perspectives on the quality of outcomes (Christie 2005; Leach and Sabatier 2005), so additional respondents were also approached who were knowledgeable about the process but did not participate. Key informant interviews were held with six of the London Strategy’s nine key authors; three of six members of the national Adaptation Sub-Committee; four regional and local government officials; and three members of the London Climate Change Partnership (LCCP), a key organization for coordinating London-wide adaptation efforts. Non-participant interviews were held with four adaptation and climate experts who had published studies on London vulnerability and adaptation, including two members of the national UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), which provides information and advice to local governments on climate adaptation. Participant and non-participant interviews did not provide distinct results and were treated as a single dataset.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in person by the author during 2014 and 2015, with two exceptions by telephone, and lasted an average of 1 to 2 h for 38 total hours of interviews. Open-ended questioning focused on the development, adoption, and implementation of the London Strategy and subsequent adaptation efforts taken by the respondent’s organization. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed, except in cases where respondents requested not to be recorded, in which case notes were taken during and immediately following the interview. Transcripts and notes were analyzed in the qualitative software package NVivo 10.0 (QSR International) using open coding to identify emergent themes and patterns (Glaser 1992; Creswell 2012). Preliminary results were presented to 15 respondents during a second round of interviews (2015), where respondents had the opportunity to comment on identified themes and overarching conclusions.

To provide additional context to the study, all 32 London borough councils and the 14 organizations listed in the London Strategy as contributors were invited to provide verbal or written descriptions of their engagement with the Strategy and current adaptation practices. Adaptation plans and policies from 12 London boroughs, 6 national government agencies, and 4 private companies also provided context. Reports on adaptation project implementation and presentations on adaptation by government officials were also referenced. A review of UK legislation on local government authority, climate change adaptation, and flood management provided additional political context. Greater London Authority budgets and primary spatial planning documents were reviewed from before, during, and after adoption of the London Strategy to verify changes in policy over time. Media reports on extreme weather events mentioned by respondents were referenced to confirm details.

Document review and interviews do not provide definitive evidence of the Strategy’s effect on policy or funding decisions, but are valuable data sources for the purposes of this case study as they provide insight into participants’ perceptions of the planning process and the mechanisms by which change occurred.

The London case

Planners’ goals for the London Strategy

The goals of the London Strategy are written in the final document as “improving the resilience of the city to extreme weather and long-term climatic changes,” “attract[ing] significant new investment into London,” “improv[ing] the quality of life for Londoners,” and “empower[ing] Londoners to take action for themselves” (Nickson et al. 2011). With the exception of attracting new investment, these are not measurable action-oriented goals but broad vision-setting goals. Respondents did not see this as a weakness. Rather, they articulated a difference between action-oriented plans and vision-setting strategies: a difference acknowledged in planning literature but thought to be largely ignored by or unknown to practitioners (Baker et al. 2012). According to the literature, strategies are “primarily aspirational in nature” and provide a “vision of where a government or organization wants to be” while plans provide “a structured list of tasks, steps or measures” and “represent official policy prescriptions” (Preston et al. 2011). London planners were cognizant of the difference and saw plans and strategies as alternatives with distinct benefits. Respondents’ awareness of the distinction is illustrated by statements such as “[Plans are] a straight up guide to action…. But the other sort is aspirational: the purpose is to raise awareness and action among people other than yourself and your organization. This is about leadership.”

Some respondents did regret the lack of metrics that a plan may have provided and that could be used to create accountability and demonstrate improvement. One joked that the UK version of taking action is to write a report. This respondent worried that without metrics follow-up might falter. Other respondents, however, contended specific goals and metrics were less critical at what they considered to be a preliminary stage, as exemplified by the statements: “There is a lot of strategic thinking you can do [without specifics]… because it is about understanding how the system works: what the interdependencies are, what your thresholds are, within that system, and what your risk appetite is.” and “It’s [the Strategy] more a vision and a sussing out of the problem.” Other respondents noted that too many metrics could be unwieldy, and several pointed to the 371 indicators identified by the national Adaptation Sub Committee (some of which are, according to one respondent “vague and hard to evaluate”) as an example of over-measuring.

