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Wamsler, C. 2015. Mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation: transformation toward sustainability in urban governance and planning. Ecology and Society 20(2): 30.

Mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation: transformation toward sustainability in urban governance and planning

1Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), Sweden, 2Centre for Societal Resilience (CSR), Sweden, 3Global Urban Research Centre (GURC), Manchester University, UK


The concept of ecosystem-based adaptation is advocated at international, national, and regional levels. The concept is thought to foster sustainability transitions and is receiving increasing interest from academic and governmental bodies alike. However, there is little theory regarding the pathways for its systematic implementation. It furthermore remains unclear to what degree the concept is already applied in urban planning practice, how it is integrated into existing planning structures and processes, and what drivers exist for further integration. Against this background, this study examines potential ways to sustainably mainstream ecosystem-based adaptation into urban planning. Eight municipalities in Southern Germany were investigated to analyze the processes of mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation into current planning practice. Although the mainstreaming entry points for ecosystem-based adaptation were identified to be appreciably different, the results of the study show how mainstreaming has generally led to patterns of change in: (1) on-the-ground measures, (2) organizational structures and assets, (3) formal and informal policies and instruments, (4) external cooperation and networking, and (5) the general working language. In all these areas, ecosystem-based adaptation to heat and flood risk is highly compartmentalized. Furthermore, although scholars have drawn attention to the risk of “mainstreaming overload,” the results suggest that at the local level, the integration of ecosystem-based adaptation is strongly driven by departments’ experience in mainstreaming other cross-cutting issues, namely environmental planning, climate change mitigation, and disaster risk management. Based on the findings, ways to leverage sustainability transitions via mainstreaming are discussed. It is concluded that systematic mainstreaming is a promising avenue for initiating and promoting local transitions and transformative adaptation. The study demonstrates the applicability of the presented mainstreaming framework for assessing and driving the mainstreaming capacity of local governments, thus also addressing the lack of related indicators highlighted in the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Key words: adaptation; climate change; green infrastructure; landscape planning; municipal planning; resilience; risk reduction; sustainability transitions; sustainable transformation; urban planning; urban transformation


Climate change poses a serious challenge to sustainable urban development and places cities at increasing risk (IPCC 2014). In the absence of adequate international responses and given the need for place-based adaptation, local authorities have a pivotal role in fostering sustainability transitions1 (Measham et al. 2011, Roberts et al. 2011, IPCC 2014, Rauken et al. 2014). However, climatic conditions are changing rapidly, as are their impacts on urban areas, including an increase in extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, heat stress, drought, and water scarcity (IPCC 2014). As a result, the capacity of local authorities and associated governance systems to deal with climatic extremes and variability is being reduced (Romero Lankao 2008, Davoudi et al. 2010). New approaches for urban climate change adaptation are thus urgently needed.

The benefits of ecosystem-based approaches for climate change adaptation are proclaimed at the international level and their potential to foster sustainability transitions has received increased interest from scholars and governmental bodies alike (Andersson 2006, Roberts et al. 2011, Huq et al. 2013, Wilkinson et al. 2013, Chong 2014, IPCC 2014, Wu 2014). Ecosystem-based adaptation is a relatively new concept, which can be defined as the “use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people to adapt” (CBD 2009:41). It aims to systematically harness the services of ecosystems to buffer communities against the adverse effects of climate change (Gill et al. 2007, Foster et al. 2011, Gaffin et al. 2012, Jones et al. 2012a, Munang et al. 2013). It thus advocates mainstreaming of both ecosystem services and climate change adaptation to foster sustainable planning and to comprehensively address the impacts of climatic extremes and variability (Kok and de Coninck 2007, Cowling et al. 2008, Vignola et al. 2009, Preston et al. 2010, Daily et al. 2011).

However, there is little theory about the pathways for systematic mainstreaming and institutionalization of ecosystem-based adaptation (Vignola et al. 2009, Andrade et al. 2011), and it thus remains unclear how local authorities can best integrate this new approach into their development plans and policies (IPCC 2014). Furthermore, little is known about the degree to which ecosystem-based adaptation is already applied in urban planning practice (Turnpenny et al. 2014), how it is integrated into existing planning structures and processes, and what are the driving forces or barriers to further integration.

Against this background, this study examines potential ways to sustainably mainstream ecosystem-based adaptation into urban governance and planning. With in-depth studies of eight municipalities in Southern Germany, the study looks at how ecosystem-based adaptation is integrated into municipal planning practice, assesses the key characteristics of current mainstreaming strategies, and analyzes their ability to foster sustainability transitions and transformative adaptation. The results are discussed and critically compared with other geographical contexts.


Ecosystem-based adaptation is embedded in the theory and practice of ecosystem services and climate change adaptation planning (Uy and Shaw 2012a, b, Chong 2014). On the one hand, ecosystem services are “the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life” (Daily 1997:41). They include, but are not limited to, natural processes that regulate local climate, erosion, soil retention, water infiltration, and natural hazards (de Guenni et al. 2005, Smith et al. 2013, Larondelle et al. 2014). Developed to integrate ecological principles into economic considerations and local decision making (de Groot 1987, TEEB 2010), the ecosystem services concept is considered to be an effective way to advance sustainable urban planning (Ahern et al. 2014). Bearing this in mind, ecosystem service planning is a place-based approach that focuses on the creation, restoration, and conservation of ecological structures to provide society with specific services from nature (Chan et al. 2006, Staes et al. 2010). On the other hand, climate change adaptation focuses on the modification of human-environment features to moderate the adverse effects of climatic extremes and variability (Janssen et al. 2006, Thompson et al. 2006, IPCC 2007, Wamsler et al. 2013). Consequently, climate change adaptation planning assesses and modifies activities, policies, and the built environment according to the current and projected impacts of climate change and related societal vulnerabilities (Smit et al. 2000, Füssel 2007, Dannevig et al. 2012).

