Edmonton·CBC Explains

Urban planning in an age of climate change will require a more flexible approach. Here's why

Cities are having to plan for climate change, but thanks to the unpredictability of our future warming world, planners are having to be more flexible. We dive into what that means and what it looks like in our cities.

'The difficulty in predicting what is coming is one of the biggest challenges in how we plan,' says expert

A drone photo of Edmonton's skyline.
Cities are looking to flexible urban planning to better prepare for the unpredictability of climate change. (David Bajer/CBC)

The Prairies Climate Change Project is a joint initiative between CBC Edmonton and CBC Saskatchewan that focuses on weather and our changing climate. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga brings her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how they impact everyday life.

Mitigation and adaptation – two cornerstone principles of climate change resiliency – have never been more central to urban planning than right now. 

With increasing numbers of wild weather events expected in our future, just how we deal with the longer-term impacts of a warming planet is critical to the built world around us.

"Rigidity is something that communities do kind of rely on," said Jeff Birchall, associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. 

"It's just we can't rely on that anymore, and that's where flexible policies need to come into place."

Adaptation already underway in Canada

Many cities in Canada have adopted climate change strategies but how does that interplay with actual urban planning?

Take the increase in occurrences and severity of heat waves in the future and communities grappling with urban heat island effect, or where cities are warmer than surrounding areas because of their built up nature.

Places like Windsor, Ont,. and Vancouver, B.C., are already moving toward change. 

A city scape.
Windsor, Ont., has taken steps to reduce the urban heat island effect. (Mike Evans/CBC)

In 2010, Windsor launched a program to better inform residents of extreme heat events. But the city went beyond that to help prevent the effects of the urban heat island through a number of plans and policies. 

And those policies are already working to keep things cooler. 

According to Natural Resources Canada, the city is installing green and reflective roofs on municipal buildings to help with cooling. 

The city also conducted a study on six different green spaces to see how well they sheltered people from extreme weather. From that study recommendations were made to keep things cool. 

In 2013 and 2014, the city installed shade structures, splash pads, worked to plant trees that offer better shading and use play mats that are light coloured to help reduce the heat. 

Challenges with planning for climate change

Planning resiliency into our communities is becoming increasingly important. 

That's because even though we know that climate change is happening, and increasing the risk of severe flooding, droughts, wildfire and a slew of other impacts, it is hard to accurately predict intensity of extreme weather events.

"The biggest challenges are actually addressing uncertainty in climate change," said Luna Khirfan, associate professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo.

British Columbia's past couple of years shows the variability urban planners contend with, she says. 

"Vancouver in the summer experienced the heat dome. In the winter, it's receiving lots of snow," she said. 

A person in a winter coat takes a photo of several stranded cars all pointing in different directions on a snowy street.
Multiple cars are pictured stuck on a snow covered street in Downtown Vancouver, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"So it's this increased variability and the difficulty in predicting what is coming is one of the biggest challenges in how we plan for climate change."

But the challenges go beyond climate change's erratic nature. 

Megan Gereghty has faced these difficulties first-hand. She is a climate change adaptation planner at the Climate Risk Institute.

"There might be a lot of competing issues or priorities within a municipality," she said. 

"If you have a laundry list of various things that you're already trying to address, say housing … how do you incorporate climate change into that discussion without it competing for resources, time and attention?"

Gereghty adds that climate change comes with a tricky paradox: the balance of too much information and not enough. 

"You can have you know all of the climate data available to you, but when you get into sort of the detailed information, some municipalities, for example, might not have the most up-to-date flood mapping," she said. 

She said not having that information makes it very difficult to say where you should and should not be developing, and creating a plan for risk areas.

"I think there's also maybe a challenge that there is a lot of information," she added.

"When you're looking at climate change, there's so much to consider and there's usually … a new topic or new innovative idea or opportunity … it's hard to stay on top of that."

Flexible or rigid planning?

Gereghty says with all of the possible impacts of climate change for an area, planning can't be a one-size-fits-all. 

"There are certainly some best practices … but when it comes down to it, the climate variables are different in every municipality," she says. 

"If you're looking at demographics and geography and traffic or how you get people to and from different places within your municipality might be very different from even the neighbouring municipality." 

She says in that vein, the solutions to address climate change issues are going to be very different.

When it comes to planning practices, Gereghty said that some planning such as zoning bylaws or design guidelines need rigidity to be done in very specific ways, but flexibility is needed too. 

"Those documents are more flexible and that they're updated or amended more regularly. And so there are opportunities there to incorporate change."

With flexibility, planning becomes almost a living document. 

That's according to Nicole Bonnett, a researcher with the University of Alberta's Climate Adaptation and Resilience Lab.

"[Plans] should be updated and changing over time as we're presented with new information," she says. 

Bonnett says an example of a rigid approach is building a dike if an area has flooded in the past. 

"To me, that's kind of like a Band-Aid solution, whereas a flexible approach is allowing you to take new information as it comes out," she says. 

"It's really adapting as the times change when you're being flexible as opposed to sticking to say a traditional or business-as-usual pathway."

Planning in practice

We know that cities are already implementing adaptation measures but planners say more can be done.

Luna Khirfan said that flexible planning approaches near a flood plain can incorporate many things to build resilience. 

"[We can] lay out land uses to include buildings to make the users in the first and ground floors, for example, more flexible," she says.

"We can regulate building on stilts for example…the water can come in and go out without any impact on the property itself or human life that inhabits that property." 

This house in High River, Alta., sits on stilts as a flood-proofing measure.

And for heat islands, one of the biggest urban threats to human life with climate change, Khirfan says you can densify a city while building in flexible adaptations for a warming world. 

"Some of the building regulations include regulating the building material, so that the reflection impacts the temperature at the ground level where humans walk and integrate in the urban landscape," she says.

"Taking into account building heights and the relationship of shade and shadow in combination with for example street trees to create that comfortable urban environment."

Khirfan adds that nature based solutions in cities are a flexible option for planners for climate change adaptation.

"Water features or green features, trees, grass are considered nature based solutions that help us adapt to climate change and at the same time they work as carbon sinks," she says.

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.


Christy Climenhaga

CBC Meteorologist

Christy Climenhaga is a meteorologist and CBC Edmonton's climate reporter, covering the impacts of climate change for the Prairies. She has worked as a CBC on-air meteorologist for more than 10 years, in the North and Saskatchewan. Have a climate question? Reach out at christy.climenhaga@cbc.ca.


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