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FRACTAL ‘Embedded’ researcher catalyses climate response in Durban, South Africa

If an urban planner wants to design and build a city so that it can withstand sweltering temperatures during increasingly hot summer months, their first thought might be to use synthetic shade-cloth to create shelter. But if they look at this design problem in the context of climate change and the tools offered by nature itself, a better solution is to use trees to dampen the effects of heat islands in an otherwise built-up, cemented city-scape.

This is one of many insights that eThekwini city officials, on the east coast of South Africa, came to after attending a multi-stakeholder municipal workshop to strategise responses to identify climate change challenges, opportunities, and goals to include in their planning processes. This workshop was envisioned and initiated by the senior manager of the Strategic Spatial Planning Branch and ecologist Dr Lulu van Rooyen, who was brought on board as an ‘embedded’ researcher for a two-year project to see how the city could better integrate climate change knowledge from the academic community into its planning processes.

‘Urban centres like Durban get very hot, because there’s little or no vegetation left,’ van Rooyen says. The materials which cities are built with – concrete, dark asphalt paving, reflective glass – and the geometry of the city-scape tend to create heat islands which become worse during summer, and will get more intense as climate change brings heatwave conditions to the region more often.

The people responsible for the day-to-day operations and longer-term planning of cities have inherited, designed, and engineered urban spaces that evolved over decades and were put in place before city planners understood the benefits of natural green belts for buffering against heatwaves. Previous generations of city planners also didn’t know they would need to design cities to be able to cope with more extreme weather events such as greater flooding, drought conditions, or heatwaves.

Retro-fitting today’s urban spaces to include natural vegetation, or rivers and wetlands in the landscape, so that the city can be more resilient to the climate-related shockwavesneeds careful consideration with an eye on a long time horizon.

Embedding scientists into the city administration

Embedding a scientific researcher into a city administration is an approach that was first tried in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2012, and has since been rolled out across five other sub-Saharan African cities through the FRACTAL (Future Resilience for African Cities And Lands) research consortia part of the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme. At the city scale, the embedded researcher programme allowed scientists employed at a regional university to be seconded to their local city administration to help bridge the gap between academic knowledge and the operational and policy needs of city-level government. This involved jointly building up bodies of knowledge and fostering strong relationships and institutional networks.

The eThekwini municipality agreed to work with FRACTAL, and contracted Van Rooyen to be the researcher embedded within its administration to do this work. Other participating cities where this approach has been tried include Windhoek in Namibia, Lusaka in Zambia, Maputo in Mozambique, and Harare in Zimbabwe.

Van Rooyen, who had recently completed her doctorate in wetland ecology, was based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal at the start of the process. She spent on average three days a week based in an office in the city’s administrative buildings, working in the Climate Protection Branch within the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department (EPCPD), and another two days per week based in an office at the university. The nitty-gritty of being embedded in the municipality – both in its physical buildings, as well as within its culture – meant she was able to build important relationships between different stakeholders, understand the day-to-day operational pressures, and pull people into workshop processes that spanned disciplines and departmental silos.

‘An embedded researcher like this is a knowledge broker and boundary spanner,’ explains Van Rooyen.

‘One of the most important parts of this work was bringing all the stakeholders together in a workshop process to see what the knowledge needs were for both the policy makers in the city, and those responsible for implementation.’

Bridge-building for a climate resilient city

‘If you look at every-day urban design issues, like retrofitting the mobility network to be lower in carbon pollution or to combat heat islands through using green belts, city planners have the best knowledge of what’s happening on the ground,’ explains Van Rooyen. ‘But planners often don’t have a chance to engage with different disciplines, such as organisational planners or researchers in the academic world.’

Through the course of the embedded researcher programme, the eThekwini administration saw the benefit of this approach to knowledge exchange and relationship building in order to allow climate change-focused thinking to permeate the city’s planning processes.

As a result, the city agreed to keep Van Rooyen on board with external funding after the FRACTAL embedded researcher programme came to an end. This allowed her, in collaboration with the various municipal units and departments with funding coming from German development organisation GIZ, to pull together a workshop with about 45 city planners, geared towards organisational planning for climate change hosted by the city’s Development Planning, Environment and Management unit in 2019. While the outcome of the workshop was important, equally significant were the relationships and networks built between different city stakeholders, which will allow for better cooperation between them for green planning in future.

‘Having a boundary spanner like the embedded researcher in place can work well because the person isn’t attached to a specific departmental silo within the city. A bridge-builder like this allows other people from different institutions to build trust and come up with new ideas and knowledge together,’ she says.

‘Operating as the embedded researcher allowed me to understand how the various departments work, and built relationships between them. When you spend time with different groups, you get to see what really happens within different departments at an operational level or how people think.’

Read the working paper: An Embedded Researcher approach to integrate climate information into decision-making in southern African cities: lessons from FRACTAL here.

Watch the recording of the webinar on an Embedded Researcher approach here.

Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) is an international multi-consortia research programme that aims to generate fundamentally new climate science focused on Africa, and to ensure that this science has an impact on human development across the continent. The work reported on in this story is part of the Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands (FRACTAL) research group which aims to support decision-makers to integrate this knowledge into climate-sensitive decisions at city-regional scale.

This article was written by Leonie Joubert and is part of a series that highlights the capacity development initiatives of FCFA and introduces the Early Career Researchers involved in them.