Is community-based adaptation suited to cities?

In the week of the urban-themed 10th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation, we ask what is needed for this approach to succeed in urban spaces.

David Satterthwaite's picture
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26 April 2016

David Sattherthwaite is a senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements Group

An image showing local people building a house in a slum in Bolivia, where Shack Dwellers International has worked with authorities. Many Latin American cities are leading the way in working with community organisations (Photo: Shack Dwellers International, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Cities present many challenges to climate change adaptation. City governments must face up to addressing the risks that climate change is bringing or will bring, even as they attempt to meet existing needs – including good provision of water, sanitation, drainage, paved roads and paths and solid waste collection for all city dwellers.

The effective climate change adaptation cities need is not possible without competent, engaged city governments. But does this mean less importance for community-based adaptation?

Actually, it means more importance for a community-based approach, alongside a different – but complementary – role for local government.

While community-based adaptation cannot build the trunk infrastructure that all city districts need (water, sewer and drainage mains), it can help install the small pipes that feed into these. It can partner with local governments in mapping and assessing risks in each location and working together to reduce them.

The challenges of informality

One of the difficulties that community-based adaptation faces in cities is that much of the population lives in informal settlements on land that is illegally occupied, and works in the informal economy.

Local governments may refuse to provide risk-reducing infrastructure because of this apparent 'illegality'. In much of Africa and Asia, this has led to cities where a third or even half the entire population lives in informal settlements lacking provision for infrastructure and services – often on sites at high risk of flooding or landslides.

But there are many examples of city governments that have learned to work with community-based organisations formed by those living in informal settlements, and with the slum/shack dweller federations that they have formed.

In hundreds of cities in Africa and Asia, it is these slum/shack dweller federations that have carefully documented conditions in informal settlements.

They also now work with local governments to improve housing and provision for water, sanitation, drainage and other needs, and to assess what land sites are safe or can be made safe from climate change impacts.

Harnessing urban opportunities

City governments are also recognising the potential advantages of cities – where large and dense population concentrations actually lower the cost per person of most forms of risk reducing infrastructure and services.

While poorly governed cities are among the world's most unhealthy places, well governed cities are among the healthiest, with the highest quality of life. These are also cities that have the resources and institutions that can fold climate change adaptation and mitigation into city development.

But here is the challenge to national governments and international agencies. Many responses to climate change are planned with little or no involvement from local governments. Yet it is these local governments that have key roles in implementation.

National plans and strategies for climate change adaptation are more often than not designed with no involvement of the urban residents who face the greatest risks – most of whom live in informal settlements.

Lessons from Latin America

Discussions within the United Nations on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals is mostly about national governments and national plans, but in urban areas adaptation needs competent resourced local governments.

It needs the active engagement of community organisations in each location in determining what needs to be done and in developing responses that work. It needs a recognition that good urban development is an essential underpinning for climate change adaption.

All this is understood and acted upon in many cities in Latin America, where it is now common practice for city governments to work with community organisations to upgrade informal settlements.

They have even pioneered participatory budgeting that allows low income communities to set priorities for investments in their districts, proving that when local government and local communities work together, much more is possible.

David Sattherthwaite ( is a senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements Group. This blog was written while he was attending the 10th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation (CBA10) in Dhaka, Bangladesh

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