While acknowledging the limits of strategies, compared to plans, all the respondents saw clear benefits in creating a strategy. During open-ended questioning, respondents did not all discuss the same topics. Benefits of planning mentioned most often and with the most consistent support across interviews were: to raise awareness of and better understand climate risk, to coordinate existing adaptation efforts, to provide leadership and motivation for stakeholders to engage in independent adaptation, and to motivate future administrations to continue adaptation. The extent to which the planning process and London Strategy achieved these goals, and the mechanisms by which this occurred, are discussed in the next section.

Outcomes and mechanisms of change in the London Strategy

All respondents agreed that creating the London Strategy improved London’s climate resilience. There were minor differences in opinion as to how much improvement had been achieved, but respondents overwhelmingly agreed that the strategy development process and its official status had deepened stakeholders’ awareness of climate risks, created organizational and financial gains by coordinating existing adaptation efforts, and established incentives for continued adaptation action by future mayoral administrations.

Raise awareness and better understand risk

London-specific climate projections were available long before London adaptation planning began, but cross-sectoral stakeholder engagement throughout the adaptation planning process turned these projections into an increased understanding of risk. In 2002 and 2009, UKCIP created regional climate projections for the UK, including one for London. UKCIP even developed a user-friendly interface to allow stakeholders to better engage with projections (UKCIP 2013). Despite these efforts, climate risk awareness was not mobilized (Tang and Dessai 2012). As one planner noted: “It’s almost like our ability to project the climate has exceeded our ability to use that information.” Most stakeholders, respondents agreed, needed assistance to understand how projected climate changes would affect their infrastructure and operations, as one respondent illustrated in the statement: “They [businesses and agencies] do not have regular threshold identifications. So you cannot just ask ‘How often does rain affect you?’ and ‘Is that sustainable?’, and ‘How far can your emergency plan carry you before it too breaks down?’”.

Through engagement with the planning process, stakeholders gained awareness of their own and cross-sector vulnerabilities. Stakeholders gained particular insight into interdependencies: points at which systems rely upon one another and share vulnerabilities. The LCCP, London Resilience Forum, and Greater London Authority (GLA) hosted a role-play exercise called Anytown (LCCP n.d.) in which stakeholders responded to a disruption in one sector, such as an electrical outage, and experienced how effects “rippled” to other sectors. As one participant phrased the benefit: “A city is a network of networks. And understanding the interdependencies between those networks, and what are the single point failures and the cascade failures and what is safe failure, is critical.” The organization of the London Strategy document itself reflects this emphasis: it is organized around events (i.e., floods, droughts) rather than sectors or geographic areas, which means “right from the outset, potential emergency situations may be grasped from a holistic perspective” (Davoudi et al. 2011). Several respondents noted that these lessons were graphically illustrated during severe 2009 floods when, for example, a bridge carrying telecommunications and power cables collapsed, stranding thousands of residents (UK Transport Committee 2010; Affleck and Gibbon 2016).

Although many respondents described raised awareness of interdependencies as a major step forward, they acknowledged limitations in stakeholder engagement and adaptation knowledge dissemination. Engagement with the general population was minimal, with focus placed instead on large businesses and organizations (as noted in Davoudi et al.’s 2011 reivew of the 2010 Draft Strategy); this reflected perceptions of the Strategy as a “first step” targeting “big players.” As a communication strategy, climate projections were simplified in the slogan “hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters.” A few respondents praised this simplification for its ability to streamline conversations with stakeholders and increase focus on system vulnerabilities, but several respondents noted simplification also removed nuance and understanding of uncertainty that may be important for long-term adaptation. Moreover, all respondents noted that even with the best awareness possible, additional efforts would be needed to turn awareness into action.

