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Integrating climate change into long-term strategic city development planning: the case of Cape Town

Climate change is a relatively new area of concern at the city scale that has significant and far-reaching implications for the way we plan and influence the future trajectory of cities, challenging current patterns of production and consumption and introducing a new set of contingencies and cross-scalar interdependencies. Climate change is reshaping our understanding of development pathways, bringing into stark relief how development choices impact us unequally and often in unintended or unforeseen ways as mediated through the environment / earth system. As these impacts and feedback loops become apparent and better understood, there is growing demand to reconfigure the ways we use and discard resources, especially energy, fuel, water, food and building materials. Cities, as places of high population density, where an increasingly large proportion of the world’s population reside and where consumption levels tend to be particularly high, are obvious places to start.

Various forms of strategic urban planning [see note 1] create the potential for making cities better prepared to deal with climate change, both in terms of limiting emissions to reduce the rate and scale of changes in the climate and managing the risks posed by such changes to local residents, businesses, infrastructure and ecosystems.

Without clear consideration of climate change concerns, investment plans may increasingly lose credibility and capacity to attract finance and human capital. On the positive side, climate change comes with a series of new opportunities for cities that are able to address it, in terms of new sources of funding, new investor priorities and innovative technologies.

The public sector plays a critical role in promoting and coordinating local efforts to address climate change challenges and harness opportunities, linking with the private and civil society sectors, as well as higher levels of government and multi-national agencies. It is therefore essential that we consider how to effectively integrate climate change considerations, alongside other economic, social and environmental concerns, into urban policy and planning processes.

Climate change in Cape Town

In Cape Town, South Africa, climate change poses a variety of significant risks. The city has an extensive coastline that is heavily built up and highly exposed to storm surges and increasing sea levels. Cape Town has many residents and businesses that are already very vulnerable to the effects of winter rainfall and flooding, as well as summer wind and fires. The city has levels of water demand that already periodically outstrip supply and climate projections indicate a likely decrease in total winter rainfall (when storage dams collect water) and higher summer temperatures (when demand is highest). Climate change also threatens to increase the city’s already severe disease burden and aggravate conditions of food insecurity and malnutrition. Hotter, drier conditions, in addition to habitat fragmentation caused by ongoing urban expansion, threatens species extinction and a loss of biodiversity that is key to the city’s heritage, cultural identity and a major contributor to the tourism industry.

Cape Town cumulatively emits high levels of greenhouse gases, mainly from transport and the use of coal-based electricity. This poses a threat to Cape Town’s economic competiveness as carbon emissions become increasingly monitored, regulated and taxed internationally.

All in all, the indications are that climate change has considerable implications for the future of the city of Cape Town. This is reflected in Cape Town’s City Development Strategy (CDS), adopted by the Cape Town City Council in October 2012, which presents a vision for the city in 2040, together with a set of goals and strategies. The details of the content and the process of integrating climate change into the strategy can be read here.


  1. An increasingly common form of long-term urban planning is the process of preparing a City Development Strategy (CDS), an approach designed and supported by the Cities Alliance. For background on the CDS methodology visit:

This article is based on ongoing research being undertaken in partnership between the City of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, under the Mistra Urban Futures programme. It also contributes to a project led by the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, in collaboration with UNHABITAT, aiming to learn and share lessons on how climate change has been integrated into strategic planning approaches in cities around the world. In addition to Cape Town, similar case studies were conducted in: San Salvador (El Salvador); Esmeraldas (Ecuador); Kampala (Uganda); Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso); Olongapo City (Philippines); Da Nana (Vietnam). A comparative analysis is being undertaken, by researchers at IHS and UNHABITAT, between these 7 cases to draw out a suite of lessons on factoring climate change into city-wide strategic planning that can be shared through the Cities Alliance network with those in other cities developing a CDS.

Cities and Climate Change: An Urgent Agenda – a World Bank report focusing on (1) How cities contribute to and are affected by climate change; (2) How policies in cities can change human behaviour and begin to address climate change; and (3) How cities should use climate change as an opportunity to raise their profile, implement good policies, and move toward sustainable communities, the most important ingredient of sustainable development.Guide to Climate Change Adaptation in Cities – a practical resource, prepared by the World Bank (with the participation of ICLEI and MIT), on responding to the challenges of climate change adaptation in cities that offers examples of good practices and successful experiences and describes other available resource materials and tools.

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