The need to mainstream the two conceptual components of ecosystem-based adaptation into urban planning, i.e., ecosystem services and climate change adaptation, is advocated in the scientific literature in these two fields (Daily and Matson 2008, Daily et al. 2009, Moser and Ekstrom 2010, Clar et al. 2013). Although the term “mainstreaming” often has no clear definition, it relates to a “perturbation in the natural order of things” (Picciotto 2002:323, La Trobe and Davis 2005) to integrate a new topic into existing and often ingrained ways of operating. Ultimately, mainstreaming is motivated by the need to change the dominant paradigm. It changes the rules of the game and challenges ideas, attitudes, or activities that are considered as mainstream or normal (Picciotto 2002). This relates, in turn, to the concepts of sustainability transitions (van den Bergh et al. 2011, Markard et al. 2012, Forrest and Wiek 2014), sustainable transformation (Westley et al. 2011, IPCC 2012, McCormick et al. 2013), and transformative adaptation. The latter is recognized for its potential to address root causes of risk and failures in sustainable development approaches (Revi et al. 2014).

A multipart mainstreaming framework is applied to systematically explore the potential ways in which ecosystem-based adaptation can be integrated into urban planning. Mainstreaming approaches can be classified depending on whether they are based on horizontal or vertical integration, which characterizes the quality of governance relations between actors (Lafferty and Hovden 2003, Persson and Klein 2009, Rauken et al. 2014). The vertical dimension refers to implementation by powerful governmental bodies, such as city councils, and firm guidance from core legislative powers or actors during the integration process (Jacob and Volkery 2004). Horizontal integration can be defined as processes that are implemented by less powerful entities, such as departments, and specifically, conditions that are characterized by a single actor who encourages or coordinates mainstreaming, but who has insufficient authority to exercise top-down control (Jacob and Volkery 2004, Nunan et al. 2012).

Furthermore, the mainstreaming themes that emerge from the literature can be assigned to six strategic activities:

  1. The initiation of new, on-the-ground activities that directly focus on the topic under consideration (Holden 2004, Roberts and O’Donoghue 2013, Wamsler 2014a);
  2. The alignment of departments’ activities on-the-ground to integrate the topic under consideration (Holden 2004, Pelling et al. 2008, Roberts and O’Donoghue 2013, Wamsler 2014a);
  3. Strategic collaboration between relevant internal and external stakeholders (Holden 2004, Pelling et al. 2008, Roberts and O’Donoghue 2013, Sitas et al. 2014, Wamsler 2014a);
  4. The modification of organizational working structures (Holden 2004, Pelling et al. 2008, Roberts and O’Donoghue 2013, Wamsler 2014a;
  5. The revision and creation of policies, regulations, and instruments (Roberts and O’Donoghue 2013, Sitas et al. 2014, Wamsler 2014a); and
  6. Directed instructions to support the integration of the topic under consideration (Pelling et al. 2008, Wamsler 2014a).

The mainstreaming framework developed by Wamsler (2014a) encompasses and consolidates these activities (Table 1).


A multiple case-study approach (Yin 2009) was applied to analyze the key characteristics of activities regarding the integration of ecosystem-based adaptation into municipal planning. Eight municipalities in the Bavarian region of Southern Germany were analyzed, i.e., Munich, Nürnberg, Regensburg, Würzburg, Landshut, Passau, Deggendorf, and Freising (Fig. 1). Because of the exploratory character of the research, purposive sampling was used to select the municipalities (Flyvbjerg 2005, Tongco 2007) based on their hazard exposure regarding heat and flood and their proactive engagement in climate risk-related research groups or projects.

Germany is of particular interest. On the one hand, it expects substantial climate change impacts (DWD 2014). On the other hand, the country is portrayed as a pioneer in environmental and climate change governance (Foljanti Jost and Jacob 2004, DC 2014) and ecosystem-based approaches are promoted by the national government (BfN 2012). In addition, significant advances can be expected in the Bavarian region because of the commitment of the regional government to address climate change (StMUG 2009).

Data collection

In 2014, face-to-face interviews and a survey were conducted with staff from municipal departments engaged in spatial or environmental planning. Because proactive civil servants have been identified as key factors in adaptation mainstreaming (Roberts 2010), both the survey participants and the interviewees were selected through purposive sampling based on their field of activity within the municipality and their participation in adaptation and ecosystem-related activities. Fifteen in-depth interviews lasting at least two hours were carried out. The survey was designed to follow up on preliminary outcomes and triangulate data obtained from interviews and the literature. The literature review extended the analysis by providing contextual information on the selected cities, their activities, planning structures, and instruments, i.e., project documentations, organizational charts, job descriptions, municipal climate strategies, regional and sectoral plans, comprehensive and detailed plans, etc.

Data analysis

A combination of literal reading, grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967, Corbin and Strauss 1990), and systems theory was applied. The identification and analysis of relevant passages from the data were organized into five phases: (1) coding scheme development in accordance with the analytical framework (previous section and Table 1), (2) identification of potentially relevant texts, (3) application of the coding scheme, (4) identification of change patterns, and (5) discussion of preliminary findings with key informants and staff from the municipalities and inclusion of their feedback. The latter also resulted in the development of an operational framework for adaptation mainstreaming (Wamsler 2014b), which is currently being tested in selected municipalities in Germany and Sweden. Related work allowed the review and validation of the leverage points for fostering sustainability transitions in local governments, which were identified in this study.


The results present the key characteristics and patterns of the identified activities that foster mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation into municipal planning practice. A summary of the analysis for each city is given in Table 2. Based on the mainstreaming framework presented, the key patterns that were identified in the cross-case analysis relate to changes in on-the-ground measures (Table 1, strategies 1-2); organizational structures and assets, including internal cooperation (Table 1, strategies 3-4); formal and informal policies and instruments (Table 1, strategy 5); external cooperation and networking (Table 1, strategy 3); and the use of the concept in professional jargon, which is often a prelude to action taking in the context of the previous issues. Directed mainstreaming (Table 1, strategy 6) was identified to be relevant for all listed aspects and is, thus, described under the respective subsections.