Coordinate and validate existing adaptation efforts

Respondents saw the goal of the planning process as not to propose novel solutions but to coordinate and prioritize existing efforts. As noted by one respondent: “It is not likely that some new flood solution will suddenly arise that no one has ever thought about before in hundreds of years—no Eureka moment.” Rather, coordinating efforts already being taken by stakeholders allowed decision-makers to improve cost-effectiveness of program delivery and to prioritize projects with multiple benefits, as described by one planner: “they [multi-functional projects] will help with surface water but also urban greening, biodiversity, etc.… These things can be silo-ed, so writing the plan will help with the integration.” Coordination was also seen to promote coherence among systems, as exemplified in the statement:

The value of wrapping an ‘adaptation strategy’ that looks at multiple impacts is that many of them are actually interconnected. So floods and droughts are too much and too little water and the systems you may use to manage them need to be coherent. If your heatwave management system is green infrastructure and you can’t water it because you’re also in a drought, well, there is a logic to having it all together.

Recognizing the value of stakeholders’ prior adaptation efforts was seen as giving them greater ownership in the Strategy (Innes and Booher 2003), as illustrated in the statements: “It was giving ownership over the process to the service providers,” and “Because it was the people who are the first line in service provision and infrastructure support who are actually suggesting the adaptation actions, … you get a lot more acceptance when you actually start implementation.” This coordination and buy-in may be particularly important in a governance structure such as London’s, where the city is actually a region comprised of 32 independent boroughs (each with its own mayor or executive authority) and the historic City of London (governed by the City of London Corporation), and where the London Mayor has little direct authority over local borough implementation (Pimlott and Rao 2002) and instead provides strategic guidance through development and publication of region-wide planning documents (Davoudi et al. 2011). Past studies have omitted pre-existing efforts when evaluating plan effectiveness because the planning process did not cause those actions to occur (Millard-Ball 2012). However, in a widespread effort like adaptation that requires engagement by numerous stakeholders, coordinating, prioritizing, and validating existing efforts may be as important as generating new programs that compete for limited resources.

Provide leadership and motivation for independent adaptation

In addition to benefits accrued through the planning process, respondents consistently described publication of the London Strategy as an important leadership symbol that authorized actors throughout London to commit time and resources to climate adaptation. This authorization was perceived as being critically important as it came during a time of shifting political attitudes toward climate change.

The first modern Mayor of London (elected in 2000) was Ken Livingstone (Labour/Independent), a major climate change mitigation and adaptation proponent. Livingstone founded the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of world cities committed to addressing climate change (C40 2016). Under his leadership, the GLA provided political and financial support to establish the London Energy Partnership, London Resilience Partnership, Drain London Forum, and the LCCP, part of a network of regional partnerships across the UK, called Climate UK, dedicated to improving climate action (LCCP 2016a). Nationally, the UK Climate Change Act 2008 was one of the world’s first laws dedicated to addressing climate change. A performance indicator (National Indicator 188: Planning to Adapt to Climate Change) was adopted that required local authorities to report progress in developing climate change adaptation plans (LRAP 2010).

Then, in 2008, Boris Johnson (Conservative) was elected Mayor of London. Johnson’s climate change views differed decidedly from Livingstone’s, as demonstrated in a series of op-eds he wrote for the London Telegraph, including a statement that humanity’s contribution to climate change was “without foundation” (Johnson 2013; Johnson 2015). At the national level, David Cameron (Conservative) replaced Gordon Brown (Labour) as Prime Minister (2010) and the new coalition government abolished regional government bodies and devolved authority to local councils and mayors (Localism Act 2011). National Indicator 188, along with many others, was abolished, and, in response to the 2008 financial crisis, funding for local authorities was reduced.

