Adaptation in Cities: Measuring Needs and Capacity


Cities in Danger

It’s a new era for climate adaptation: Four out of the five most concerning global risks for the next 10 years are directly linked to the need to adapt to the changing climate (World Economic Forum, 2016). Though these are global problems often discussed at the national scale, urban areas are increasingly seen as having a critical role in the adaptation agenda.

But even in this new era, decision-makers in cities face significant challenges.  These include the uncertainty of urban climate hazards, lack of data to understand and track urban vulnerability to climate change, lack of measurement to prioritise adaptation actions, and difficulty integrating adaptation information into current procedures. This makes it difficult for decision-makers to prioritise resource allocations in a milieu of competing priorities. From City Council members to Chambers of Commerce to Civil Servants, without the means to measure adaptation risks, gaps and progress, cities are challenged to get ahead of their climate risks and make decisions to save lives and improve livelihoods.

To address this need, the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) will assess the climate vulnerability and readiness of every U.S. city with a population over 100,000 – more than 250 in all – in an effort to help inform decisions by city officials on infrastructure, land use, water resources management, transportation and other adaptive strategies.

Importantly, the Urban Adaptation Assessment (UAA), a 24-month project funded by the Kresge Foundation, will also integrate a social equity analysis, which will investigate how vulnerable groups are disproportionately harmed by climate hazards, such as extreme heat, flooding and extreme cold.

ND-GAIN will collaborate with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment to compile and analyse each city’s data and produce assessments that focus on urban geographies’ vulnerabilities and how ready cities are to successfully implement adaptation solutions. The project will also examine adaptation patterns among coastal, drought-prone and single-industry cities, among other subsets.

ND-GAIN Global Adaptation Measurement Tool

Type of Resource:  Free

Published by: University of Notre Dame, USA


ND-GAIN produces a tool that measures a number of aspects of a country’s vulnerability to climate change effects, and also its readiness to absorb investment that will help combat adverse effects.  The tool has a long time-series, which makes it possible to see how countries have fared over time on both measures, and a wide array of visualisation options to allow data to be presented and analysed. The tool covers 181 countries.

A good starting point for understanding the uses of the ND-GAIN resource is to look at how it helps us see how the world overall has evolved over the past 20 years or so (the time series goes back to 1996).

The matrices below show vulnerability and readiness in a quadrant schema, where countries in the top left quadrant (the “red zone”) are highly vulnerable and have low readiness to absorb investment, while countries in the bottom right quadrant (the “green zone”) are less vulnerable and more ready for investment.

Thus in Figure 1 – and picking out some sample countries for illustrative purposes – in 1996 Haiti, Benin, Kenya, Nicaragua, Egypt and Morocco fell into the red zone; Mexico was in the “amber” zone, with middling vulnerability and readiness; Malaysia was just entering the green zone, while Korea and Singapore were already quite well established there.

Figure 1 – ND-GAIN Matrix 1996

20 years of focus on climate change is paying dividends at a global level

Figure 2, the matrix in 2015, shows how, globally, there has been a noticeable overall progression in a “good” direction, namely downwards and rightwards, towards the less vulnerable/more ready quadrant.

This progression indicates that 20 years of focus on climate change and investment to fight it have paid some dividends. However, the fortunes of countries are very mixed.  Haiti, Benin and Kenya all remain in the red zone; Nicaragua has progressed slightly in terms of readiness, and is now in the amber zone; but Egypt, Morocco and Mexico have all moved now into the green zone.  Malaysia and Korea have also made progress within that zone, but Singapore is now in a world-leading group that includes Denmark, Norway, New Zealand and the UK.


Figure 2 – ND-GAIN Matrix 2015

What does ND-GAIN’s Country tool measure?  The methodology is summarised below

The Vulnerability score measures a country’s exposure, sensitivity and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change.  Six life-supporting sectors are assessed: food, water, health, ecosystem service, human habitat, and infrastructure.  The higher the score, the more vulnerable a country is.

The Readiness score measures a country’s ability to attract investments and convert them to adaptation actions. Three components of readiness are assessed: economic, governance and social.  10 economic measures include indicators such as ease of starting a business or enforcing contracts. 4 governance measures include assessments of political risk and control of corruption.  4 social indicators include levels of ICT infrastructure and education.

If we want to understand the reasons for, say, Morocco’s progress over the period, we can look at the underlying factors behind its overall score.  From the charts below we can see that there has been a steady reduction in the country’s vulnerability since the turn of the century, while readiness, which was flat for the first decade, has improved dramatically since 2005.

Drilling down further in the data (but not charted here), we can see that while most sub-indicators of Vulnerability (such as food and water security) have improved, Morocco’s ecosystems remain almost as vulnerable as 20 years ago. Similarly, under Readiness, we can see that while economic and social indicators have improved, governance indicators have actually worsened over the period.

ND-GAIN’s tools should help countries and funders understand their priorities for addressing vulnerability – Patrick Regan

“ND-GAIN’s tools should help countries understand their priorities for addressing vulnerability,” says Dr Patrick Regan, Director of the Global Adaptation Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.  “Equally, it could help funders to see that, while A, B or C vulnerability issue identified by the country is indeed a threat, before addressing it the country first needs to build capacity or improve governance. It could then create a programme with the country to work through the various steps needed, which should improve the effectiveness of the support the funder provides.

Right now, a lot of attention is being focussed on needs, but attention also has to be paid to adaptive capacity, which is where the readiness measures come in. Investing in solving for needs when there is insufficient capacity to usefully absorb that investment is not an optimal outcome.”

Dr Regan says that the ND-GAIN platform is used by a range of actors, from companies, governments and consultants to academia and news media. The team is now working on getting to the next level of granularity below countries.  The first manifestation of this is a study of resiliency in 250 cities in the US.  This will be expanded over time to major world cities, while for larger countries like Nigeria, ND-GAIN is working on regional-level data. Comment

Like the Climate Funds Update, we believe that ND-GAIN has a lot to offer in terms of peer comparison. Any country would do well to understand what Singapore has been doing right for more than 20 years to get it into a top-5 spot, but at any level of performance countries can see in this very rich data set what has and hasn’t been working for their neighbours or countries elsewhere in the world that face the same issues.

The good news, as the global matrix shows in its direction of travel over the years, is that investing in effective change does produce results.  There is clearly, however, a long way to go in terms of generalising best practice.

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