Risk Management

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 26–46 | Cite as

Understanding the local policy context of risk management: Competitiveness and adaptation to climate risks in the city of Karlstad, Sweden

  • Mikael Granberg
  • Lars Nyberg
  • Lars-Erik Modh
Original Article


To understand the situation of climate risk management we need to understand the priorities and politics of the wider policy context. The framing of potentially incompatible policy issues is important to take into account when analysing policy processes. In this article, we focus on two policy issues aiming at local adaptation to global forces: facilitating city competiveness and adapting to the impacts of global climate change. Global climate change always manifests itself in the local arena, which thus becomes a crucial site for adaptation to the risks connected to climate change. Adaptation has to correspond with the city policy agenda to build the attractive city through waterfront housing as a means to strengthen its competitiveness in a globalised economy. This article focuses on the relationship between pursuing competitiveness through waterfront housing and the needs to adapt to climate change in terms of contemporary and future flood risks.


climate risks policy context competiveness growth climate adaptation 


It is important to stress that there is a political reality that is not willing to refrain from exploiting flood-prone areas because of the high price on land. In reality, we cannot avoid the utilization of risk areas, especially if claims to the land have already been made.

(Schaap, 2013, p. 27. Translated by the authors)

As the quote indicates, there are tensions between different interests in the policy agenda connected to past and contemporary priorities, as there are tensions arising not only from present-day differences in priorities and policy agendas, but also from earlier actions and decisions. Policy is defined not only by what is included in the policy agenda, but also what is downplayed or excluded (Heclo, 1972, p. 85). It is clear that policies come into being in a context deeply influenced by already existing policies (Hill, 2013, pp. 162–163; Mettler and Sorelle, 2014, p. 151). Such external conditions and existing policies can compete with or supplement a policy initiative and influence the framing of that policy, its integration with other policies and the priority ranking of the policy in attracting political support, as well as the level of resource support, which are all factors creating the dynamic character of public policy (Skocpol, 1992, p. 58). In this way, the policy context influences the identification and formulation of policy problems and determines in part their inclusion or exclusion on the policy agenda. Dominating values connected to incumbent policy do, from this perspective, frame opportunities for policy development (and the inclusion of new policy issues). Accordingly, to understand the preconditions of climate risk management, we need to understand the priorities and politics of the wider policy context. Risk comes with an acceptance that certain objects cannot be completely protected (Nyberg et al, 2014). The handling of one specific risk can also have unwanted effects by creating other risks or vulnerabilities (Birkmann, 2006).

In this article, we view climate-related risks as policy issues competing for priority within a specific policy context. Accordingly, our argument is that in order to understand how specific risks are being analysed, assessed and handled (that is, how risk management takes place), knowledge about the specific policy context, the policy agenda and its prioritised issues, is central. Below we illustrate our argument in Figure 1.
Figure 1

A simplified model of risk management and the policy context.

Note: This is of course a simplified picture and in reality risk management has an impact on the policy context.

In this article, we focus on two policy issues where global forces are prompting adaptive public policy responses at the local scale: (i) economic globalisation and the challenge of city economic competiveness, and (ii) global climate change and local adaptation to contemporary and future risks connected to a changing climate. We look at competiveness policy as applied to the redevelopment of industrial harbours in attractive waterfront housing and the adaptation to flood risks through the lenses of a city’s formal planning documents. These two issues are closely related, as the climate risks pose challenges for competitiveness in terms of potential negative impacts on cities (Carter et al, 2015). At the same time, the implementation of policies to enhance city competitiveness through waterfront regeneration has the potential of increasing the local demands for adaptation to climate change (Vasey Ellis, 2009; Moser et al, 2012).

A central question is whether or not the values and priorities of competitiveness influence the inclusion of, and priority given to, measures to deal with climate risks placed on the local policy agenda. A second question is whether adaptation to climate risks influences the policy agenda in ways that downplay the importance of competiveness in terms of waterfront redevelopment. A third question is whether or not the relationship between climate change adaptation and competiveness is problematized in the local policy agenda.

This article addresses these questions through a case study of the city of Karlstad, Sweden. The research is based on the formal output of planning and city redevelopment policy, and local planning documents. We have studied three comprehensive plans from the period 1997–2012 and three detailed plans, with some examples also taken from building permits. The plans deal with the development of the city of Karlstad, both in general and in specific areas, and the challenges to be faced. The planning documents are the formal aggregation of political decisions (the comprehensive plans of Karlstad’s municipal council and the detailed plans of the city’s planning and building board), the city planner’s involvement, citizen participation and other stakeholders’ input into the future trajectory of the city.1 All the plans have been read in their entirety, and analysed digitally using the keywords ‘flood’, ‘flood risks’, ‘waterfront’ and ‘attractive’. The plans have then been compared and scrutinised in order to ascertain how the issues of climate risks and adaptation, and the issues of waterfront development are handled and framed, and how the issues and the relationship between them have developed over time.