Concepts in professional jargon

The following change patterns were identified:

  1. In contrast to climate change adaptation, climate change mitigation² has become an established term and focus area in sustainable municipal planning.
  2. The concept of adaptation, if applied, is often used in a broad sense, as a buzzword, without further conceptualization.
  3. The ecosystem services concept is generally not used and there is a clear reluctance toward doing so.
  4. The ecosystem-based adaptation concept is not known.
  5. Green infrastructure and the protection, maintenance, and creation of ecosystems are usually discussed in the context of heat, but not water-related risk.

Since the end of the 1990s, climate change mitigation has become an increasingly well-known term and is currently an explicit aim of sustainable municipal planning (Stadt Nürnberg 2009). In some instances, it is confused with adaptation or is used as an umbrella term for all types of measures that deal with both the causes and impacts of climate change. As one respondent explained: “The dominant term is climate change mitigation, currently everything is ‘squeezed in’ this term.”

The term “climate change adaptation” is used less, and in two municipalities, Passau and Deggendorf, not at all. In Passau, climate change adaptation is, in accordance with its 2012 urban development strategy, only seen as “a topic for the future” (Stadt Passau 2012:21). In other cities, the adaptation concept started to become part of the professional jargon between 2009 and 2012. Proactive municipal staff started to find ways to put the concept onto the agenda, for instance in the context of climate protection strategies (e.g., in Munich) or the development of strategic development plans (e.g., in Freising). In some cities, e.g., Regensburg and Nürnberg, it was triggered by national funding, such as the open call for the research project Experimenteller Wohnungs- und Städtebau or ExWoSt, as it is commonly referred to (translation: experimental housing and urban planning). In Landshut, adaptation came up in late 2012, prompted by the position paper of the German Association of Cities (DST) on the issue (DST 2012). As was highlighted by some interviewees: “Climate change adaptation is certainly an issue for people interested in science, but to push the issue onto your own field of work ... it often needs an external trigger.”

In the past two years, in four municipalities, the concept has started to appear in strategic planning documents. However, even in these cases, its conceptualization is still in its infancy, which hinders systematic operationalization and mainstreaming. Similarly, the term “ecosystem-based adaptation” is not used yet by any municipality. After probing, alternative terminology such as “landscape-based adaptation” or “green and blue infrastructure” was suggested. Green and blue infrastructure is a commonly used concept, which highlights the importance of the natural environment, i.e., vegetation and water bodies, in decisions about land-use planning.

In all cases, except one, there is a general reluctance to use the ecosystem services concept. It is not thought to provide any added value to conventional approaches. Interviewees claim, however, that some key principles, e.g., existence and interconnectedness of different environmental functions and welfare effects, are essential components of their daily work, although they do not appreciate the importance of giving ecosystem services a monetary value. Most interviewees agree that: “Climate change mitigation and adaptation are services that cannot be valued in monetary terms. ... If we cannot get climate change under control, money will have no value any more. It is thus counterproductive to try to identify parameters with economic values.”

Landshut was the exception. Here, the ecosystem services concept has been used since 2013 in strategic discussions with the city council, whose directorate comes from the private sector, and in expert evaluation of detailed or comprehensive planning. It was said to be easier to convey its meaning than the more commonly-used term “welfare effect.”

In general, although the adaptation discourse is highly focused on temperature-related hazards, e.g., heat waves, tropical nights, etc., the terms “risk reduction” and “disaster risk management” dominate in the context of water-related hazards. Promoted by higher level authorities and changes in legislation, water-related adaptation work has, since 2003, been carried out under the heading of flood risk management, which has subsumed the older concept of technical flood protection (see also Policies and instruments).

On-the-ground measures

The following patterns of change regarding programmatic and add-on mainstreaming (Table 1) were identified:

  1. Few explicit adaptation measures have been implemented on the ground.
  2. The focus is on assessing local climate risk as an inevitable prerequisite for future adaptation measures.
  3. Existing measures, which have adaptation as a cobenefit, or unintended by-product, were initiated by cities’ increasing commitment to environmental planning, climate change mitigation, or flood risk management.
  4. Most advances are related to riverine flood protection. Technical solutions dominate.
  5. Heat-related measures are closely linked to ecosystem-based approaches.

Because climate change adaptation is still a relatively new topic, there are few explicit adaptation measures, although there is a range of measures that have adaptation as a cobenefit. Many measures with adaptation cobenefits came out of environmental planning approaches and more recent climate change mitigation work. For instance, Agenda 21 projects now also include measures of ecosystem-based adaptation. In Munich, many of today’s projects date from the 2001 urban development strategy, Perspektive München (Stadt München 2001), its guideline on ecological planning (Stadt München 2012a), and the city’s climate protection strategy (Stadt München 2012b). The resultant measures are the support of local recreation and mobility. They aim to reduce emissions by creating a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly environment, through the maintenance or development of green areas such as the Munich greenbelt, green corridors, open public spaces, and front yards. Another frequently used measure, which has adaptation cobenefits, is the promotion of green roofs.

Other measures with adaptation cobenefits have developed out of work on flood risk management. However, technical solutions dominate. Examples are the construction of water pumping stations, water detention basins, swales and storage sewers, the (re)construction of municipal buildings to improve resilience (e.g., in Passau) and, in all cities, improvements to existing embankments. In the words of an interviewee: “Regarding flood, it is all about building embankments. The protection of citizens is about building embankments. That this has anything to do with climate ... is not seen.” Exceptional cases are the Isar renaturation project, which aimed to improve technical flood protection as well as provide ecological and recreational functions (WWA 2011) and Freising’s integrated flood plan, which aims to reduce inflow to the Moosach river by improving water retention outside the city.

