Navigating urban complexity through stakeholders’ experiences and knowledge

Marta Olazabal, Aline Chiabai, & Sebastien Foudi
Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), Spain

Marc Neumann
Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), Spain
& IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science, Spain

Complexity is a natural characteristic of urban development. As cities evolve, institutions, social- and economic systems and organizational structures become more complex. Increasing complexity also implies that information about the urban sphere becomes more and more disaggregated among people, domains and space. Segregation, not only of populations (Marcotullio, 2015), but also of the information needed to manage multifaceted system, emerges. Challenging urban complexity requires even higher levels of public and private involvement when cities face environmental perturbations such as increasing environmental degradation, natural disasters or climatic impacts.

In such complex environments, knowledge is a critical tool for decision-making processes related to urban management, planning and design. It becomes essential to have methods that support in i) achieving a comprehensive understanding of how the system works, ii) identifying the most efficient or effective ways to achieve certain goals, iii) discovering cross-sectoral interactions and potential unintended impacts of certain decisions affecting critical infrastructures, services, resources and population groups.

Generating, collecting and coordinating the required knowledge and information is a complex task (Aylett, 2015). Many times, knowledge is retained (deliberately or not) by different public or private groups or individuals that utilise it responding to their own needs and interests. Other times they might not perceive the value or the need to share it with other groups. While the generation of new information itself can require considerable efforts, the collection and coordination of existing information can be equally challenging.

Understanding the complexity of urban systems and their interdependencies from the viewpoint of each of the stakeholders is particularly important when identifying and defining new development pathways, such as in the context of climate change. This is of even greater interest when data on the function and performance of the system is scarce or uncertain (Olazabal and Reckien, forthcoming). It is in these contexts that integrating the experience and knowledge of experts from different domains becomes fundamental for effective decision-making.

Here, we would like to share some of the preliminary findings of an ongoing research study that seeks to navigate urban complexities in the context of climate change. The case study presented is part of the European Union FP7 project BASE (Bottom-up climate Adaptation Strategies towards a sustainable Europe).  In this respect we seek to illustrate the benefits of participatory tools when dealing with complex problems, in particular, with the adaptation to climate change impacts in urban contexts.

An analysis of impacts and adaptation measures to heatwaves in the city of Madrid.

madrid panorama

Panorama Madrid. Photo by Jose Maria Cuellar. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

To respond to the needs mentioned above, a case study has been developed focusing on a cross-sectoral analysis of the impacts of heatwaves and adaptation options using a participatory approach. Participatory approaches that elicit actors’ knowledge and experience are useful to capture the complexity of the city and to link sectors, institutions, stakeholders and population groups. Using participatory approaches to reveal ‘hidden’ or less evident information is particularly appealing in contexts where the level of connectivity and interdependencies among elements of the system imply that any intervention (change or modification) can potentially generate a wave of changes that can propagate throughout the system. This is important in order to avoid unintended impacts on the most vulnerable sectors and segments of society (Olazabal and Pascual, 2015). In the context of climate change, the use of participatory tools helps in this regard as it stimulates holistic and integrated thinking taking into account the diversity of viewpoints and the multilevel perspective of climate impacts and adaptation options.

In this study, a cognitive cause-effect mapping approach was applied in the city of Madrid to elicit information on how stakeholders and decision-makers perceive the impacts of heatwaves in the city and how they believe different adaptation options would perform.

figure 1
Fig. 1. Illustration of collective mapping. Source: Olazabal (2014)[1].

Individual interviews to stakeholders were conducted to understand the causal relationships between climate change, health impacts and adaptation measures. To this end, stakeholders from different areas of expertise and different levels of decision-making were invited to participate. Interviews were structured to generate individual cognitive maps according to the perception of each of the urban actors. These maps were then aggregated to depict the complexity of the intra- and inter-sectoral impacts of heat related climate impacts and to identify how adaptation measures would make the system better prepared to face future impacts.

We interviewed 24 stakeholders including health professionals, researchers from public institutions, local and regional authority representatives and personnel from the national Climate Change Office. We tried to obtain a balanced participation of researchers and decision-makers, and to include a large diversity of experts from areas such as water management, urban climate modeling, urban planning, public health, green infrastructures, energy efficiency, climatology, health economics and bioclimatic architecture.