The challenges to the framing of risks in specific contexts is not unique to the case of Karlstad but can be observed around Europe and in other western countries. In line with this observation we argue that the knowledge yielded from the case study performed in this article is, at a principle and generalisable level, applicable to a diversity of national and local contexts and can, accordingly, enable the understanding of policy development and risk management in different local setting around the world.

Below we will briefly discuss these two dynamic policy issues. We will then continue with a short description of the Swedish planning system and an overview of adaptation to climate-related risks as it has unfolded in Swedish localities. The focus is on local government and local spatial planning. This section is followed by a description of Karlstad, the city’s history of flood risks and the development in planning documents from the mid-1990s till 2012. The article is then tied together in its concluding section in which the empirical evidence from Karlstad is analysed and the wider policy implications are discussed.

Climate Change Adaptation and Waterfront Housing

Global climate change risks and impacts manifested at the local scale make this the crucial site for climate change adaptation responses (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2003; Lundqvist and Biel, 2007; Storbjörk, 2007; Broto and Bulkeley, 2012; van den Berg and Coenen, 2012; Granberg and Glover, 2014). Climate risk, therefore, is produced specifically and locally so it is here that the actions to limit contemporary and future impacts have to take place (Elander et al, 2003; Wilson, 2006; Broto and Bulkeley, 2012). Accordingly, handling climate risks becomes a central issue for localities adapting to contemporary and future impacts of climate change despite potential outcomes of present-day mitigation efforts (IPCC, 2001, 2007, 2012, 2014; Pelling, 2011; Carter et al, 2015), especially in areas with substantial flood risks (Wilby and Keenan, 2012). A central strategic approach for governments facing the pressures of climate change adaptation is the tools and processes of spatial planning (Davoudi et al, 2009; Hurlimann and March, 2012; Storbjörk and Hjerpe, 2013).

During the latter half of the twentieth century, western cities experienced a fundamental economic change in the transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial condition (Sellers, 2002; Derudder et al, 2012). It is suggested that cities and regions, in an increasingly globalised economy, often compete with each other in so called ‘place wars’ (Healey et al, 2002). As with many other policy concepts in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of creating a competitive advantage as a means of gaining superiority over market rivals came from economics and organisational theory (Porter, 1985). Gradually, the idea of competiveness gained importance on the policy agenda of nations, regions and cities, and developed into a hegemonic discourse in public policy and planning in developed countries around the world (Bristow, 2010; Boland, 2014). In contemporary policy, competitiveness is considered as an unproblematic attribute of an economy creating growth (Bristow, 2005). In the wake of this development, a multitude of policy indicators measuring competitiveness have been developed, prompting national, regional and city governments to ‘… reform the business climate, promote investments and stimulate competitiveness’ (Bristow, 2010, p. 3). Accordingly, competiveness is a pervasive force framing and shaping policy agendas in many policy contexts around the world.

A central aspect of the competitiveness discourse is that growth is elevated into a supreme value with the potential to create surplus resources that will enable local authorities to satisfy the needs of the wider population of the city (cf. Stone, 2004; Bristow, 2005, 2010), thus aligning both economic and political policy agendas more closely. As a response to real and perceived increased economic competition, local governments developed and adopted strategies to improve their attractiveness to capital investments, new businesses and specialised industries to enhance the competitiveness of their city. Their goal was to establish some unique quality that no other city can match. As a result, and in order to keep their place in the urban hierarchy, cities tend to market themselves rather like competing products in a marketplace (Kresl and Ietri, 2012), seeking to create an identifiable city ‘brand’.