The first explicit adaptation measures came out of externally financed adaptation projects, cities’ own climate mitigation work, or strategic development planning. In the case of Freising, the planning of ecosystem-based adaptation measures resulted from work on the urban strategic development plan (STEP). In Munich, the idea to create a climate adaptation theme park, currently in the planning phase, came out of its climate protection program (Stadt München 2012b). In Nürnberg and Würzburg, the identification of future measures is advanced and described in their respective integrative climate strategies (BAUM 2012, Stadt Nürnberg 2014). However, personnel, financial, and land-ownership issues have meant that implementation is slow. In Regensburg, only one measure, the uncovering of a historic stream and its development as recreational area in the Obermünster rehabilitation area, was approved and is underway. In several cases, active monitoring and selection of vegetation that is suitable for changing weather conditions has become part of daily practice in the municipalities’ garden offices.

Organizational structures and assets, including internal cooperation

Regarding organizational structures and assets (Table 1, managerial and inter-organizational mainstreaming), the following patterns of change were identified:

  1. Generally, there is no explicit and formally defined responsibility for climate adaptation.
  2. In several places, climate protection managers also have minor, but nonformalized, responsibilities for adaptation.
  3. There are few economic assets or personnel dedicated to adaptation. When there were external funds available, temporary organizational structures were often created to implement projects. After financing ended, these structures were dissolved and progress significantly slowed.
  4. In the few cases in which adaptation has already led to changes in organizational structures, they are similar to those developed for climate change mitigation.
  5. Since the 1980s, many municipalities have gradually improved organizational structures to support environmental mainstreaming, which has also enhanced structures that support ecosystem-based adaptation.

Between 2013 and 2014 in many cities, the issue of climate change mitigation was formally included in their portfolio. Responsibility for climate change mitigation often lies with the highest decision-making levels. In all study areas, except Passau, one or several climate protection mangers were employed. They generally work in the environmental department and have the task of overall coordination and mainstreaming. There are two exceptions. The first is Deggendorf, where, in 2014, a climate protection manager was employed in the planning department. The second is Munich, where, in 2013-2014, a total of 11 climate protection managers were located in different units and departments to enable the topic to be integrated in a decentralized manner and at all planning levels.

In most cities climate protection managers were given, over time, minor, and only informal, responsibilities for addressing climate and weather-related impacts. In the case of Deggendorf, this extension of responsibilities was triggered by floods in 2013. In Landshut, it was related to the release of a position paper on climate change (DST 2012). In many other cities, it was a direct outcome of mitigation-related activities.

In seven of the eight municipalities, responsibility for adaptation is not explicitly defined and thus not part of its official activities. The exception is Munich, where, in 2013, the city council decided to put adaptation on the agenda and employed a climate adaptation manager in the environmental department, a decision that developed out of the city’s work on climate change mitigation, in particular its urban climate assessment. The role of the adaptation manager is to bring together and coordinate existing adaptation measures and, on this basis, develop an adaptation strategy. Between March and August 2014, an organizational structure was established to support the development of this strategy. This structure is composed of a steering and a working group, which both include various units and levels of decision makers. Interestingly, it is similar to the decentralized structure developed for the creation of the climate protection program (Stadt München 2010), and the working group includes several climate protection managers.

Other municipalities, in which adaptation mainstreaming has already led to changes in organizational structures and increased assets, have also replicated structures and processes similar to those developed for climate change mitigation, or even earlier, for environmental mainstreaming. The success of the latter varies considerably across areas. In Landshut, in 2005 the new mayor, from the private sector, decided to dismantle and subordinate the previously independent department for environmental protection to the office for public order to attract potential investors. In contrast, since the 1980s, Munich has developed an organizational structure aimed at integrating green infrastructure planning into all urban developments, a model that has received national attention. As a result, the local nature protection agency and the department for open space planning is today part of the urban planning unit, rather than the environmental unit. Although the department for open space planning is a separate department, its staff is physically located in various planning units. In practice, this means that for every city development, there is an urban planner who is directly supported by a landscape planner. This organizational structure and related working routines were established to mainstream environmental issues into planning at all levels and is now used to advance ecosystem-based adaptation.

However, in cases in which structures for mainstreaming other cross-sectoral topics are poorly developed, there is little progress in developing organizational structures and assets for adaptation mainstreaming. In these cases, developments are based on informal discussions and communication between staff members, and adaptation is often overlooked in favor of other pressing needs. In the words of one interviewee: “Based on the crazy population growth, which we currently have, nobody would have the time to establish or participate in any working groups [for climate change adaptation]. We have a real problem here.”

Independent of the individual context, and in contrast to climate change mitigation, financial resources for climate change adaptation are generally lacking and have not yet led to a continuous integration process. In Regensburg and Nürnberg, adaptation was driven to a large extent by the ExWoSt project. When the project ended, “lost” personnel and financial capacity meant that the issue of adaptation could not be actively pursued. Other governmental funds for climate change adaptation, including adaptation strategies, were established in 2014 by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, interestingly as part of the ministry’s funding program for climate change mitigation (BMUB 2014). Munich successfully applied for funding to establish their adaptation strategy.

Finally, scattered responsibilities for dealing with ecosystem services, climate-related risks, and disasters are seen as a challenge in all municipalities and especially smaller towns such as Freising and Deggendorf. In these towns, responsibility for green and open space development is fragmented because the district administration is responsible for environmental (and energy) issues and houses the local nature protection authority, whereas many other aspects are dealt with by the municipal administration, e.g., water- and traffic-related issues.

