Edinburgh: building climate resilient infrastructure and communities

A labyrinth of cobblestone streets, dimly lit and presided over by an imposing castle, Edinburgh’s city center has seen centuries of history. But the climate crisis is threatening this heritage as summers are getting warmer, extreme rainfall and other severe weather events are becoming more frequent, and the sea level is projected to increase by 10 to 18 centimetres by 2050. A strategy for net-zero emissions and climate resilience is at the heart of the city’s proposed systemic transformation, based on a portfolio approach developed with EIT Climate-KIC’s Deep Demonstration of Resilient Regions and Healthy, Clean Cities

Housing forms the core of society’s infrastructure. Yet the COVID-19 lockdown and increased use of our homes have shown that they are unfit-for-purpose. Many people in Europe today are still living in dark, unhealthy, isolating homes in neighborhoods with little or no community infrastructure and green spaces. Yet, we continue to build such houses and neighborhoods, which add to embodied and operational carbon emissions. 

In Scotland, a quarter of the population lives in fuel poverty. A household is said to be in fuel poverty if they have required fuel costs that are above the national median level, and if, were they to spend that amount, they would be left with a residual income below the poverty line. This situation contributes to chronic crises in health and care, amplifies inequality and harms the population’s wellbeing. By causing more and more episodes of extreme weather events, climate change will only worsen the living and health conditions of the most vulnerable people. The need for infrastructure and communities that can withstand future climate shocks is becoming urgent.  

But today’s transition towards increased resilience needs to be smart and inclusive, and it should be part of a broader transformation, according to the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change released on 24 February 2021. In the document, the European Commission highlights the need for “integrated solutions that can achieve the vision of climate resilience by 2050 with an emphasis on citizen engagement”.  

An inclusive climate strategy for a healthier and more resilient community 

In Edinburgh, project partners led by EIT Climate-KIC have been working with the City on the idea of ‘build to live’, a type of development model that puts future residents and those invested in their neighbourhood at the heart of the development process. The project aims to design a neighbourhood of 100 new houses in the Granton Waterfront.  

“The questions we are trying to answer are how can we build spaces that are not only good to live in for residents, but also resilient to future climate shocks, in addition to having a positive impact on health and community-building, while generating local income for the community,” explains Andy Kerr, Director UK and Ireland for EIT Climate-KIC.  

The City and EIT Climate-KIC partner team are also working on designing a whole block retrofitting project focused on building community resilience.  

“Even in a rich city like Edinburgh, many families face a real poverty problem. They just can’t afford to keep their homes warm during the winter, or cool during the hot summers,” says Kerr.  

Upgrading the housing stock to consider climate change impacts and deliver net-zero aspirations is urgent. Yet most current retrofit solutions are designed to be adopted by property owners, and the various subsidy schemes introduced here and in many other places across Europe have only led to negligible levels of building and energy efficiency improvements.  

In Edinburgh, both projects envision self-sufficient energy communities, where new models of energy ownership and redistribution are implemented.  

“The two main focuses of the city administration are sustainability and poverty alleviation, and our design addresses both,” says Andy Kerr. He explains that today’s model of a private company coming in to install its energy solution and taking all the financial profit may not be sustainable in the long term. The question is: How can we blend private and public finance so that the public authorities but also the communities can partially own and benefit from these transformations and technologies?  

EIT Climate-KIC is working with Bankers without Boundaries, a social enterprise that aims to provide financial structuring where it is needed most, to explore the possibility of building heat networks. This could mean for instance equipping houses with solar panels in a non-commercial way and installing charging infrastructure for public buses. A combination of solutions would contribute to generating new sources of income for the community and reduce their dependency on external actors, while advancing climate resilience and helping the city get closer to its net-zero emissions goals.  

Another partner in the project, Democratic Society, is making sure the voices of the communities are heard during the design as well as the implementation of the projects. The population can then influence the development of their neighbourhoods and determine how they want to make use of the newly generated income. Democratic Society’s aim is to create a participatory and inclusive planning process that involves residents, local experts and city officials, working together to improve the community’s physical, behavioral, and social health to withstand, adapt to, and recover from climate change.  

A replicable prototype for Europe 

In addition to building economic and social resilience for the community, and adapting to future climate shocks, the project aims to act on a combination of many different levers to offer an ever-greater benefit to the population. This systemic approach is at the heart of EIT Climate-KIC Deep Demonstration of Healthy Clean Cities, where Edinburgh and 14 other European cities taking part in the program are learning from each other’s experiences and knowledge on how to reach their climate neutrality targets.  

“In 2020, we have done a lot of the design thinking and have gone through feasibility. We are now entering the phase of testing, then will come the time for amplifying,” says Kerr.  

The prototype, which demonstrates financial flows and how the return will work, will soon be presented to investors and asset managers with the aim to replicate and spread the model throughout Europe thanks to the connection between the cities involved in the Deep Demonstration program. 

For Andy Kerr, “The green recovery should never be about separating climate goals from everything else.” He adds: “We must come to the fact that a strict technological approach will not get us to net-zero, and we need to stop trying to find the perfect, one-size-fits-all climate solution. Instead, we need to put people first and focus on implementing a just transition for everyone, especially for the most vulnerable. Today is time to co-design mitigation and adaptation projects with the community, using the tools we already have around health, climate resilience, technological solutions, urban planning and so on. Building more resilient places and communities is the best and fastest way of getting us to where we need to get.”


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  • Catherine Ouvrard

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