Improving Institutional Conditions for Adaptive Planning in the Netherlands

Chapter 6
Improving Institutional Conditions for Adaptive Planning in the Netherlands

Joost Tennekes

From Planning for Adaptation to Adaptive Planning

Over the past years, Dutch administrative bodies for spatial planning have initiated several policy programmes that aim to make the country ‘climate change proof’ (National Water Plan 2009–2015, National Adaptation Strategy ‘Making room for adaptation’). Adaptation to climate change involves technical and structural measures against the threat of sea level rise, discharge waves in rivers, difficulties with urban drainage after heavy precipitation, more frequent heat waves in summer, and pressure on freshwater levels (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency 2009, 2011; Ven et al. 2010).

To Dutch spatial planners, none of these problems are new in themselves. Spatial planning in the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta has always been an exercise between accepting the natural forces that cannot be changed, and ingenious engineering to make the low-lying country safe and liveable. What is new is the determination to take an extremely long-term scope into account in their considerations. That climate change will have its effects cannot be denied, but tangible effects, let alone a breakdown of the current systems (coastal sand replenishment, dykes and freshwater supply), are still a long way off (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency 2009; Kwadijk, Jeuken and Van Waveren 2008). Academic knowledge about the effects of climate change is being made available to planning authorities (e.g. Bessembinder 2009), but is inherently uncertain (Dessai and Van der Sluijs 2007), especially at the regional and local scales on which most interventions will have to take place. What is more, adaptation measures for the long-term future have to take into account other factors, including demographic decline and developments in employment and mobility, that are even more uncertain and at the same time will have a far greater impact on spatial structures. All in all, investments in measures to adapt to climate change run a high risk of being irrelevant to current political problems and of turning out to be disproportional.

Nevertheless, many planning decisions that are being taken now implicitly affect the possible adaptation choices for the future (Hallegatte 2009). The planning of residential areas in polders close to rivers makes it improbable that these areas could ever be designated ‘inundation polders in case of a calamity’ (Werners, Warner and Roth 2010). The option of raising ground levels of residential buildings as a safeguard against rising waters exists only at the moment of construction. Planning open water or parks in residential areas is much cheaper in the initial phase than reconstructing these areas at a later stage.

So, planning decisions made in the present need to take climate change into account for the distant future. This sometimes demands new fundamental directives from planning authorities. However, research on policy implementation indicates that it is exactly the long-term character of problems of climate change that constitute the most important barrier in planning practice related to adaptation measures (Biesbroek et al. 2011)). The question examined in this contribution, therefore, is how to improve the institutional setting in such a way that more account is taken of the long-term concern for climate change in decisions by all parties involved in the planning process – whether they be planning authorities, individuals or private companies.

This question only partly concerns the availability of policy instruments that may be used for implementing adaptation measures. The existing set of policy instruments that is being applied to the more traditional policy goals in the fields of water management, spatial planning, construction and environmental protection, would be just as applicable to the objectives of adaptation (Driessen et al. 2011). Only marginal adjustments to particular instruments may be necessary, in order to increase the room for flexible and locally specific planning. Such adjustment – taking into account the time before climate change would have any effect – is not the most difficult task.

The problem is rather that adaptation measures must be taken within existing practices, considering the spatial structures and property rights already in place. The most important question, therefore, is whether the existing constellation of formal rules, institutionally tied up budgets, role attitudes and routines, and distribution of powers, are conducive to adaptation? Together, do they form the right incentive structure, so that planners would be inclined to make use of the existing policy instruments in order to achieve adaptation? This question is all the more important seeing the uncertain character of the present knowledge about local consequences of climate change. The institutional incentive structure should direct planning decisions towards adaptation, not only in the present, but should also stimulate planners in future decision situations to take into account the then available knowledge. This broadens the challenge for climate change adaptation from planning for adaptation that is, planning and designing of spatial structures that render the Netherlands more robust to climate change on the basis of the present knowledge, to adaptive planning. Adaptive planning means shaping the conditions for future planning decisions in such a way that they will take into account the best knowledge available then on changing climatic conditions.

Here, this issue is explored by addressing some important aspects for improving the institutional setting for adaptive planning. On the basis of literature research and expert interviews, suggestions for improving the institutional context – some of which originally related to other issues than adaptation – are proposed. These concern agenda setting, financing, and competencies in the public sector. In all these suggestions, the emphasis is on law as a regulative policy instrument, in addition to financial and communicative instruments.