In the context of flood protection, responsibilities are well defined. The State of Bavaria has legal responsibility for major rivers, whereas city authorities are in charge of minor waterways. Within a municipality, the civil engineering department is generally responsible for flood protection and the municipal fire brigade, generally part of the civil protection department, is responsible for all types of disasters.

Policies and instruments

The identified patterns of change regarding formal and informal policies and instruments (Table 1, regulatory mainstreaming) are:

  1. No city has, as yet, developed a separate climate adaptation strategy.
  2. The integration of climate change adaptation, and of ecosystem-based adaptation in particular, into municipal policies and instruments is in its infancy.
  3. Cities’ commitment to climate change mitigation, environmental planning, and flood risk management has, as a by-product, also led to advances in the incorporation of ecosystem-based adaptation into policies and instruments.
  4. Advances can mostly be found in informal strategic planning and instruments.
  5. Instruments for fostering sustainable city planning do not include adaptation, including ecosystem-based adaptation, as an issue.

None of the cities in the study has, as yet, developed a standalone climate change adaption strategy. However, two cities, Nürnberg and Würzburg, have included adaptation as a component in their climate protection strategies. In Würzburg, an integrated mitigation-adaptation approach was promoted by a proactive staff member, leading to the endorsement of the city’s integrated climate strategy in 2012 (BAUM 2012). In Nürnberg, the results of the ExWoSt project led to the development of a so-called adaptation handbook (Stadt Nürnberg 2012a), which presents the building blocks for an adaptation strategy based on the project’s two pilot areas. Related aspects were then included in the 2014 climate roadmap, which presents climate change mitigation and adaptation as the two pillars of climate action (Stadt Nürnberg 2014). Munich has, at the end of 2013, initiated the process of elaborating a standalone adaptation strategy. In November 2013, the city council agreed to draw up such strategy and its commitment was reconfirmed in October 2014 when Munich became one of the first members of the European network “Mayors Adapt.” As stated by one respondent: “We want to rise to the challenge ..... and show that we can do this.”

None of the municipalities are making much effort to adjust existing formal or informal planning frameworks, regulations, and instruments to take into account the issue of climate change adaptation. Tables 3 and 4 provide an overview of existing and potential adaptation mainstreaming.

All interviewees agreed that comprehensive and detailed development plans and related policies, e.g., city statutes, were potentially the most important regulations for reducing weather- and climate-related risks. The revised building code of July 30, 2011 states that climate change should be considered in any planning processes (BauGB 2011 §1). Accordingly, municipal staff can include (ecosystem-based) adaptation in existing formal planning instruments. However, in contrast to climate change mitigation, adaptation still receives little attention because of, among other things, a lack of guidance and local climate knowledge. From two of the interviewees: “Regarding the question of how to address climate-related issues in [the department of] comprehensive and detailed planning, how to integrate adaptation, I would argue that there is still a great need for research.” “I could already include specific requirements [for adaptation], if I want to, but I lack the necessary basis for arguing why, in a certain place, I have to do it like this, and somewhere else perhaps not.”

Current comprehensive plans were drawn up before adaptation became an important issue. In Regensburg, the comprehensive plan from 1983 is however now under revision to include climate change adaptation, an activity that was initiated by the ExWoSt project. This project also led to the development of a planning instrument for the integration of climatic aspects into comprehensive planning (Jacoby and Beutler 2013), which still needs to be tested.

In many areas, extreme growth has led to new detailed development plans with no time left for the issue of adaptation, except in terms of general standards. There are only a few developments in which additional measures were demanded to address problems such as water infiltration and increasing precipitation, e.g., a high percentage of green roofs in Munich and Freising.

Detailed development plans are seen as crucial for the promotion of hazard-resilient buildings and to prevent future construction in at-risk areas, although retroactive changes are unlikely. The resettlement or dismantling of existing constructions has not been planned, but related discussions have been initiated. The revision of existing detailed plans might mean that building permits in at-risk areas must be withdrawn, which would lead to the expropriation of private property that is constitutionally protected. This may lead to demands for compensation. Since 2013, the state has required that new developments can only be built in areas in which there is a 100-year flood protection guaranteed (WHG 2013).

Because formal planning is highly regulated and thus difficult and time consuming to modify, the integration of climate change adaptation, including ecosystem-based approaches, is mainly found in informal planning. An example is the guideline on ecological planning, which is part of Munich’s urban development strategy, Perspektive München. It was updated in 2012 to integrate climate change-related issues (Stadt München 2012a). Accordingly, the planning department, which was mainly responsible for the preparation of the guideline, started to mainstream adaptation into its strategic goals. In fact, its open space planning unit recently added a fifth pillar, called “climate change mitigation and adaptation” to its strategic goals.

In Nürnberg and Regensburg, the integration of climate change adaptation into informal planning was triggered by the ExWoSt project. In Nürnberg, it led to a green and open space concept for the Weststadt area of the city (Stadt Nürnberg 2012b). In Regensburg it led to the establishment of a heritage management plan (Stadt Regensburg 2012a) and a strategic planning framework for the historic city center (Stadt Regensburg 2014/15), all of which have adaptation considerations at their core.

In Freising, the issue of climate change adaptation was brought up during the development of the city’s strategic urban development plan (STEP; Stadt Freising 2014/15). It is included under the heading “nature and landscape,” indicating its close connection with ecosystem-based planning approaches. Although heat-related aspects were included from the beginning, flood protection was only included after floods in 2013 and in response to external demands, i.e., water legislation. Based on the STEP, in 2014 Freising began to develop an integrated flood protection and retention strategy.

Most changes in formal and informal planning have been initiated in the context of flood protection, which is related to regulation at European, national and regional levels. In 2010, the 2007 European Union (EU) directive on the assessment and management of floods was integrated into the federal government's water resources act. This outlined flood protection requirements and instructed municipalities to provide flood risk maps by the end of 2013 and flood risk management plans by the end of 2015 (WHG 2010 §74(6) 75(6)). Adaptation is considered in the form of a 15% addition for calculating potential floods and related necessary flood protection.

