Can preparing for Climate Change have social benefits?

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Also read: Addressing Climate Change in Cape Town

Kristian Koreman, founder of Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS), led the build up to Department of Design’s “Preparing for Climate Change” workshop with a lecture on integrating the environmental,social and economic agenda when investments are made to prepare for Climate Change. He was joined by Anton Cartwright, green economy Mistra Urban Futures Researcher at African Centre Cities who co-moderated the workshop and presented on his work around sea-level rise impacts in Cape Town.

Koreman delivered a brilliant opening keynote speech for the workshop on climate change. He explains that the Dutch can offer South Africa some innovative methods of addressing climate change based on their own experiences.  For example, the Netherlands has a pre-existing catalogue of natural and artificial instruments used to mitigate the effects of flooding.His company ZUS created a tool for coastal developments that use natural dune defenses (called the Almere project).

He also spoke in length about the Sandy Rebuild by Design project in key flood zone areas within New York and New Jersey, areas at huge and increasing risk to natural disasters.  This project was about social resilience on all scales, especially community resistance.  It was unique for ZUS and its partners as the company had to “unlearn” from best practices developed in the Netherlands and adapt to Sandy’s unique context.  This included vulnerability mapping of the landscape, as well as realizing the social vulnerability for a designated area.

From Rebuild by Design the Hazard Sandwich was born, which maps a maximum spectrum of risks to a comprehensive set of vulnerabilities. Flood risks are combined with levels of social vulnerability, vital network vulnerability, and risks from pollution, among others.  Whenever this “hazard sandwich” reaches its greatest thickness, federal investments and initiatives are required.

To read more about ZUS, take a look at one of their most recent projects- New Meadowlands: Productive City + Regional Park. This regional natural park within a dense landscape presents unique possibilities for economic development and the built environment.

20140727-201530.jpgAnton Cartwright then took over to present the current situation of climate change as it relates to South Africa. During the workshop, it became apparent that Cape Town needs to address the problems of climate change with immediate and tangible solutions.  Yet exactly how to address these issues, and which ones to focus on first, becomes convoluted when the context is fully understood.

Cape Town faces unique challenges when we speak of Climate Change. The city is currently witnessing sea-level rises in highly desired and expensive residential neighbourhoods. Simultaneously, terrestrial flooding takes place in Cape Town’s poorest neighbourhoods; most of the regions affected are home to informal settlements.  When looking to address the impacts of climate change through policy, who should be given the first priority? While wealthy neighbourhoods can take private initiatives to reduce the effects of climate change, poor communities are often forced to rely entirely on governmental help. This creates increased vulnerability of Cape Town’s poorest communities, as the public sector lacks the capacity to help all afflicted individuals.


Climate change will affect social as well as economic dynamics for the city. Yet does the average citizen understand the importance of addressing Climate Change? Does the average governmental official even understand the complexities such an issue poses to policy? Increasing awareness of Climate Change and the issues it poses is needed. Currently for South Africa the environment is very low on the agenda. In order to incorporate sustainability into policy, we need to change the government’s perception of the issue.  Cape Town needs to find ways to better communicate the issues of Climate Change in ways that are meaningful both to everyday citizens as well as policymakers.

Damage from extreme weather driven by global climate change has cost the Western Cape about R4.3-billion over the past decade. – Western Cape Government 

Thus, the question becomes, what are the steps we can take to affect a change in thinking?  One of our participants offered an answer using this anecdote: if a government invests in infrastructure development by building houses and highways nobody asks, “why are you spending money to build this?” While these are long-term investments that may take many years for their profits to become realized, the daily individual sees these investments as being for the common good. Therefore, why can’t we pose green infrastructure initiatives in a similar fashion?

Practitioners need to convince the public sector that green initiatives are as profitable as other infrastructure development proposals.  Implementing green methods to counter Climate Change will result with fewer economic losses for the future.  Individuals involved in this field need to learn how to forecast the accumulation of wealth and profit that can be realised through implementing sustainable design.


Helen Davies, director of climate change and biodiversity for the Western Cape Government, followed this discussion by outlining an approach to mitigate Climate Change.  She identified increasing research capacity as being the city’s key priority.  Cape Town is in desperate need of innovation in technical and social responses, particularly when it comes to financing interventions. She also explained that mainstreaming a common response to Climate Change amongst governmental sectors is needed.  Davies identified existing gaps between governmental policy and the reality on-ground, as well as divergence between national and provincial actions.  She ended the workshop with four key messages that are pertinent to us all:

Download the Western Cape Climate Change Response Strategy here

  1. Responding to Climate Change is a driver of sustainable development. It is not an either/or scenario; climate change is a mandatory consideration.
  2. Urgency is often inappropriate.  By creating urgent solutions to climate change without adequately addressing the numbers, we often become locked into costly decisions and illogical developments. Not only does this not solve the problem, but it also takes money away from better-suited solutions.
  3. Climate Change requires the forefront in governmental decision-making.  Currently, Climate Change remains an “add on” programme that is supplemented into other policies.  It is time for a due change; climate change interventions require their own policies and research. Moreover, up scaling climate change initiatives is critical.
  4.  It is irresponsible for Cape Town and South Africa as a whole to continue to neglect the pressing issues of Climate Change.  Addressing these issues requires immediate action and a suitable budget.

In a report by Anne duPre, a Crook Fellow in South Africa, writing for the The Robert S. Strauss Centre:

Despite the sensitive nature of climate adaptation in a still racially charged environment, or perhaps because of it, Cape Town’s government must act. Perhaps one way to address this issue is to change the way climate change is presented to the government.

One of the presenters used serious gaming to show how shifts in climate could affect Cape Town communities. These games have been used with government officials to replicate reality – and have been successful in other areas. By selecting different applications in the game, users can see the direct effects of shifts in climate, can see the costs, replicate the interactions necessary to address issues, and work through problems. Serious games (the one presented is called Climate Game by Tygron) are one amazing way organisations can motivate action.
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The take-away message during this workshop is that adequate awareness and interventions to address these issues are sorely needed. Rather than creating temporary solutions and quick fixes to individual problems, a comprehensive plan to address the long-term effects of climate change is vital.  Climate Change threatens every aspect of the city from the wealthiest houses to the poorest townships. It affects tourism, real estate, and private investment. Without an appropriate action plan and coordinated support backing such an initiative, Cape Town will experience heavy socioeconomic setbacks in the future.