By Anna Growe, Madeleine Wagner & Nicole Schmidt (Heidelberg University)

The question of how we want to live in the future is closely related to the question of where we want to live. Currently, more than half of mankind, around 3.5 billion people, live in cities. According to predictions of the United Nations, this figure is likely to surpass 6.5 billion people by 2050 [1]. Factors favouring migration into cities are available employment possibilities and a functioning infrastructure. However, this concentration of people and possibilities in cities also creates extreme challenges resulting in difficult questions of how urban spaces can and should be designed to accommodate not only the residents’ wishes but also take into account environmental and climate objectives.

Possibilities for coping with these challenges in metropolitan areas are investigated in a pilot project funded by HEiKA through collaboration between the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) (Dr. Christoph Mager, Nina Kiese and Prof. Dr. Stefan Norra) and Heidelberg University’s Institute of Geography (Jun.-Prof. Dr. Anna Growe and Madeleine Wagner) and the Institute for Political Science (Prof. Dr. Jale Tosun and Nicole Schmidt).

Looking at the cities of Heidelberg, Mannheim and Weinheim, the following research questions guide this study: How important is the protection of green and open spaces for contemplating the impacts of climate change? Do local actors differentiate between climate mitigation and climate adaptation strategies and how do governance arrangements affect planning processes in cities and regions? Lastly, is it possible for metropolitan areas to cope with global challenges and to provide solutions on a regional scale? The project uses an interdisciplinary approach and combines ecosystems services analysis with household surveys and expert interviews in order to answer these questions.

Large cities cover about one percent of the earth’s surface while, at the same time, consuming about 75 percent of the globally used energy sources and producing about 80 percent of the globally emitted CO2 [2]. This extensive use of resources is one of the reasons to seriously rethink spatial planning of urban spaces. Not only do cities need to increase housing spaces but simultaneously, green and open spaces have to be maintained to safeguard the inhabitants’ quality of life. Additionally, city councils need to implement international directives and follow national guidelines which easily leads to trade-offs. Certainly, these tasks require a close cooperation between different actors, i.e. local politicians and administrators as well as the collaboration of surrounding cities.

Since the Earth Summit in 1992, climate change has played a major role in the governance of regions. Cities are confronted with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation measures). Moreover, they also experience the effects of climate change: spatial consequences are intense rain, flooded rivers due to heavy rainfall, decreased ground-water levels because of dry spells, urban heat islands in cities as a result of continuous high temperatures and damages to buildings as a consequence from hail or storms and can be tackled by means of adaptation measures. However, both approaches represent major strategic challenges for the regional and the local level.

In Germany, urbanisation processes do not advance at the same rate as they do in other developing or emerging regions of the world [3]. Nevertheless, a new “lust for the city” (headlined by ZEIT, a large weekly newspaper in Germany in 2013) can be observed in German metropolitan regions. The main reason is an economic structural change to a knowledge-based economy: increasing flexibility and mobility are basic requirements for employees these days. Increasing flexibility of work hours looms work-life-balance into focus (also resulting from an increasing number of double-income-households) and lead to the perception of cities as attractive places to combine work and to live. In addition, increasing mobility costs and the reduction of infrastructure supply in low-density areas intensify this trend. Negative consequences of these developments are increasing costs of living, traffic and environmental problems and increased land-use conflicts in cities. The protection and qualification of regional green and open spaces is especially a challenge in economic dynamic regions. The research carried out at Heidelberg University focuses in particular on the implementation side of this issue: in growing regions, increasing population numbers exert pressure on green and open spaces. The primary challenge therefore is to secure these spaces, while, at the same time, handle demands of providing additional living places. The subject of political and planning decision-making processes is then to assess which spaces are suitable for which future use. Yet, different actors have opposing perceptions of the suitability of areas as well as different preferences for keeping or changing the existing land-use structure which strongly influences the planning processes and usually leads to conflicts and disputes during the decision-making process.

These differing perceptions of actors at the local level, i.e. local administrators and politicians from the local councils make it challenging to develop coherent solutions with regards to climate change: uncertainty in terms of content and a lack of trust among the actors are the two major obstacles. Uncertainties include, for example, an insufficient differentiation between strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation which makes it difficult to systematically coordinate measures in the region. Trust, an important prerequisite in any collective action problem as Elinor Ostrom has shown in her Nobel-prize winning research on polycentric climate governance [4] is actually found to be low among those involved in the planning process at the local level in the Rhein-Neckar region: politicians and participants from the administration but also citizens all do not consider each other trustworthy. This finding in particular makes it difficult to achieve any type of policy or implementation success because one first has to improve and enhance the level of trust in order to ensure compliance. Common objectives have to be established and renewed continually in governance structures as to provide a functioning working base.

In addition, we found that “established” conflicts are more present between actors (related to hierarchy or communication) and cover up the necessity to pay attention to content-related conflicts and uncertainties. As a result, the actors’ perceptions are focused strongly on communication difficulties and the global challenges of climate change are only of secondary importance. The time necessary to overcome these obstacles is usually underestimated in the design and implementation of climate objectives in the planning processes.


[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352).

[2] Wuppertal Institute for Climate. 2009. Sustainable Urban Infrastructure: Munich Edition – paths toward a carbon-free future. Munich.

[3] Lorenz, Susanne et al. (2017): Adaptation planning and the use of climate change projections in local government in England and Germany. Regional Environmental Change, 17(2):425–435.

[4] Ostrom, E. 1998. A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action. American Political Science Review 92(1):122.

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