One other important institutional aspect is the institutionally embedded distribution of risk in society. Climate change may lead to a greater responsibility for reducing risks on the part of citizens and companies than is the case in the present situation. Within the same formal setting, changes in the physical system may de facto shift responsibility to private citizens. But it is also possible that government would reassess its traditional responsibilities for weather-related risks related to climate change. Regulative instruments may be needed, not only to institutionalize this distribution of responsibilities, but also to regulate its inevitable changes in cases in which climate risk is shifted towards government or third parties.

Before analysing these aspects, it is important to have some knowledge of the actual planning issues as a consequence of climate change. The next section presents a short introduction into possible climate change effects within the Dutch urban context, and some typical technical and planning measures for counteracting them. Section 3 examines aspects of the institutional setting related to agenda setting, financing and competency conflicts. Section 4 discusses the issue of institutionally embedded risk distribution. The concluding section recapitulates the proposed institutional adjustments and their interrelatedness.

Climate Change Adaptation in the Urban Area

In general, there are three important ways in which climate change could affect Dutch cities (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency 2009). The first is an increase in the risk of flooding to cities on the banks of major rivers or in areas that are prone to flooding by the sea. Sea level rise and greater and more fluctuating river discharges would increase the risk of a dyke breach. In the densely populated west of the Netherlands, evacuation would be difficult or near impossible if there were to be flooding by the sea, something which cannot be predicted as far in advance as can river flooding. Downstream, at locations such as Rotterdam and Dordrecht, both types of flood risks have a cumulative effect.

The second problem is that of heavy precipitation, which could become aggravated by climate change. In cities, the high building densities, surface sealing and pavements, cause a low capacity for rainwater draining into the ground, causing a large amount of run-off, which has to be handled by drainage and sewerage systems. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, urban expansions were built in the polders, where even under normal circumstances water has to be pumped away. More intense and fluctuating precipitation will probably lead to water nuisance such as flooded basements and streets, in turn, causing problems for traffic, city trees and parks.

Finally, more frequent and persisting heat waves could pose a health problem to the population. The well-known heat island effect means that the energy collected in the built-up city areas during the day cannot escape during the night as easily as it could in the countryside. Preventing heat collection was traditionally not as important an aspect of Dutch urban design, as it may have been in more southern regions. Increasing temperatures may lead to a situation in which the occurrence of heat waves is politically considered to be a matter of public health.

Counteracting these effects requires technical and planning measures at different scales: at the regional scale (dykes, adjusted locational choices and water buffers), at neighbourhood level, down to individual streets and buildings. For each level some examples are given below.

The first example of a measure taken at a regional scale is the ‘burst-proof dyke’, also called ‘climate dyke’. In the low-lying Netherlands, a dyke burst could cause the flooding of huge areas of land, with water several metres deep. Different mechanisms may cause such bursts. In case of overtopping, water levels of rivers or the sea rise above the level of the dyke water runs over the top of the dyke and weakens it until it bursts (RIVM 2004. A burst-proof dyke will not burst, even when water runs over it. Because water levels will eventually decrease, only a limited amount of water spills over on to the land. The consequences in terms of expected numbers of casualties and material damage are much lower than would be the case for traditional dykes.

Burst-proof dykes may be achieved by making them very broad, up to two hundred metres. This, however, is a very costly solution, not only because of the costs involved in construction and maintenance, but also because of the value of the land, especially in areas with a high urban pressure. Combining water defence with other land functions, such as urban development on top of this broad dyke, would recover those costs and enrich the urban environment with a new milieu: apartments with a view of the water instead of the dyke (Hartog et al. 2009).

An example of a measure of a less technical nature, at a regional level, would be to adjust the locational choice for urban expansion. In the Netherlands, there has been much discussion about the suitability of deep polders for urban expansion.

When there are no alternative locations, or in the case of restructuring of old parts of a city, adaptation measures at the neighbourhood level would entail a different design at the construction site itself (Pieterse et al. 2010), for example, by raising the ground level of buildings in order to prevent water nuisance and to lessen the effects of a flood. A bigger part of these locations should be reserved for open water and greenery, such as ponds and parks, in order to reduce water nuisance and heat stress.

