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Flood Adapt – Global Alliance project

Ecological adaptation to urban coastal flood hazards

Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

A Global Alliance funded project investigating the opportunities for using nature-based solutions in flood risk coastal cities.

Ecological flood adaption

Rising sea levels, storms and flooding dominate the climate change risks facing coastal cities across the world. The 2014 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report identifies ‘risk of death, injury, and disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones…due to sea level rise, coastal flooding, and storm surges’ as one of the five key global risks from climate change.

Coastal flood risks are likely to increase over the coming decades due to global and regional climate changes that include increasing storm intensity and accelerating sea level rise. Growing coastal populations mean more people and more assets will be exposed to this risk. It is estimated that, by 2070, around 150 million people will be living in urban areas exposed to a 1-in-100 year extreme coastal flooding event (Nicholls et al. 2007).

The conventional response of city planners to coastal flood risk is the engineering of ‘hard’ defences, evidenced by the building of sea walls, dykes and embankments. However, this approach is now seriously challenged in many locations due to financial, environmental and social constraints.

It is within this context that ecosystem-based flood adaptation is gaining currency as a sustainable risk management approach. Ecosystem-based flood adaptation works with the natural protection afforded by the presence of intertidal ecosystems. These natural systems can offer substantial reductions in wave heights, erosion and storm surges.

For example, in 2017, it was estimated that coastal ecosystems prevented US$ 625 million in damage during superstorm Sandy due to their wave buffering ability. The World Bank estimates that mangrove forests in the Philippines prevent more than US$1.6 billion in damage during large storms.

However, the use of coastal space is increasingly contested by other economic and social pressures. The design, implementation and effectiveness of ecosystem-based flood defence solutions therefore depends on multiple factors, extending from environmental setting to contextual political factors.

This project aims to understand the importance of these contextual variables on the opportunities for ecological flood adaptation in three global cities, to help towards improving the implementation and effectiveness of such solutions.

The Global Alliance

The Global Alliance is a tripartite agreement between the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Cambridge and the National University of Singapore. Formed in 2016, the alliance aims to develop innovative research across the three Universities, tackling global challenges that cannot be solved by a single institution.

Global Alliance funds projects that cover three themes: Precision Medicine, Cities, and Smart Systems. The funding is designed to act as ‘seed funding’, allowing collaborations to develop to a stage where they can apply for bigger grants.

The coastal project falls under the ‘Cities’ theme and will investigate the potential for ecological adaptation and ecosystem-based flood defence management in three contrasting urban socio-ecological systems: London and the Thames Estuary, San Francisco and San Francisco Bay, and the island margins of the City State of Singapore.

Our aims

This project has three main research questions:

  • What are the drivers of coastal adaptation in each city? Varying contexts: e.g. different policy contexts (e.g. EU Directives (LON), policies of ‘no net loss’ (SF) and no formal policies (SG)).
  • Can we identify locations for adaptation interventions and develop a set of multi-disciplinary criteria to map potential areas where interventions can be implemented?
  • How do we measure and compare intervention ‘success’ in these three locations?

To achieve this, workshop meetings will be held in each of the three locations. Each meeting will aim to engage with a network of around 20 local and regional experts across the biophysical and social sciences.

Workshops have already been held in Cambridge and Berkeley, and the team will be meeting in Singapore in mid-September.

Our cities

The Global Alliance Project has begun by looking at three cities close to each partner institution: London, San Francisco and Singapore.

Each city faces different challenges in adapting to coastal flood risk, relating to their contrasting urban socio-ecological systems and environmental setting: London and the Thames Estuary, San Francisco and San Francisco Bay, and the island margins of the City State of Singapore.

This project looks to understand the similarities and differences in the opportunities and attitudes towards nature-based solutions to coastal change. Where is ecosystem-based flood adaptation working and why? Can geographically and politically diverse cities learn from each other?

The team

The Global Alliance FloodAdapt project has 6 academics working across the three universities, specialising in physical coastal processes, ecosystem services, urban design and spatial anaylsis.

Tom Spencer (University of Cambridge)

Tom is a Professor of Geography at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit. He is interested in physical geographical processes at the interface between geomorphology and the geological and biological sciences, with particular reference to coastal ecosystems (including saltmarsh, mangrove and reefs) and coastal geomorphology. This has extended into research in risk and vulnerability to coastal hazards, storm surges, and the role of nature-based defences within this resilience.

Kristina Hill (University of California, Berkeley)

Kristina an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Environmental Planning and Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research looks at urban ecology and hydrology in relationship to physical design and social justice issues – exploring adapting urban districts and shorezones to the new challenges associated with climate change. After Hurricane Katrina, she became a member of the Dutch-American engineering and design team that developed New Orleans’ ambitious water management strategy. She continues to collaborate with colleagues in The Netherlands to understand the potential for lower-cost, dynamic designs to help protect coastal communities as sea levels rise. Kristina currently focuses on adaptation and coastal design in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dan Friess (National University of Singapore)

Dan is an associate Professor in Geography at the National University of Singapore. His research uses the framework of ecosystem services to investigate changes to coastal ecosystems, and how best to protect them. He investigates these questions integrating a range of field-based and remote sensing techniques. Much of this research is conducted with Government agencies, NGOs and academic collaborators in SE Asia. Most Dan has been working on quantifying the regional drivers of mangrove loss, including the emergence of oil palm and assessing Singapore’s Natural Capital. For more information, visit Dan’s lab website.

Iris Möller (University of Cambridge)

Iris is an academic and lecturer from the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. Her research combines field observations, numerical modelling and scale-modelling approaches to better understand the energy dissipation capacity of saltmarshes. This research is critically relevant to coastal management and, in particular, managed realignment schemes, which require the quantification of the sea-defence value of intertidal environments. Iris is currently working on an EU project looking at quantifying wave reduction in storm conditions.

Iryna Dronova (University of California, Berkeley)

Iryna is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in diverse aspects of landscape ecology and its potential to inform sustainable, multi-functional landscape-designs, and decision-making in environmental planning. Her research combines field methods with remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis to perform analyses of multi-scale structure of ecosystems. Iryna is currently investigating ecosystems in the California Delta and the ecosystem services in urban areas.

Cao Kai (National University of Singapore)

Kai is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at National University of Singapore. His current research interests centre on GIS science (with Remote Sensing) and its applications. Kai is especially interested in the topics of spatial simulation and optimization, urban studies and big data analytics, spatial planning and planning support, and spatially integrated social science. He is currently working on projects looking at: sustainable land use optimization and planning support in Singapore, accessibility analysis of healthcare facilities for elderly population in Singapore and anthropogenic heat dispersion at tropical high-density cities.

Contact us

For further details about this project, please contact our research assistant, Olivia Shears.