In the post-industrial phase in developed nations, old industrial harbours and associated port, logistic, industrial and transport facilities have increasingly become obsolete or sub-economic land uses, and may include lower-income housing. Freeing up central city areas in close proximity to the waterfronts of rivers, lakes and seas creates perceived opportunities for cities to enhance their economic and aesthetic attractiveness through waterfront redevelopment (Granberg, 2008; Desfor et al, 2011; Galland and Hansen, 2012; Boland, 2013). Creating competiveness through physical development and the redevelopment of waterfronts demands spatial planning measures (Granberg, 2008; Boland, 2013). Waterfront redevelopment often consists of market-driven planning styles focusing on the transformation of derelict areas (Galland and Hansen, 2012). The focus of these planning endeavours is typically large-scale and emblematic projects aiming at creating a city, regional and national profile, and perhaps even a global profile. As this discussion indicates, the focus on economic growth and the utilisation of market-driven planning can be labelled gentrification and is, of course, directed to more affluent strata of the of the urban population (Granberg, 2008; Boland, 2013).2 Urban waterfront areas have land uses vulnerable to a range of natural hazards, such as flooding and storm surge, some of which will be enhanced by future climate change and sea-level rise (IPCC, 2014). Development of these locations, therefore, increases the value of economic assets and the quotient of human welfare at risk from current and future hazards in the absence of special protective measures and procedures.

From the discussion above, it is quite clear that there is a potential incompatibility between the push towards competitiveness, on the one hand, and urban sustainability, on the other (cf. Gibbs, 1997; Bristow, 2005). Spatial planning in an ideal form is expected to deliver both climate change adaptation and to balance various societal interests and priorities (Granberg, 2008; Davoudi et al, 2009; Hurlimann and March, 2012; Boland, 2013; Storbjörk and Hjerpe, 2013). Accordingly, striking a balance between adaptation to climate risks and waterfront redevelopment seems less than straightforward (Vasey Ellis, 2009). Furthermore, waterfront redevelopment has obvious negative effects on the environment and these harmful impacts can result in increased severity of climate risk (Moser et al, 2012). In addition, waterfront development will probably increase the demands for future adaptive measures, such as protecting housing and infrastructure, furthering the ecological, economic and social burden on city governments and urban planning in the longer term (Alexander et al, 2012). Studies show that Swedish planning is largely unconcerned with climate change risks and accordingly, in areas considered to have high political and economic attractiveness, climate change adaptation is not a high political priority, thereby encouraging continued waterfront development and redevelopment (Schaap, 2013; see also the quote based on a planner’s practical experience in the introduction of this article, Storbjörk and Hjerpe, 2013).

The Swedish Planning Context and Experiences of Climate Change Adaptation

Swedish local governments were given the responsibility for spatial planning within their own territory, sometimes called the planning monopoly, in 1948 (Granberg and Åström, 2010; Åström et al, 2011; Hofstad, 2013). National legal and administrative frameworks guide the planning policy, which is then implemented by the local government through comprehensive and detailed planning processes that produce decisions on land use and the allocation of building permits. The national Planning and Building Act (SFS, 2010, p. 900) states that local government must have and maintain a comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan should cover the whole territory and is a non-binding guide to planning.

Following the provisions of the comprehensive plan, local governments produce what is known as a detailed plan that provides a more operational level of planning and is a binding executive planning instrument. The general idea is that the intentions formulated in the comprehensive plan should be realized through detailed plans and finally manifested through building permits for infrastructure and buildings. In this context, local planners are expected to plan for land use patterns and developments that are resilient and robust with respect to a range of possible futures. While current statutory plans set out policies and proposals for 10–20 years ahead, the implications of climate change have a much longer time horizons.

City redevelopment and adaptation to climate risks can take many shapes, both in terms of physical measures and policy change (Pelling, 2011; Hedensten Lund et al, 2012; Granberg and Glover, 2014). As already stated above, spatial planning and its instruments are important tools in local government efforts to adapt to risks related to climate change (Wilson, 2006; Storbjörk, 2007; Davoudi et al, 2009; Schipper and Burton, 2009; Pelling, 2011; Hurlimann and March, 2012; Uggla and Storbjörk, 2012; Storbjörk and Hjerpe, 2013). Swedish legislation demands that local government takes flood risks and erosion into consideration in comprehensive and detailed planning, and in decisions over building permits (a mandatory requirement since January 2008, with further reinforcement in revised legislation enacted in 2011) (Rydell et al, 2010; SFS, 2010, p. 900; SKL, 2011a, 2011c; Länsstyrelserna, 2012). In addition, many local governments have embraced sustainable development in formal and informal ways (of which adaptation and risk management responses are a part), as a way of profiling the city in a positive way with the intention of strengthening its ability to compete with other cities for corporate and state investments (Montin and Granberg, 2013).