Finally, although the issue of climate change mitigation is taken into account in sustainability planning and reporting, the interviewees stated that neither the issues of climate change adaptation nor ecosystem-based adaptation have been broached in this context (e.g., Stadt Nürnberg 2009, Stadt München 2012c)

External cooperation and networking

The identified patterns of change regarding intra-organizational mainstreaming (Table 1) are as follows:

  1. Professional development takes place in the context of existing projects and, to some extent, networking events organized by national and international bodies.
  2. Cooperation with neighboring municipalities and regional bodies exists mostly in the context of flood protection.
  3. There is little cooperation with citizens and innovative alliances to support ecosystem-based adaptation.

The current focus of the selected cities is on their own administration and related capacity development, whereas little attention is given to external cooperation and networking. In the words of one interviewee: “The first step now is ... what is within our own competence ... what we can implement. And then we will look, in a second step, further, and try to include other processes [i.e., collaboration with external organizations and citizens].”

In contrast, external cooperation, city partnerships, networking, and collaborative arrangements have increasingly been fostered in the field of climate change mitigation in recent years (Gausset and Hoff 2013, Hoff and Gausset 2015).

Capacity building for adaptation is actively pursued by the five biggest cities through participation in projects or related dissemination events. These include the ExWoSt project (2009-2013) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB); the Centre for Urban Ecology and Climate Adaptation ZSK 2013-16 financed by the Bavarian Ministry for Environment and Consumer Protection (StMUV); and the Klimmzug project (2008-2014) financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In addition, staff from two cities, Munich and Würzburg, mentioned the importance of national and international networking events, such as climate dialogues held to discuss the national adaptation strategy, and workshops held by the European Commission’s Climate Alliance, by the Covenant of Mayors, and by the Mayors Adapt networks. Not surprisingly, participation in these networks is often initiated by municipal staff, rather than the city council.

Because ecosystem-based adaptation is seen as extremely difficult because of space restrictions and the interests and concerns of the actors involved, there are very few cooperative arrangements or innovative alliances. In the words of one interviewee: [With all the different actors involved] “this is sometimes like trying to square the circle..., trying to achieve the impossible.” The 2010 climate protection program developed by the city of Würzburg includes the creation of an urban climate network (BAUM 2012); no concrete actions have however been taken so far.

The importance of close cooperation with neighboring municipalities and governmental bodies responsible for regional planning was only mentioned in the context of water management and flood protection, with the regional water authority being the main actor. In Munich, the success of the Isar renaturation project was in fact considered to be the result of good cooperation and the constellation of actors involved.

In contrast to climate change mitigation, there is little citizen involvement and cooperation in climate change adaptation. In several cities it is restricted to the provision of basic information, mainly for flood protection. Four cities offer minor incentives aimed at reducing soil sealing and increasing greening on private lots. In the case of Nürnberg and Regensburg, these initiatives have been offered in the context of the ExWoSt project with limited success (Stadt Regensburg 2012b, Stadt Nürnberg, [date unknown]'). In Nürnberg, they are also based on environmental mainstreaming activities from the 1980s/90s. Also in Munich, related initiatives are relics of environmental mainstreaming work, i.e., the green courtyard project, which are now being revived or are linked to mitigation work. Regarding the latter, the nongovernmental organization Green City, supported by the Munich City Council as part of its climate protection program, established a greening office, which aims to engage citizens in adaptation.

Apart from the provision of information and minor financial incentives, there are few attempts to create further city-citizen collaborations. Freising asked residents to become “godparents” to two local stretches of water to ensure maintenance and flood control. In Freising and Munich, the city administrations have initiated a dialogue with residents and farmers in areas in which increased flood retention is difficult because of private land ownership.


The results provide rich and novel insights into current and potential activities that can foster the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation in urban governance and planning, related processes, advances, and shortcomings. All of the mainstreaming strategies investigated have been applied in practice, although the importance given to particular strategies and specific activities varies (see Results section and Table 2). The results highlight a gap between the concept of ecosystem-based adaptation and the practical implementation of related measures, synergies between the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation and other cross-cutting topics, ambiguities regarding the mainstreaming concept and, based on this, ways to leverage sustainability transitions. Although previous studies have noted similar aspects, in the context of this study, they played out in very different ways. Related comparative analyses are presented in the following subsections.

Ecosystem-based adaptation in practice

In theory, ecosystem-based adaptation is framed as a comprehensive approach rooted in both ecosystem services and climate change adaptation research (Uy and Shaw 2012a, b, Chong 2014); however, in practice, related activities are not linked to the ecosystem services concept. In contrast to other countries, where the ecosystem services concept has been identified as a key driver of ecosystem-based adaptation at national and local levels (Wamsler et al. 2014), in Germany it is perceived very critically.

Ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation are instead motivated by either environmental planning, or climate change adaptation, or flood risk management, and unlike other contexts (Doswald et al. 2014, Sitas et al 2014, Wamsler et al. 2014) are not labeled or systematized in any way. As described by one interviewee: “We deal with the issue of adaptation in a very broad or general sense, and the differentiation between constructive and other types of adaptation measures is, in practice, not yet a topic. We are not there yet. ... We still have a smörgasbord of ideas, we still don’t have an overview. This will come with further conceptualization... Then we will perhaps start to systematize, and then perhaps also see where we have deficits, where we could advance adaptation in different ways.”

Although mainstreaming entry points are diverse, progress in the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation tends to be associated with cities’ commitment to environmental planning, rather than adaptation. This is because of increasing demands for sustainable growth, and the fact that environmental planning structures, processes, and instruments are, in contrast to other contexts, well established, which enables civil servants to engage in ecosystem-based adaptation within their current portfolio (Sitas et al. 2014, Wamsler et al. 2014). However, this applies mainly to heat risk.