The London Strategy planning process that had begun under Livingstone was finally launched in October 2011, under Johnson’s administration and after these sweeping political shifts. This may explain why many respondents felt official publication of the Strategy was an important step to normalize climate adaptation as a mainstream issue rather than a fringe environmental concern. Statements by respondents included “You cannot be accused of being a radical if you suggest that we act according to the plan,” and “The signature gives us some power …. It has weight in influencing stakeholders. And it provides a prestige factor with the Mayoral politics and publicity.” Most respondents felt the Strategy would have had even more prestige under a Mayor who supported climate adaptation, as illustrated by the statement “A lot of this [success] pivots around the role of the Mayor…. If we’d had Livingstone in office, we would have had even more noise—more public awareness. He would have used it as a talking point.” However, even (or perhaps especially) under Johnson, most respondents felt the existence of an approved climate strategy provided authority for action they would otherwise have lacked.

Whether this authority has resulted in additional expenditures or new programs is difficult to establish due to the concurrent political shifts, funding restrictions, and non-Strategy-related resilience efforts occurring around the time of the Strategy’s publication. This is also a limitation of the planner-focused nature of this study. However, respondents described several ways the authority of having a Strategy in place affected ongoing adaptation projects and improved the capacity of London stakeholders, including authorizing funding acquisition and expenditure and training personnel.

High-level approval of climate adaptation may be critical for acquiring and spending funding. As one planner stated simply: “The plan aids in securing funding.” Having a strategy in place was expected to help local authorities request and use national and international funding sources, such as those released after a major disaster. As one local official noted: “If you have a strategy, you are able to respond quicker.… [W]hen the big money comes from government, you have got a better case to bid for it, and you are better able to start using it.” Once funding has been acquired, the existence of a Mayoral climate directive also provides justification to spend money to pursue adaptation projects or add adaptation components to existing projects (respondent examples include adding a green roof to a building retrofit or raising flood defenses to meet future projections). Without the adaptation strategy to provide justification, respondents reported difficulties in describing the business case for adaptation. In some cases, respondents noted that the Strategy helped retain funding for climate adaptation projects in the face of widespread austerity measures and budget cuts, but these funding decisions could not be attributed solely to the Strategy.

The existence of an officially published Strategy was also seen as justifying time and expenses used to train staff on adaptation issues, thereby building capacity for future adaptation. One respondent stated simply: “The [planning] process trains people and makes them empowered.” In at least one agency, government focus on adaptation resulted in the creation of a new staff position dedicated to climate adaptation. This position has a ripple effect by advocating for all projects and decisions within the agency to be climate sensitive.

It is notable that, when asked how the Strategy had affected their organization’s adaptation efforts, respondents did not refer to implementation of action items recommended in the Strategy. Rather, unless asked specifically about an item in the Strategy, they always discussed the ability of their organization to pursue adaptation beyond the Strategy. An evaluation method that focused solely on implementation of action items in a final document would overlook these efforts.

Motivate future administrations

Even as national-level policy changes and funding cuts removed climate adaptation as a priority, the existence of the London Strategy, according to respondents, helped maintain adaptation efforts in London. Indeed, this was an explicit goal for the Strategy according to many respondents. “Mayors love launching plans and opening things,” one noted, but the challenge lies in sustaining long-term effort across administrations and changing political priorities. Continuity of action was seen as a necessity due to the ongoing nature of climate change adaptation. As one planner phrased it: “There is no such thing as being adapted…. that’s why it is called climate change—we should call it climate changing because it is just going to keep on going, and our response has to keep going too.” According to respondents, the London Strategy succeeded in motivating continued action by future mayoral administrations by creating reputational incentives and a perceived threat of legal liability for failure to act. Urban plans have been known to shape political priorities by focusing attention on specific issues (Mastop and Faludi 1997; Millard-Ball 2012). The creation of an official London document with “Climate Change Adaptation” in the title focused attention on climate change in a way that separate documents on flood management, urban heat, etc. would not. Respondents noted: “It [having a climate adaptation document] really allowed us to draw a focus on those [climate] issues.” Many respondents said the Strategy put climate change “on the agenda” so it received attention from high-level officials.

