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Cities and Sustainability

Large cities must prepare for water and heating

SDU is currently building a research group that will focus on how cities can address both causes and effect to climate change, in a wider sustainable development perspective.

By Bente Dalgaard, , 11/21/2019

The number of populations living in cities is continuously growing with increasing demand for housing and infrastructure, and the need to provide better living conditions for all.

But if the cities continue to plan and build in the same way as they have done so far, there is a real risk that the areas in which the housing is now being constructed will already be under water in 20 years’ time.

Professor Nicola Tollin’s description of the current challenges facing big cities is that specific.

Vulnerable cities

-Cities and the human activities within cities are contributing substantially to greenhouse gases emission causing climate change, and at the same time cities are exponentially vulnerable to climate change negative effects, for example floods and sea level rise, he says.

Professor Nicola Tollin is Professor WSR (with specific responsibilities) at the Department of Technology and Innovation at SDU.

And his job is to build and coordinate a research group that addresses the sustainability of cities and their resilience to climate change.

Faster than anticipated

-The negative effects of climate change are arriving at a faster rate and are more visible than researchers have so far been able to predict. There is therefore an urgent need for action, but cities have limited financial resources and lacks the necessary knowledge and capacity to act timely and with ambition, says Nicola Tollin.

For it is not only rising sea levels, torrential rain storms, floods, heat waves and other negative effects of climate change that big cities have to deal with.

Cities are also vulnerable to other type of risk, for example natural disasters as earthquakes, or man-made disasters spanning from chemical contamination to terrorism.

Integrated approach

-It is necessary for cities to redefine their policies, strategies, planning systems and actions so that all of these risks can be dealt with in an integrated and sustainable manner, says Nicola Tollin.

Among other things, he has started a cooperation process with the local authorities and technicians in Istanbul to create a model for how the largest city in Turkey can become more resilient and sustainable.

-We need to work on the problems in a more systematic and coherent way.

Cities have limited financial resources and lacks the necessary knowledge and capacity to act timely and with ambition

Nicola Tollin, professor

Life cycle of housing

Nicola Tollin worked also in Mexico with UN-HABITAT, which is the United Nations Human Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development Programme, to find out how the housing sector can help to fulfil the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

-Specifically, we will look at how climate change affects the housing sector, what type of housing needs to adapt to the negative changes and how the housing sector affects the environment in terms of material/energy consumption and water use.

And it is necessary to involve the entire life cycle of housing in this area - from when it is designed and built to when it is used and demolished, says Nicola Tollin.

From national policy to local action

He points out that there is a huge gap between the precise commitments made by governments through the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015 and the reality faced by those who will be implementing the climate goals.

The Paris Agreement

  • In 2015, virtually all countries in the world agreed on a common goal of trying to keep the rise in global temperature down to a maximum of two degrees Celsius and as close to one and a half degrees as possible. 
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the difference of 1.5 and 2 degrees global warming will, among other things, result in a difference of 10 centimetres of sea-level rise by the end of the century. 
  • The goal is intended to be achieved by reducing CO2 emissions. The agreement include also provision related to climate change adaptation, as well as on the need for finance, technological development and capacity building. Sustainable development and the eradication of poverty must be also be taken into account.

-The efforts of the cities are crucial to the success of reducing CO2 emissions and limiting temperature rises. But a harmonisation between national policy and local action has yet to take place, says Nicola Tollin.

-We need to find better ways for local action to support national policy and for governments to provide the legislation and financial support needed by cities to address the impact of climate change, such as rising sea levels. A city cannot do this by itself, no matter how wealthy it may be, says Nicola Tollin.

Lifelong learning systems

Not only do cities need clarification in relation to national strategies, they also need help in building local knowledge and capacity.

-After all, it's hardly the place of a Professor to come and give advice on how a city can obtain a plan for sustainable development. The plan needs to be implemented and this requires a long-term effort within both the private and public sectors, says Nicola Tollin.

Therefore, lifelong learning systems where researchers and practitioners share their knowledge need to be established, he says.

Network and co-creation

SDU has therefore created the International Urban Resilience Academy, which is a multidisciplinary platform for favouring the knowledge co-creation among practitioners, policy makers and researchers in the field of urban resilience.

This has been done in close collaboration with international organisations, including UNESCO and the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction office and UN-Habitat, as well as other universities and partners.

-We held our first activity in September. This comprised of policy makers, practitioners and researchers from 20 countries meeting at the BLOXHUB summer school on urban resilience in Copenhagen.

-In addition to sharing experiences, we also collaborated with local authorities and stakeholders to define Copenhagen's real challenges in relation to climate change, such as flooding and heat waves, and worked with our participants to provide solutions, says Nicola Tollin .

Training local forces

This will be repeated in the next years and duplicated with a new summer school open specifically to BSc and MSc students.

But Nicola Tollin would also like to initiate other activities to train local forces in working on the sustainability of cities and climate challenges. In November he will go to Nigeria where he is involved in a project on developing the capacity of national and local administrations.

Among other things, he will be looking at the possibility of 15 state officials coming to Denmark and gaining more knowledge about how they can work with urban resilience in Nigerian cities.

Tollin at COP25

Moreover, Nicola Tollin, is preparing his participation to the next climate negotiation at COP25 in Spain in December.

He is also organizing two official side events, the first on capacity building for urban resilience, and the second on adaptation to climate change in Small Island Developing States.

Correct or incorrect?

A. Moscow is the largest city in Europe and Istanbul is the second largest.
B. Istanbul is the largest city in Europe with its population of 15 million.

A. Tokyo is the largest city in the world with a population of 37.4 million.
B. Tokyo is the largest city in the world with a population of 41.1 million.

A. 7 of the 10 largest cities are in Asia. The 3 others are São Paulo, Mexico City and Cairo.
B. 7 of the 10 largest cities are in Asia. The 3 others are São Paulo, Mexico City and Lagos.

A. There are currently 4.2 billion people living in cities. This figure is expected to increase to 6.7 billion people by 2050.
B. There are currently 4.2 billion people living in cities. This figure is expected to increase to 5.5 billion by 2050.

Source: UN World Urbanization Prospects

Correct answers: B, A, A, A

Meet the researcher

Nicola Tollin was trained as an architect at University IUAV of Venice and has a M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in sustainability from Technical University of Catalunya. On 1 February2018, he took up the post of Professor with special responsibilities on urban resilience at the Department of Technology and Innovation at SDU. His research is especially about sustainability and urban resilience in relation to climate change.


Editing was completed: 21.11.2019