Matthias Garschagen, United National University, Bonn, Germany

Presentation Title: Social and economic tipping points in urban adaptation potentials: Reason for concern?




The research aimed at fostering scientific engagement with tipping points in urban adaptation processes, hence, contributing to a new science of cities for responding to global environmental change. It built on lessons from Asian, African and European cities, drawing on empirical research findings on adaptation processes at city, ward and even household level in Vietnam. The findings suggest that many types of tipping points in adaptation processes and capacities can be observed in urban systems, ranging across hard and soft aspects and relating to different scales and actors. A first-order taxonomy of such adaptation tipping points in urban systems is thus developed. The presentation concluded by discussing epistemological implications for a future science of cities as well as practical lessons for urban risk and adaptation governance (e.g., how to incorporate tipping points in adaptation ‘planning').

 Key Lessons Learned

  • There are significant gaps and mismatches between state and non-state action for urban adaptation. These gaps hamper comprehensive adaptation action.
  • While ‘tipping points’ are intensively discussed in terms of climate change hazards and the (expected) impacts on (urban) systems, their role in adaptive capacities and actual adaptation processes remains largely neglected. A stronger consideration – and better understanding – of economic, political and cultural tipping points in urban adaptation processes is of key relevance, in order to plan for urban adaptation.
  • Urban adaptation is still predominantly understood in the context of the adjustment of physical infrastructure. The challenges for institutional adaptation in terms of adjusting and rethinking planning mechanisms and practical tools for urban administration and governance are far less considered – and understood. The need for such institutional adaptation in the sense of an ‘adaptive urban governance’ are particularly relevant in highly transformative countries undergoing rapid change in their socio-cultural and politico-administrative systems. Key examples from this research illustrates the need for institutional adaptation in urban governance and selected options for pushing such change forward.

 Policy/Practice Implications of Research

  • Adaptation planning must be more considerate of the integration of state and non-state action for adaptation. To date, adaptation in both domains is largely happening in two separate ‘worlds’ (e.g., large-scale dyke construction vs. small-scale coping with periodic flooding at household level). Adaptation governance and financing must find new ways of integrating these two domains (e.g., through re-channeling national adaptation funds for supporting individual small-scale adaptation).
  • The assessment of  needs and the timing of future urban adaptation funding must consider tipping points in urban adaptation processes (e.g., overhaul of current dyke systems or population collapse if/when parts of cities become inhabitable).

 Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • Understanding adaptation decisions of the private sector in and around urban areas (currently focus is predominantly on ‘the household level’ or ‘the government’).
  • Overcoming conflicts between urban policies for climate change mitigation vs. adaptation as well as within each of these two domains.