By placing a spotlight on climate change adaptation, a Mayor’s decision whether or not to continue acting on adaptation also receives increased attention. After all, an adaptation strategy is a public announcement of the city’s risk. This may be at odds with politicians’ goal of making their city appear strong. As one respondent noted: “Do cities actually want to own up [to climate risk]?”; “Now, for some mayors, and some organizations, [understanding risk] that’s good because they’d rather operate on known risk. Others would rather…um…selective oblivion is not necessarily a problem.” In some cities, climate risk has been made apparent by climate-related crises, but for others, publication of a climate strategy may be an admission of risk exposure. And once a city is known to be at risk, the city government must be seen to take action, both to minimize perception that the city is a risky investment, and, ideally, to reduce risk. Publication of a strategy is both acknowledgement of risk and a step toward action: it showcases the commitment and ability of the city to deal with climate risk. With the adoption of its Strategy in 2011, London was seen as an innovator because it was one of the first cities to create such a document (Gallucci 2013). City officials were invited to present internationally on the Strategy, and London officials began to recognize an “adaptation economy” with financial benefits to be gained from London’s position as a climate expert and innovator (LCCP 2016b).

Admittedly, respondents noted the Strategy has limitations. For example, respondents said: “It [having a strategy] does not protect every action item in the plan [from being defunded by future Mayors], but it does provide overall protection.” Although a Mayor may ignore a particular item, it would be politically risky to ignore the issue as a whole. Several respondents noted specifically, “[Boris Johnson] does not prevent climate adaptation work because it would cost him politically.” Although UK Conservatives may not whole-heartedly support climate action, Johnson had to work with officials and constituents across the political spectrum. Moreover, as another respondent stated, “No one wants to be the Mayor who did nothing if a disaster does occur.”

Respondents frequently said the Strategy had created a potential for legal liability if a Mayor failed to address climate risk. Indeed, Livingstone’s administration had specifically petitioned the UK national government to create a statutory requirement for London Mayors to address climate risk (Barclay and Ares 2006; Greater London Authority Act 2007, c. 24, Part 8, Section 44 modifying Section 361D of GLA Act 1999). This became the first legislative duty in the world for a government official to tackle climate change (Davoudi et al. 2009). The GLA Act 2007 created a “duty to have regard” toward “climate change, and the consequences of climate change” (GLA Act 2007, edit to Section 30 GLA Act 1999). Interestingly, respondents were not referring to this statutory requirement when discussing liability. Rather, respondents felt the London Strategy itself, by identifying the risks and consequences of climate change, exposed the GLA and Mayor to liability, as illustrated by the statement: “The Adaptation Strategy opens GLA to the risk that they will be seen as negligent if they do nothing.” The legal argument is that by publishing the Strategy, the GLA could be considered to have undertaken responsibility to address climate risk and made the risk reasonably foreseeable, thereby meeting the UK legal criteria for a negligence lawsuit if they fail to act (Overseas Tankship v Morts Dock 1961; Barrett v Ministry of Defence 1995). Perception of this risk is exemplified by the statements: “[A]ny citizen could in principle file a lawsuit on the basis that those responsible are not taking action against this reasonably predictable risk [of climate change].” and:

During one of the [adaptation planning] workshops we had a senior partner from [law firm] attend, and he listened to discussions and at the end, he said, ‘You’ve now opened the box. Once you’ve opened the box, because you’ve identified climate change as a risk, you now have to show that you are dealing with that risk. You cannot ignore it, because if there is an event and there are losses, you are liable. Because you’ve identified climate change as an issue you have to deal with it.’