Studies of Swedish municipalities have showed that a variety of risk-reducing and adaptation considerations and efforts take place (Storbjörk, 2007; Johannessen and Hahn, 2012; Andersson-Sköld et al, 2013; Storbjörk and Hjerpe, 2013; Wamsler and Brink, 2014). The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR)3 has conducted three surveys of Swedish local government (in 2007, 2009 and 2011), focusing on adaptation measures to climate risks (SKL, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). The 2011 survey showed that 90 per cent of the Swedish local governments included, to some extent, adaptation to climate change measures in their comprehensive and detailed planning (SKL, 2011c). This is an increase from 87 per cent in 2007, but a decrease from 94 per cent in 2009. About 28 per cent state that they work extensively with climate change adaptation within their competence on spatial planning (an increase from 15 per cent in 2007 and the same level as 2009) and 70 per cent have included adaptation issues in their building guidelines. The main documents used to integrate adaptation to climate risks into local planning are the comprehensive plan (around 38 per cent to a high degree) and the detailed plans (around 35 per cent to a high degree).

It is clear that adaptation to climate change is an important item on the local policy agenda, that many types of adaptation measures are implemented by Swedish local governments, and that the activity has increased in more recent years, but that it faces a number of challenges. We will now move on to look closer at the activities of the city of Karlstad.

Creating the Attractive City and Flood Risk Management in Karlstad

The city of Karlstad is situated on a river delta between Lake Vänern and the Klarälven river. An old proverb says that when the river and the lake meet at the central square in Karlstad, it will be the end of the city (Engström, 2011, p. 93). Throughout history there has been a number of floods, notably in 1916, 1987, 1995 and 2000/2001 (MSB, 2011a). Accordingly, the city’s location entails that flood risks are an historic, contemporary and future reality Figure 2.
Figure 2

Map of Karlstad.

Karlstad was highlighted by the State Commission on Climate and Vulnerability as one of the Swedish cities, where the potential for negative impacts of floods is highest (SOU, 2007, p. 60). The EU has also pinpointed Karlstad as a city facing extensive flood risks, although the UN (UNISDR) has also identified the city as a ‘Resilient City’ (MSB, 2011b). With regard to city competitiveness, Karlstad is one of the leading Swedish cities when it comes to planning for, and establishing, waterfront housing, working extensively with the redevelopment of the city’s inner harbour area (Karlstad kommun, 2012; Hakkarainen, 2013). These activities pose a policy challenge for local government in thelight of historical experiences, contemporary flood risks and the use of waterfront lands as an important component in developing city competitiveness.

Planning (1997–2012)

Three generations of comprehensive plans will be presented here, namely the previous plans of 1997 and 2006, and the contemporary plan of 2012. The comprehensive plans provide a general picture of the local government’s perception of the future trajectory of the city as a whole and for the areas where detailed plans have been developed. We will also present detailed plans for specific localities: Barkassen (2000), Tyggårdsviken (2008) and Kanoten (2011). All three plans focus on the redevelopment of the inner harbour areas subjected to flood risks.4

The comprehensive plan of 1997

Since the city’s first comprehensive plan, the situation for comprehensive planning has changed. New demands on the content of plans have arisen, primarily concerning sustainable development, environment-friendly solutions and adjustment to natural ecological cycles … We have a new situation on the housing and building market with low demands and very little production of new housing.

(Karlstad kommun, 1997, p. 1)

As the quote indicates, the Karlstad kommun, 1997 comprehensive plan came about in the context of an economic recession and displays a cautious approach to the development of the city and, accordingly, city growth and competitiveness were not mentioned at all in this plan. Nevertheless, waterfront housing was included in the plan. The discussion of flood risks is modest and encompasses half a page under the heading ‘Consideration of risks’. The plan discusses three levels of flood risk: (i) 10 000-year return period, (ii) high flow if the dam upstream at Höljes collapses, and (iii) the high flows during the 1995 spring flood. The two first levels are not taken into account in the building regulations. It is also stated that there are considerable uncertainties in the County Administrative Board’s (Länsstyrelsen) reporting on the 1995 spring flood and that it is difficult to base the planning on this information. Despite this uncertainty, the plan recommends that facilities (housing, industries and so on) that can be affected by floods should not be located within areas inundated by the 1995 spring flood. If a building or infrastructure development takes place within such an area, measures have to be taken to minimise damage in case of floods.

Detailed plan Barkassen (2000)

The area’s central and attractive location puts high demands on the design of housing. Housing must be designed with great care in details and choice of materials.