Activities to reduce heat and flood risk were found to be compartmentalized. Related activities are mainly implemented independently. Although work on flood risk management is still dominated by technical solutions, activities related to heat risk are mostly based on green infrastructure approaches. However, the growing importance of the concept of flood risk management, as opposed to technical flood protection, supports increasingly integrated approaches, which advance ecosystem-based adaptation in practice.

Mainstreaming synergies

Synergies between top-down and bottom-up efforts

In line with a previous study on Swedish municipalities (Wamsler et al. 2014), this study shows the importance of combining mainstreaming strategies to balance the shortcomings in individual activities, including vertical and horizontal approaches.

Only in the case of flood protection is the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation characterized by clear guidance from core legislative powers and other actors at European, national, and regional levels. In the case of other climate-related risks, mainstreaming relates to the implementation of processes by departments that encourage or coordinate adaptation but have little authority themselves (cf. Jacob and Volkery 2004, Nunan et al. 2012).

At the city level, although committed politicians are driving the integration of climate change mitigation, this is not the case for adaptation. Increasing regulation through directed mainstreaming has, for instance, been achieved in the context of climate change mitigation, e.g., through detailed-planning requirements or the definition of energy-rehabilitation projects, but it is still seen as politically difficult when it comes to adaptation.

A lack of directed mainstreaming is compensated for by dedicated civil servants who streamline the work within their sphere of activities. They submit applications for external, mainly national or regional, adaptation funding, push to join adaptation-related networks, and drive directed mainstreaming through integrating ecosystem-based adaptation into informal planning, thus laying the ground for the future integration into formal planning and decision making. However, in contrast to other countries (cf. Wamsler et al. 2014), there is little interest and engagement in accessing international funding or developing new planning instruments. The latter is because of high levels of regulation in Germany and the potential to adapt related processes and instruments, e.g., impact mitigation regulation and related compensation.

Synergies between mainstreaming efforts

This study revealed synergies between mainstreaming efforts, providing clear evidence that the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation is enabled through experience in mainstreaming other topics (see under Organizational structures and assets and Policies and instruments). This finding is in contrast to older studies, such as Kok and de Coninck (2007) and Agrawala and Van Aalst (2008). Although more recent work has reported similar outcomes (Wamsler et al. 2014), it only relates to environment mainstreaming.

In the German context, both environmental and climate change mitigation planning have driven adaptation mainstreaming. Adaptation mainstreaming is most advanced in cities in which earlier efforts in environmental and, importantly, climate change mitigation mainstreaming have led to the creation of decentralized structures that promote interdisciplinary and interdepartmental work. Less progress is seen in those cities in which there is little environmental and climate change mitigation mainstreaming. Furthermore, strong synergies between climate change mitigation and adaptation planning were identified for both mainstreaming and on-the-ground operations, although past studies have mainly highlighted that “win-win solutions are rare” and “conflicting goals are ... commonplace” (McEvoy et al. 2006:190, Davoudi et al. 2010).

Overcoming ambiguities regarding the mainstreaming concept

Although the mainstreaming approach has received much criticism in the context of cross-cutting topics such as gender (Mazey 2002), environment (Dalal-Clayton and Bass 2009, Jordan and Lenschow 2010, Runhaar et al. 2014), disaster risk reduction (La Trobe and Davis 2005, Benson et al. 2007), HIV/AIDS (Holden 2004), education and learning (Ferreira et al. 2007), and climate change mitigation and adaptation (Swart and Raes 2007, Adelle and Russel 2013), in the context of this study such concerns are hardly seen. The main criticisms of gender and environmental mainstreaming approaches are: (1) the risk of co-opting the concept to promote issues that conflict with the targeted outcomes (Stratigaki 2005, True 2010, Weber and Driessen 2010); (2) the risk of “mainstreaming overload” (Kok and de Coninck 2007:588, Agrawala and Van Aalst 2008:188); and (3) the risk that the new topic becomes nobody’s responsibility (True 2010). Based on this, some scholars have concluded that mainstreaming is a technocratic exercise, which is unlikely to change social relationships (Palmary and Nunez 2009, Turnhout et al. 2013). Such ambiguities are not identified in this study. Because adaptation mainstreaming is built on past experience, processes, and structures of mainstreaming, related advances also build on the lessons learned and furthermore challenge conventional planning approaches, such as sectoral planning and technical flood protection. It is thus argued that criticism generally relates to a lack of comprehensive understanding and implementation of the mainstreaming concept in the past, which is different to the concept presented here, rather than problems inherent in the concept itself, which addresses potential counteracting forces.

In the past, mainstreaming processes have also led to the promotion of civil society involvement and collaborative arrangements with citizens to cocreate local policies and practice (Gausset and Hoff 2013, Hoff and Gausset 2015). The basic tenet is that citizens, either as individuals or as members of groups, can and must play an important part in related efforts (Tompkins and Eakin 2012, Gausset and Hoff 2013, Hoff and Gausset 2015). Surprisingly, there have been few such developments in the context of adaptation. This is confirmed by Naumann et al. (2011) who assessed ecosystem-based adaptation in Europe3. In the context of ecosystem-based adaptation, this is especially unfortunate because research on adaptive comanagement and adaptive governance has also shown the importance of civil society involvement and cross-level linkages for making the transition from uncoordinated or sector management, to ecosystem-based management (Olsson et al. 2004, Plummer and Armitage 2007, Plummer et al. 2012, 2013, Plummer 2013, Chaffin et al. 2014). Adaptive co-management and adaptive governance refers to governance of social-ecological systems for the management and use of assets that provide ecosystem services, in which rights and responsibilities are jointly shared between state-based and community-based systems.