At smaller scales, adaptation could entail designing different street profiles and sewerage systems that could cope with more rainwater. A new solution within the Dutch context is that of ‘water squares’, squares that would serve as storage areas for water, but only in times of heavy rainfall (Greef 2005, Boer 2010). At the scale of individual buildings, adaptation could mean the introduction of ‘green roofs’; buildings covered with a layer of earth that would not only absorb rainwater and delay run-off, but in summer would also cool the apartments beneath.

Crucial from a perspective of long-term planning are the differences in flexibility between these measures (Hallegatte 2009; Meuleman and In’t Veld 2009). Street pavements are being renewed at maintenance sequences of 10 or 20 years. Therefore, city authorities may react to changes in weather patterns relatively quickly, for example, by raising footpaths. In contrast, replacing sewerage systems is done once every 50 years. Upgrading a normal dyke to become a broad, burst-proof dyke entails a complex and costly restructuring of parts of the city, and will occur only sporadically. And, finally, it is very improbable, historically speaking, that neighbourhoods will be ‘relocated’, in the next centuries.

The flexibility of a measure is not only determined by sequences of maintenance and replacement, but also by the public and private nature of stakeholders. Measures which exclusively affect the public domain, such as adapting the level of road surfaces, are much more easily realized by public initiatives than measures that require citizen involvement. Green roofs for all buildings cannot be decreed without infringing on the principles of good governance. Moreover, not all private owners share the same considerations when it comes to investing in their real estate. Private companies, thinking in financial terms, are likely to take measures if they would be profitable. Private owners usually are more emotionally attached to their property, and may not be inclined to take measures that would physically alter the building.

In short, in the context of existing urban structures, the implementation of some adaptation measures is more inflexible than others. Such measures have to be taken at opportune moments – mostly for other reasons than climate adaptation. An example is the extensive restructuring of high-rise neighbourhoods, built in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s, which are to be restructured over the next twenty years. Although the effects of climate change may not reveal themselves within that period, adaptive planning requires that authorities take this into account now (PBL 2011).

Institutional Settings: Political Agendas, Financing, Competencies, Risk Distribution

So, technical measures against adverse effects of climate change are available, and the existing repertoire of policy instruments is sufficiently appropriate for implementing these measures. This leaves the question of whether the new issue of climate change ‘fits’ within current practices, in the sense that actors involved in the planning process will actually make use of the knowledge of innovative adaptation measures and existing instruments. This section addresses three ways in which existing practice could impede effective investments in adaptation: political agenda-setting processes, the practice of cost recovery in real estate development, and the conflicts over competencies of different government agencies.

Agenda Setting

The consequences of climate change will reveal themselves in the distant future, and are relevant on a time scale that is far beyond the usual political four-year horizon, but also beyond those of planning authorities, which produce plans on a time scale of ten to twenty years. Climate change may be a theme now in some municipalities, but it is not at all certain that this will stay on the agenda if the problematical effects do not show up for a long time, and other urgent and important issues push it aside (Vromraad 2007). This is not a problem when the necessary measures are of the more flexible type that may still be implemented at the moment that effects of climate change present themselves to citizens and voters. However, most of these measures involve inflexible, long-cycle decisions, which may have to be taken at a time when climate change may not have political attention. Without political attention, adaptation measures may not be included in urban development plans, or they may constitute such a ‘soft’ municipal interest that they will be dropped when they pose an obstacle to the realization of such plans. For the issue of adaptation not only has to compete with other public interest issues on the political agenda, such as municipal schools and swimming pools, but above all with the considerable political interest which municipalities usually have in the realization of urban development projects. Apart from the financial interests of many Dutch municipalities in urban development projects (Segeren 2007), political prestige is always at stake. Failure of the project would be very costly, both financially and politically.

New policy instruments could improve the conditions for political and administrative awareness of climate change in decision making. A first step may include the obligation of municipalities to regularly survey the local climate change effects that are expected for the future. Such an obligation already exists, for example, in the United Kingdom, under the Climate Change Bill (Swart 2009). A climate change assessment would take this one step further, and would entail the obligation to incorporate in the spatial planning process an assessment of the robustness of urban development plans, in the light of future climate changes. Rather than creating a new assessing instrument for this, it would be better to incorporate an assessment in existing procedures. In the Dutch context, the Environmental Impact Assessment, and the obligatory Water Assessment would qualify for this (Leusink and Zanting 2008).