(Karlstad kommun, 2012, p. 4)

Aside from the quote above, there are few references to the area’s attractiveness or to economic competiveness in the detailed plan for Barkassen (Karlstad kommun, 2000). The area was previously zoned for industrial purposes, but this is changed to housing and commercial use in this plan. The plan states that the new purposes for using the obsolete industrial ground shall focus on ‘city like’ redevelopment. The plan stresses the importance of the attractive waterfront location and states that this is an important feature of the area that must not be compromised. In the plan no risks connected to floods from the lake or the river are discussed.

The comprehensive plan of 2006

How can we support making Karlstad a place that people will find to be the most liveable place on earth? This issue has informed the development of Karlstad’s comprehensive plan of 2006. What are Karlstad’s (the city, the local government and the region) most important attractions and how can we develop and reinforce them? What makes a city attractive and how can we support this in planning?

(Karlstad kommun, 2006, p. 39)

The comprehensive plan of Karlstad kommun (2006) came about in a very different context compared with that of the 1997 plan. The period was characterised by economic growth and expansion and the view of the future development of the city is, as indicated in the quotation, focused on increasing competiveness, is highly optimistic and clearly growth-oriented. In the process of developing the plan, several citizen workshops where conducted in the winters of 2004 and 2005, focusing on attractiveness and on citizens’ perception of the city. The focus on attractiveness and city competiveness is clearly connected in the plan to the guiding vision of ‘Karlstad 100 000’, which predicts and promotes a growth rate of 500 people a year in the next 30 years. The vision was also operationalized in a marketing campaign in Stockholm and other larger cities called ‘Luminescence’. Realizing the vision puts considerable pressure on the capacity to plan and build new areas for housing and services, and the strategic, and not just spatial, dimension of the comprehensive plan is stressed in the document. The planning focus of this development has undoubtedly shifted towards areas adjacent to the lake. Abandoned industrial land in waterfront areas and abandoned industrial harbours opened up possibilities to exploit the waterfront for attractive housing localizations and thereby increasing the city’s competiveness.

The discussion of the relevance of flood risks is modest despite the increased focus on waterfront locations and encompasses just half a page under the heading ‘Risks, health and quality of life’. The plan concludes that there is a risk that floods can cause considerable infrastructure damage with high economic costs and entailing environmental risks. In 1998, the local Rescue Service commissioned the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) to map the flood risks and two levels of risk were presented in the Institute’s report (MSB, 2011b). The uncertainty of data is considered to be high, but it is nevertheless stated that the planning and localization of housing and infrastructure vulnerable to floods in the risk areas have to take flood risks into account. Karlstad has taken part in the EU Interreg Northsea project FLOWS 2000–2006 (Floodplain Landuse Optimising Workable Sustainability, FLOWS).5 In the FLOWS plan it is stated that the knowledge created in the project should be gradually included in the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan also includes a statement by the County Administrative Board (Länsstyrelsen) that considerations of flood risks shall be included in the planning of housing within potential flood risk areas.

Detailed plan Tyggårdsviken (2008)

Many regional cities work intensively with city development in their city centres … New and interesting city neighbourhoods are created as essential pieces in the puzzle of city competition for workplaces, for a qualified work force, and in creating a good life for their inhabitants in a city environment.

(Sweco, 2008, p. 1, referencing the ‘City building vision for the inner harbour’)

The area covered by the detailed plan consists of industrial areas in the inner harbour that are gradually being abandoned, thereby opening opportunities for the ongoing redevelopment of the inner harbour into a city environment (Sweco, 2008).6 Again, it is evident that the plan has multiple aims, as it states that the changes in the area should take place through a sustainable development of an attractive city neighbourhood. The flood risks are presented under an appropriate heading and risk management is introduced through a discussion in one of the reports from the State Commission on Climate and Vulnerability. The plan discusses the dimensioned level7 and the flood levels in a 100-year return period and states that this level may be reduced to the flood levels of a 20-year return period by the end of the century. Building and infrastructure should be planned with regards to the flood levels of a 100-year return period. A solution is to build storage facilities, shops and restaurants at ground level as a buffer and for housing starting at the second level of the building. Vital societal functions, the plan states, must be safeguarded to accommodate a 100-year return period. Furthermore, it is stated that it is not plausible that local government in the cities surrounding the lake should have full responsibility for the adaptation of vital societal functions to flood risks without national government support.