Half the respondents raised the issue of liability without prompting. Others, when asked about potential liability, agreed that creating the Strategy had increased the likelihood of liability, although several were uncertain whether or not a threshold had been reached. Indeed, the duty of a city government to adapt to climate change is only emerging as a potential legal liability (Burkett 2013; Klein 2015). Legal opinion is divided, and there is no direct legal precedent. However, in this situation, legal uncertainty may be promoting adaptation. As future lawsuits are decided, and the extent and cost of liability is established, city governments may be less motivated to act if they perceive the known costs of liability as acceptable. For the time being, fear of uncertain legal consequences appears to be a real driver in keeping climate adaptation on the agenda.

Broader implications

London respondents were consistent in their opinion that development of a high level visionary strategy held greater benefit for London than an action-oriented plan. This is at odds with the few existing academic efforts to evaluate adaptation planning. Baker et al. (2012) explicitly chose to evaluate all adaptation documents, even those self-described as strategies, as plans. Preston et al. (2011) differentiated the two categories but evaluated both against the same indicators, and, as indicators included measures of specificity and implementation, plans routinely scored higher than strategies. Other evaluations of adaptation plans and strategies (Birkmann et al. 2010; Berke 2014; Jabareen 2014) have also tended to start from the supposition that participants intended to create plans and only ended up with strategies due to sub-optimal conditions, such as lack of funding or information. The veracity of this assumption has not yet been established and appears to be contradicted in the case of London. This distinction is important, as strategies and plans may achieve different outcomes and therefore be appropriate in different scenarios, and it is not clear that the evaluation methods used to date would be appropriate for the scenario in which planners intended to produce a strategy.

Visionary strategies, in fact, may be especially appropriate for climate change adaptation. Most urban planning challenges are bounded spatially or temporally, have a desired end-state, and have a finite number of actors or actions required to achieve the end-state. In such a scenario, the rational planning model of “predict and plan” may be feasible (Baum 1996; Quay 2010), although applicability of the rational planning model has already been questioned in situations where planners have difficulty articulating future goals (Baum 1996) or uncertainty regarding future conditions or the effectiveness of alternative courses of action is high (Milly et al. 2008). Climate change adaptation represents a rather extreme case of uncertainty, as adaptation is an on-going process in response to continually changing climate (IPCC 2014) and may require a potentially infinite number of actions to be taken by a potentially infinite number of actors over an uncertain period of time (Allen and Holling 2010). Many adaptation efforts do “predict and plan” insofar as they draw on projections of future climate scenarios (Dessai et al. 2005) and analyses of potential courses of action (Haasnoot et al. 2013; Ranger et al. 2013). However, these efforts also rely heavily on evaluation and monitoring, revision, and institutional learning through methods such as adaptive management and governance (Folke et al. 2005; Armitage et al. 2007; Ruhl 2011). Birkmann et al. (2010) and Quay (2010) note specifically that climate adaptation evaluation may require a departure from the “predict and plan” paradigm.

As a result, methods of evaluation that draw on this paradigm—such as those grounded in urban planning evaluation theories of conformance, focused on implementation (Faludi 1989; Talen 1997; Laurian et al. 2004), or performance, focused on use by decision-makers (Mastop and Faludi 1997; Faludi 2000)—may not capture the long-term and widespread nature of adaptation. Actors may find it necessary to engage in a range of adaptation actions far beyond those identified in the initial plan to achieve risk reduction. As climate projections improve and climate impacts are realized, adaptation actions may be revised and new priorities identified. As one London planner noted, universities and entrepreneurs are constantly developing new technologies and techniques that may provide better solutions. An adaptive strategy needs to leave room to embrace emerging solutions. Conformance evaluations would not adequately credit the role of adaptation planning in promoting these types of unlisted actions. Similarly, performance-based evaluations may under-estimate the effect of adaptation strategies, as many actors who will be needed to adapt a city to climate change may not even exist when the plan is adopted. Any evaluation method that does not account for potential off-plan actors, actions, and revisions, would fail to capture the full effect of the planning process and strategy.