Leveraging sustainability transitions through mainstreaming

Like other studies, the ability of municipalities to implement mainstreaming was shown to depend on a range of contextual factors (cf. Burch 2010, van den Bergh et al. 2011, Dannevig et al. 2012), and is illustrated by this quote from an interviewee: “Advances are very different. They depend on individuals, their interests, the political standpoint of the mayor, the structure of the city council... Cities and districts work in a very complex way and are often very different. Overarching themes such as adaptation have, at an early stage, extreme amplitudes. There are cities that advance full speed, and there are cities that have start-up difficulties. Once things are running, it develops a momentum of its own. Then a sort of social control kicks in between cities. ‘They make it, then we also have to.’ But at the initial stage, there are huge differences.”

Apart from the commitment of individual staff members and prior mainstreaming experience, the size of the city and its associated resources were identified as particularly influential at all levels of mainstreaming, from capacity building to actual operations. Interviewees stated that: “Slowly, there is a rethink going on. I think that it is mainly in the bigger cities where a change in thinking can already be observed, and it is slowly coming to us too.” “In the countryside, these issues [climate change mitigation and adaptation] still have a bad reputation... You are the bogeyman if you campaign for an issue that makes building areas more expensive, ... makes them difficult, or can impede the development of building areas”

Adaptation mainstreaming thus requires flexible strategies, which take into account context-specific features. Accordingly, there is no off-the-shelf template or step-by-step approach that could provide defined pathways for sustainably mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation into municipal governance and planning. Nevertheless, the framework presented addresses the claimed lack of indicators of local governments’ mainstreaming capacity (IPCC 2014). The framework has been shown to be applicable to the analysis and comparison of both individual departments and entire city authorities. It is based on aspects identified as crucial, which are needed to develop momentum and make adaptation a core issue in municipal decision making. These include: the combination of different mainstreaming strategies and of related horizontal and vertical governance dimensions to overcome mainstreaming barriers; the encouragement of systematic planning for both explicit and implicit adaptation; and the involvement of a diversity of actors to enable innovative and sustainable solutions (cf. Ernstson et al. 2010), which include hard and soft (including ecosystem-based) measures (cf. Savacool 2011), as well as learning-by-doing approaches (cf. Kato and Ahern 2008, Jones et al. 2012b), while taking into account the local context.


This study investigated eight local government authorities in Southern Germany, i.e., Munich, Würzburg, Nürnburg, Regensburg, Landshut, Passau, Freising and Deggendorf, and looked at ways to mainstream ecosystem-based adaptation into municipal planning to foster sustainability transitions. First, the paper presents a systematic overview of current and potential mainstreaming activities and related processes. Second, it provides empirical evidence that there are diverse mainstreaming entry points for ecosystem-based adaptation and that environmental and climate change mitigation planning drive adaptation mainstreaming. Cities that have managed to integrate cross-cutting issues such as environment and climate change mitigation in the past are also more likely to have progressed in adaptation mainstreaming. Third, ecosystem-based adaptation is shown to be largely compartmentalized depending on how related activities are approached, i.e., via a climate change or disaster risk approach. Mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation would thus benefit from the creation of governance structures that combine well-established and highly directed flood risk management with climate change adaptation coordination, through defined decision-making bodies at different levels. Fourth, the paper highlights how mainstreaming strategies can complement and reinforce each other, and indicates ways to leverage sustainability transitions via mainstreaming in local government. The need for citizen-city collaborations to cocreate local policies and practice is underlined in this context. Fifth, the use of the developed mainstreaming framework to analyze current practice and capacities has been demonstrated, thus also providing initial indicators for local government’s mainstreaming capacity. It has shown that adaptation mainstreaming in general, and the mainstreaming of ecosystem-based adaptation in particular, are still in their infancy. The applicability of the mainstreaming framework as a tool to make sustainability issues a core in local government decision making requires further research and is currently being tested in close collaboration with civil servants in pilot studies in Germany and Sweden. For this purpose, the results of this study have been translated into an operational guideline (Wamsler 2014b). Together with both the existing and the potential mainstreaming activities identified, it provides important input for municipalities to advance adaptation mainstreaming. Finally, further research might look into the applicability of the developed mainstreaming framework for identifying and characterizing transitions to adaptive comanagement and to describe related governance processes.

[1]Because of the specific characteristics (e.g., ambiguity and complexity) of sustainability problems, such as climate change, there is increasing consensus that incremental change is insufficient, and there is a need for more radical changes to achieve system-wide alterations that foster sustainability. These are here conceptualized as sustainability transitions.
[2]In contrast to climate change adaptation, which aims to reduce the effects of climate change, climate change mitigation aims to reduce the causes of climate change. Climate change mitigation commonly refers to anthropogenic interventions to reduce the sources, or enhance the sinks, of greenhouse gases (IPCC 2014). According to their respective aims, some measures can be classified as both climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation. Related overlaps can be intended or unintended.
[3]In contrast, in developing countries the mainstreaming of community-based approaches is increasingly advocated to achieve transformative adaptation (Archer et al. 2014).


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The research presented was carried out as part of a broader research project funded by the Swedish Research Council (FORMAS) and in cooperation with a project funded by the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment and Consumer Protection (StMUV). I thank all partners for their contribution, namely the municipalities of Munich, Nürnberg, Regensburg, Würzburg, Landshut, Passau, Deggendorf, and Freising, as well as the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Department of Strategic Landscape Planning and Management (SMLE), and the Centre for Urban Ecology and Climate Adaption (ZSK). Special thanks go to Professor S. Pauleit, Professor W. Lang, D. Gondhalekar, R. Hansen, E. Rall, W. Rolf, J. Tigges, W. Zehlius-Eckert, and H. Busch for their cooperation and/or valuable input.


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Address of Correspondent:
Christine Wamsler
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS)
P.O. Box 170
SE-221 00
Lund, Sweden
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