The comprehensive plan of 2012

A clear trend in the development of housing and comprehensive planning is observable in Karlstad. The exploitive interests have gradually shifted from the northern and eastern parts of the city towards the central parts of the city and its waterfront. The growing demand for waterfront housing and the closure of industries in waterfront locations have a big part in this development … The paradox lies in increasing Karlstad’s contact with Lake Vänern and the delta of the river and planning with regard to flood risks is a considerable challenge in the planning of Karlstad’s development.

(Karlstad kommun, 2012, p. 6).

Under the heading ‘City building principles’, the future building and infrastructure development in the city is discussed (Karlstad kommun, 2012). It is stated that the city should be developed in close proximity to the water, as this is a central aspect contributing to competitiveness, and that this means that flood risks have to be handled to avoid or mitigate damage within the framework of increased competiveness through waterfront redevelopment. Under the heading ‘The vision as guidance’, different objectives for the planning of Karlstad are presented. One of these objectives, ‘The good green city’, concerns flood risks and the consideration of flood risks in planning is presented as a new target for city planning. At the same time, the local government’s overarching vision for the future of Karlstad focuses on competiveness, growth and the aim of reaching 100 000 inhabitants between the years 2030 and 2035 (87 000 in 2014). This growth seems to focus on two main categories of new inhabitants: students and ‘people with competitive expertise’ (Karlstad kommun, 2012, p. 8).

The discussion of flood risks in the 2012 plan is much more wide-ranging in comparison to earlier planning documents and flood risks are discussed under several headings in the document. Under the heading ‘Flood risks’, closeness to water is identified as an important attractive aspect contributing to the city’s competitive edge and, as such, and important resource for the city and for local government.

At the same time it is concluded that the city’s location in a delta landscape in the intersection of the river and the lake entails risks of high water flows and floods. This is interpreted as a double challenge for the planning and expansion of the city, as waterfront housing development needs to be implemented within a flood risk framework. It is stated that new and increased knowledge on climate change and associated risks has changed the planning situation for the city and that this has to be mirrored in the planning and future development of the city. New areas need to be developed with regard to flood risks to avoid, or mitigate, future damages from floods.

When the local government developed its flood programme (Karlstad kommun, 2010), simulations of future flows were conducted and the results of these simulations should be regarded in planning (the Flood Programme is integrated in the comprehensive plan of 2012). Detailed plans within risk areas should include a risk analysis and suggest adaptive measures to be included reducing risk and vulnerability. In some areas, building will only be allowed if preventive adaptive measures regarding flood risk are implemented.

Under the heading ‘Risk, environment, health and security’, there is a section dedicated to discussing flood risks. Here, it is stated that planning should follow the directives put up in the Flood Programme, that flood risk analysis should be conducted in detailed planning of risk areas and, that the focus on mitigating damages should be on safeguarding the function of facilities such as housing, offices, shops, water and sewage, energy and transport and so on. Increasing knowledge and institutional capacity to handle flood risks are highlighted as important aspects of functional planning in the document. Data on previous floods, climate scenarios and outcomes of simulations supporting planning are important planning inputs contributing to efficient planned adaptation to potential climate impacts.

The plan discusses the flood risks connected to the river and the lake. It is stated that floods from the river would entail acute short-term and temporary effects, while floods from the lake would persist for longer. Floods from the river would cause erosion and create high pressure on flood barriers because of the rapid flow of water. Floods from the lake entail serious risks of infrastructure damage. The risks are discussed in 200-year return periods and highest dimensioned levels (that is, 10 000-year return period). In the plan, it is concluded that the river entails higher flood risks than the lake. If the climate changes, the water level in the lake will increase but this will be gradual and can potentially be handled through long-term adaptation in terms of planning measures. An increase in water levels in the lake, however, will increase the impact of floods from the river, giving a higher total risk level for the city. The risk of simultaneous floods from the lake and the river is considered small in the plan and of very limited relevance to the city’s long-term spatial planning.

Detailed plan Kanoten, 2013

Karlstad is an expanding city with an explicit political vision … with high ambitions of a viable and attractive city … expanding the city centre in the area towards lake Vänern …

(Karlstad kommun, 2013, p. 5)

The area Kanoten is part of the inner harbour redevelopment in the centre of the city (Karlstad kommun, 2013). The area mainly consists of areas that have been developed through landfills in the lake creating the ground for harbour development both during 1850s and the 1960s. The detailed plan for Kanoten includes further landfills to enable the expansion of exploitable land.

The argument in the plan for the redevelopment of the harbour area is that this is in response to a strong common interest connected to an increased need for housing in the expanding city in a very attractive waterfront setting. Under the heading ‘Economic consequences’ this rationale is explained in two sentences simply stating that this redevelopment is:

… economically beneficial for the economy of the local government in several ways. Infrastructure is in place and the circumstances of local government and commercial service have improved.