In a first round the stakeholders were asked about how they believed heatwaves would impact the urban system and in a second round, potential adaptation options were elicited.

figure 2
Fig. 2. Word cloud of concepts mentioned during the interviews.

A word cloud of the interviews allows us to easily visualize which concepts were repeated by many stakeholders (Fig. 2). Among the most mentioned concepts we can find ‘Morbidity’ and ‘Health services use’ related to heatwaves; ‘Social vulnerability’ as a determinant of morbi-mortality; ‘Public economic costs’ derived from the impacts of heatwaves; ‘Water availability’ as a limiting factor to various adaptation measures such as irrigation and streets cleaning, and ‘Green and blue infrastructures’, on which we would like to focus here.

‘Green and blue infrastructures’ (urban trees, parks, lakes or water fountains) were mentioned by many participants as important urban elements to reduce urban heatwave impacts. Significantly, this concept has been included in maps developed not only by experts that can provide information about the detailed and specific benefits of such infrastructures to the resilience of the city (e.g., urban climate modelers), but also by officers of the city council which can provide relevant information regarding their daily management. This way, we have learnt about the importance of green and blue infrastructures for the environmental quality, social health and quality of life but also, about the potential economic costs from maintenance and other negative impacts, e.g., related to health, such as allergies. This shows not only an evidence of the urban complexity, but also an evidence of the limits of natural infrastructure in cities (McDonald, 2015).

Fig. 3 illustrates the above. It shows how the stakeholders think about the performance of green and blue infrastructures in the city. It is not only the environmental regulation effects that are judged as being relevant (see blue shaded area), but also the effects to quality of life and human health (yellow shaded area), to public and private economies (orange shaded area), to urban planning and buildings design (pink shaded area) and resource flows (i.e., energy and water) (green shaded area).

figure 3
Fig.3. Positive (blue solid arrows) and negative (grey dotted arrows) effects of green and blue infrastructures in the city of Madrid. Arrow thickness depicts the relative importance of the causal-effect.

The participatory tool used in this study also allowed us to elicit the relative importance of the relationships between elements. As perceived by the participants in Madrid, the outgoing arrows in Fig. 3 show that the most important direct effects of green and blue infrastructures are related to environmental quality (i.e., shadows, aesthetics and urban biodiversity) and urban planning and design (i.e., building materials thermal capacity and sustainable mobility). Interestingly, benefits on health are not perceived to be as strong. Our ongoing study will show that the links between green and blue infrastructures and health rely on second- and even third-order causal-effects. Although being indirect effects, they are still significant and should be taken into account. Detailed results of this analysis will be included in a journal article currently in preparation.


Building climate-resilient cities, i.e., preparing our cities to face and adapt to current and future changes, requires understanding the complex structure and functioning of the urban system. It is this understanding that our analysis aims to improve. Our research does not claim to offer an answer to climate adaptation planning in cities per se, but rather, it intends to inspire urban adaptation planning.  The methodology suggested in our study could also prove useful for many other social and environmental issues that require multidisciplinary and multilevel approaches.


This study is funded by the European Commission project BASE (Bottom-up climate adaptation strategies for a sustainable Europe). Marta Olazabal is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO) (FPDI-2013-16631). We are grateful to all the stakeholders in the city of Madrid that shared their knowledge and expertise with us and particularly to Ana Iglesias, Luis Garrote and Pedro Iglesias from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) for their support in establishing contacts to the stakeholders.

[1] Olazabal, M. (2014), ‘Sustainable urban development under climate change and resource scarcity’, PhD thesis
Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Marta Olazabal
Dr. Marta Olazabal
is post-doctoral researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change – BC3. She is co-founder of the Urban Resilience research Network (UR-Net).

Marc Neumann
Dr. Marc Neumann is Ikerbasque Research Professor at the Basque Centre of Climate Change – BC3.

Aline Chiabai
Dr. Aline Chiabai is Research Professor at the Basque Centre for Climate Change – BC3 and coordinator of the research line on health and climate change.

Dr. Sebastien Foudi is post-doctoral researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change – BC3.

Header Image: Bilbao, Spain.  Credit: Botond Horvath/

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