If adaptation planning does not readily lend itself to existing urban planning evaluation approaches, a new approach is necessary. Several modified performance evaluation approaches have been proposed in the collaborative governance realm (Thomas and Koontz 2011; Emerson and Nabatchi 2015) and could be modified for adaptation. However, it may be most appropriate to draw on the climate adaptation concept of adaptive capacity: the ability of a system, such as a city or city government, to respond to and prepare for the effects of climate change (Smit et al. 2000; Adger and Vincent 2005). Specifically, adaptation strategies could be evaluated based on the extent to which they build functional elements of adaptive capacity, many of which closely match the outcomes seen in London: raising awareness, providing leadership, coordinating efforts, and motivating action (Armitage and Plummer 2010; Biesbroek et al. 2010; Gupta et al. 2010; Marshall et al. 2013; Grothmann et al. 2013). This approach would evaluate the effect of both final documents (which have dominated the focus of adaptation evaluation studies to date) and the planning process. It could be used as a stand-alone evaluation method or as one step in a theory of change process (Anderson 2005). Building adaptive capacity may, in fact, be already a conscious or unconscious goal of adaptation planners, who recognize that increased capacity may be a prerequisite for implementing future adaptation projects. In their review of local adaptation planning documents, Preston et al. (2011) noted “a bias toward capacity building over specific adaptation actions” (p. 423). They interpreted this as political expedience, but it could also signal an implicit goal of planners. Using adaptive capacity as an outcome for evaluation of adaptation strategies may therefore be more in line both with participants’ goals and the long-term and widespread requirements of adaptation.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, in London, the mere existence of the Strategy as a formal document was reported to effect change. This appears to be independent of the quality of either the content or the planning process. This reflects respondents’ frequent statements that “Being perfect is not as important as the plan simply existing.” and “Perfection should not be the enemy of the good.” Even respondents who noted flaws in the London Strategy agreed it was a useful and necessary step in an on-going process of adaptation. Questions remain about the duration of the publication effect and the effect of subsequent publications and updates. It is possible that publication of the first adaptation strategy in a city has greatest effect, as it is first to focus attention on the issue and first to potentially expose city authorities to liability. Adaptation strategies may be particularly effective in cities that have not yet experienced a climate-related crisis or where the strategic goals of the planning process are focused on knowledge distribution and institutional coordination. As global cities engage in a second round of adaptation plans and strategies, the limits of subsequent strategies, and the need for more specific plans, may become more apparent (Birkmann et al. 2010).


The results of the London case suggest that adaptation planning may well be able to achieve the benefits desired by urban planners and city officials, albeit through capacity building and motivation rather than implementation or use in decision-making. Existing adaptation planning evaluations have promoted action-focused plans, but the London case suggests that enabling diverse actors to adapt in innovative and flexible ways over long periods of time may be better served by vision-setting strategies. Strategies that are officially published and endorsed by high-level leadership may be particularly effective as they provide authority for actors throughout the governance system to devote human and financial resources to adaptation. Official documents also provide official recognition of the risks posed by climate change, which may motivate current and future administrations by increasing accountability to public stakeholders. Although subsequent generations of adaptation planning are likely to require increased emphasis on implementation and monitoring and evaluation, an initial focus on building adaptive capacity through increased awareness, motivation, and authority may be an important precursor for building long-term resilience to climate change.



This research was supported by a David and Lucille Packard Foundation Stanford Graduate Fellowship, a McGee Research Grant, and the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford University. Thank you to all the London and UK participants who shared their time and expertise. Martin Fischer, Pamela Matson, Margaret Caldwell, and Mark Algee-Hewitt provided advice and mentoring throughout this project. Comments from Cassandra Brooks, Amanda Cravens, Dan Reineman, Nicola Ulibarri, and two anonymous reviewers improved this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and ResourcesStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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