(Karlstad kommun, 2013, p. 20)

In the plan, the redevelopment is described as directly connected to Karlstad’s strategic plan for 2011 that stresses the importance of creating a sustainable and attractive city able to handle an expansion to 100 000 inhabitants. Accordingly, it is very clear that the development of this area is part of a more general competiveness policy aiming at the creation of an attractive city and that the old harbour areas are seen as vital resources in the realization of this policy.

The discussion on flood risk follows the local government’s Flood Programme that was developed in 2010 (Karlstad kommun, 2013, pp. 25–27). Functions in buildings and infrastructure must be maintained even when flooded. Levels and demands are the same as in the programme, but new buildings must accommodate the flood levels of a 200-year return period. In addition, a separate study of the flood risks of the area has been done which concluded that considerable parts of the area will be flooded at the contemporary flood levels of a 100-year return period.

The possibility of abandoning the waterfront plan is touched upon very briefly, but is not considered a viable option in the plan (Karlstad kommun, 2013, p. 25). Instead, two potential adaptive measures are conceptualized: landscape adjusted in-flow barriers and a lock on the inlet to the inner harbour. In addition to these measures, guidelines are also put in place that aim at protecting the vital functions of the buildings (electricity, water and so on), with the aim of ensuring functionality for the coming 100 years.

Flood risk in the planning documents

Table 1 summarises the planning documents with regard to flood risks and how they are perceived.
Table 1

A summary of key features of flood risks in three generations of comprehensive plans and three detailed plans in Karlstad


CP 1997

DP Barkassen 2000

CP 2006

DP Tyggårds-viken 2008

DP Kanoten 2011

CP 2012

Inclusion of flood risks







Risk levels/return periods considered

Dimensioned flows


Dam collapse in Höljes

100-year levels

200-year levels

200-year levels

Dam collapse in Höljes

100 year levels

Dimensioned flows

Spring flood of 1995

Recommen-dations and demands

Spring flood of 1995 into account for new buildings

Shops at ground levels

Risks into account when building

Buildings must be placed at least 3.6 m over average water levels

New buildings adapted to 100-year levels

Risks integrated in building codes

Demands on floor levels should be taken into account

Vital societal functions – 1000-year levels

Housing and offices – 200-year levels

Less sensitive buildings – below-200-year levels

Knowledge base (scenarios, earlier events and so on)

Earlier events


Earlier events

Reports from the State Commission on Climate and Vulnerability

The Flood Programme for Karlstad

Reports from the State Commission on Climate and Vulnerability

The Water plan for Karlstad

The Flood Programme

SMHI scenarios

We can see a considerable development over the years covered in this study in the way that flood risks have been gradually given more importance in the plans. It is clear that the spring flood of 1995 is an important factor/lesson for local government and its acceptance of flood risk as something that needs to be taken into account when planning and developing the city. In addition, national information and advisory sources, such as scenarios from the SMHI and the report from the State commission on climate and vulnerability, have influenced the plans from 2006 (the SMHI scenarios), the detailed plan from 2008 (the state commission report) and onwards. The local government in Karlstad also developed its own instruments in the Flood programme for Karlstad and integrates these into the comprehensive planning of the city.


In the introduction we stated that new policy issues tend to be framed by already existing policies and policy issues. One interesting observation in our study is how climate-related flood risks and the focus on city competiveness develop in tandem in our studied documents. No, or very limited attention, is given to these two policy issues in the early plans. This indicates that the development of both policy issues takes place during the time-period studied. The competiveness perspectives, however, develops into a policy perspective that frames the issue of climate risks and threats on the policy agenda. This leads us to the research questions raised in our research.

The first of these questions was whether or not the values and priorities of competitiveness impact on the inclusion and priority of climate risks on the local policy agenda for the land use and economic planning of Karlstad. We have already touched upon the answer to this question but for clarity it must be stated that the answer is, without hesitation, yes! It is evident that the local government in Karlstad perceives that they are part of an ongoing European, and perhaps even global, ‘place war’ (Healey et al, 2002), where the city has to develop its competitiveness in order to survive and flourish (Bristow, 2005, 2010). This impacts on the policy agenda of city redevelopment and, of course, the agenda of urban planning. Competiveness emerges as a hegemonic item in the local policy context, restricting the scope of other issues that do not clearly complement or reinforce the overarching aim of competiveness (cf. Bristow, 2005, 2010). The hegemony of competiveness also impacts on the answers below to the other questions posed in the introduction.

In answer to the question of whether adaptation to climate risks influences the policy agenda in ways that facilitate policy change, thus downplaying the importance of competiveness in terms of waterfront redevelopment, we conclude that dramatic events and national regulation are drivers for the local government’s gradually increasing focus on flood risks in spatial planning and its instruments. If we look at the early plans (both comprehensive and detailed), the flood risks are not given any great consideration. Experiences of floods locally/regionally and the developed national regulation of flood risks have had an impact on the policy context and subsequent planning policy development. It is clear, however, that Karlstad’s local government continues to perceive close proximity to water as an important factor in creating an attractive and competitive city. Accordingly, the management of climate risks is clearly framed by the policy agenda of competiveness. The risk management measures formulated in the planning documents are designed to accommodate flood risks in ways that do not conflict with city competiveness.

A third question formulated in the introduction of this article was if the relation between climate change adaptation and competiveness is problematised in the local policy agenda. In this article, we have shown that climate change adaptation is an increasingly important issue in Swedish local governments’ policy agendas. We have also shown that there are tensions between climate-related risks and adaptive measures on the one hand, and building the attractive and competitive city through waterfront housing, on the other. We can state, however, that this relationship is not problematised on the policy agenda, as the increased risk awareness that we have observed in the planning documents does not entail any suggestions of retreating from the water. It is evident that the option of retreat from the waterfront because of flood risks cannot compete on the policy agenda.

In conclusion, it is clear that the values connected to adaptation to climate-related risks cannot compete with the dominating values of competitiveness in Karlstad’s redevelopment-focused policy context. We observe that the primacy of the norms and values of competitiveness does not yield to options that focus on retreat from waterfront and flood-prone locations enabling the location of housing and infrastructure in less risk-prone areas. The redevelopment of the waterfront will increase exposure to climate-induced flood risks and, accordingly, increase the need for, and cost of, future adaptation measures from local government and other actors (cf. Vasey Ellis, 2009, Moser et al, 2012). This seems to be an economic, social and ecological risk that the local government is willing to take in order to increase the city’s competiveness.

The political agenda of competiveness is potentially dysfunctional as it jeopardises the effective and realistic management of flood risks and that this, in turn, will increase the vulnerability of the city, thus decreasing its competiveness in the long run. There is a lesson to be learned here that has wide principal implications on policy development and the framing of risk in different national and local contexts. When the pursuit of growth has a hegemonic position on urban development agendas, we can, through the observations of the case of Karlstad, increase our understanding of how climate change risks are framed within a growth agenda framework and how this, in turn, has a clear impact on how these risks are defined, prioritised and managed.


  1. 1.

    We have not conducted any interviews with politicians, planners and other actors as we seek to grasp the aggregated picture of the formal policy context, rather than identify the subjective standpoints of individual actors. The documents studied frame the local planning process and create the policy context framing risk management action.

  2. 2.

    This important social dimension of urban sustainability will not be further discussed in this article.

  3. 3.

    SALAR is an association representing the interests of Swedish local governments, county councils and regions (www.skl.se).

  4. 4.

    Quotes from the planning documents below are translated by the authors of this article.

  5. 5.

    The FLOWS project aimed at providing a toolbox for planners, water managers and decision makers that could be used for decision support when handling increased flood risk from climate change (www.northsearegion.eu/iiib/projectpresentation/details/&tid=58&theme=2).

  6. 6.

    Sweco is a consulting firm focusing on engineering, environmental technology and architecture.

  7. 7.

    This level is used to dimension hydropower dams in Sweden and is also used as a low-probability level (lower than 1/10 000) for flood risk analysis.



This article is based on a Master thesis by Lars-Erik Modh. The authors are thankful to the funders of this study: Stiftelsen Länsförsäkringsbolagens research fund and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB). The authors would like to thank Dr Leigh Glover, The University of Melbourne, for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the article. The authors would also like to thank the anonymous referees for the valuable, ambitious and productive comments.


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mikael Granberg
    • 1
  • Lars Nyberg
    • 2
  • Lars-Erik Modh
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Political, The Center for Climate and Safety (CCS)Political science, Historical, Religious and Cultural Studies, The Center for Climate and Safety (CCS), Karlstad UniversityKarlstadSweden
  2. 2.The Center for Climate & Safety (CCS), Karlstad UniversityKarlstad 65188Sweden

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