Narratives of Change for a Resilient Future City
Benedikt Marschuetz a, Arjan Wardekker a,b
a Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands. b Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the
Humanities, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
Paper presented at the Utrecht Conference on Earth System Conference, Utrecht, 5-8 November 2018.
Climate change, and extreme events brought about by it, increasingly threatens an urbanizing humanity.
This imposes the need for adapting to arising challenges (limiting impacts) and for mitigating further
climate change (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) due to the limitations of adaptation 1–3. If measures
to reduce climate impacts are not taken, many people will potentially be affected by these. Impacts are
often magnified in cities, leading to e.g. heat-stress and urban flooding 4–6. Those places that are already
vulnerable are particularly affected. For example, the Netherlands are densely-populated and low-lying
and are likely to be challenged by extremes approaching from the sea, rivers and magnified by climate
change 7–9. To deal with such challenges, many regions and cities are developing action plans for
adaptation and mitigation. Such action plans are in principal aiming on building climate resilience towards
extremes, thus let e.g. a city cope with complex challenges in a dynamic way, withstand them, maintain
crucial functions in the city so as to make the survival of its population more likely and aid in recovery
thereafter 10–12. However, such activities aiding climate resilience impact not only the way the city looks
and functions, but also people’s daily lives 2,13. To find support and enable collaboration with and among
actors and residents, measures should be rooted in people’s hopes, fears and aspirations towards a
desired future for the city and thus centered around people’s lives and aspirations for a liveable
future 14,15. Since many activities around climate action and building resilience depend on behavioral
changes and local action and support, it is crucial that citizens can identify with these measures and that
measures align with citizens’ desired futures. In this paper, we explore the use of ‘narratives of change’
as a tool to elicit perceptions of past, present and future weather and climate and changes in these, and
how that relates to people’s values, goals, desired futures, as well as possible strategies to foster climate
Narratives are stories around perceived realities and futures that people can describe, and they mediate
and organize various understandings of them since narratives let people make sense of the world they
live in 16–18. They unfold around events and include key actors, relationships, values and ambitions, located
in time and space, and are therefore both backward looking, i.e. explanatory, and future-oriented as they
display aspirations and assumptions of the future 15,16,19. Narratives are also shared realities and foster
interaction among individuals through joint experiences of happenings. Consequently, narratives turn
‘matters of fact’, such as scientific observations and projections, into ‘matters of concern’ by connecting
changes to local individual and collective memories and by incorporating them into the local societal
realities. Narratives display a possible and desired future from the perspective of both society as well as
individual live-situations, and allow the design of measures to reach such 20. Thus, narratives become
central for the quest of resilience-building and future-proofing a city: they display desires of what ought
to be achieved or avoided in the future; what should be made resilient and what should be changed 21.
Such desires are power-laden and normative, and including them through narratives may aid in co-
producing urban climate resilience with a broader set of societal actors, including those voices that may
go unheard in traditional policy debates on adaptation 22,23.
We studied narratives in a case study in Dordrecht, an island-city in the South-Western Dutch Delta,
involved authorities and their public narratives as well as citizens and their ontological narratives. We
focused on stories around weather and water affecting the city. Furthermore, we collaborated with them
to explore the options for building urban climate resilience in line with the desire of citizens and
authorities. The historical port city is surrounded by rivers on all sides, located close to the sea, and
vulnerable to numerous climate-related changes. It also faces various socio-economic challenges. Due to
its vulnerable location, the city is already actively working on climate adaptation. Focusing on multi-level
safety to foster climate resilience is the city developing a multitude of measures consisting of flood-
prevention via dikes, spatial climate adaptation as well as crisis response and safety measures for times
of an expected worst-case inundation of the city affecting its population of approximately 120,000
We assessed the narratives of authorities and citizens, using narrative interviews, historical interviews,
document analysis, photo documentation, and site visits. Nine main narrative themes emerged. These
shed light on the historical struggle of the city with water, that is shaping its fate until today, as well as its
current exposure to water and weather, and the increasing climate-related threats for Dordrecht.
Narratives of authorities and inhabitants were partly shared and partly diverging. Both organizations and
citizens narrate richly about the city’s long history with water and those narratives display the strong
influence of history on perceptions of both present and future happenings 15,30. Particularly prevalent in
both authorities’ and citizens’ memories were the floods of 1421 (St. Elisabeth’s Flood), which led to the
formation of the “isle of Dordrecht”, as well as the North Sea Flood of 1953 (‘Watersnoodramp’), which
caused many deaths across the Netherlands. Both groups narrated that a recurrence of them ought to be
avoided 31,32. This history is well known and well embedded in the city’s cultural memory, and its influence
even manifests itself very prominently in the narratives collected in the form of an ‘island-identity’ 15,30,33.
However, the narrated specificities of the ongoing struggle with water and weather diverge between
authorities and citizens. Authorities focus on describing a state of vulnerability that ought to be dealt with
through adapting the city towards extremes, in a strategic, managerial approach. Citizens, on the other
hand, refer to hands-on experiences with a worsening situation around water, weather and climate
change, and holistically state the need for broad and practical climate actions, including adaptation and
mitigation. In that regard, narratives made obvious that there was a shared underlying motivator of
climate change and its effects and a desire for collaboration, embedded in both authorities’ and citizens’
narratives 15. Consequently, a shared vision emerged for a climate resilient and safe future, even though
the ways in which authorities and citizens experience and prefer to respond to climate change diverged.
Several things can be learned from this study. Firstly, the narrative analysis elicited both shared and
diverging understandings, perceptions and desires between actors. Narratives displaying similarities in
how both organizations and citizens perceive present and future issues facilitate collaboration on tackling
them and achieving the commonly wished for resilience. This ‘common story’ helps people identify their
shared goals and interests. Narratives displaying differences indicate where people may not agree, or as
in our case, where different groups can learn from and supplement each other. They can be used to
explore differences in desired futures and reflect on trade-offs in specific measures. Secondly, elicited
stories also showed how climate change manifests itself through various events in the live-realities of
interviewed stakeholders, and what trade-offs and barriers climate action may face. Taking these onboard
can make climate resilience more likely to be achieved. Thirdly, the results showed a surprising impact of
historical events, embedded in local memory and identity, on how current and future climate change and
climate action are interpreted and acted upon. Such memory and identity perspectives are rarely taken
into account in current climate adaptation efforts, but may provide an important avenue for better local
embedding of adaptation and mitigation. Consequently, narrative analysis is a useful methodology that
can aid in co-producing both knowledge and activities fostering resilience, implement them
collaboratively, spot potential constraints and barriers, and aid in creating ownership for measures 34–36.
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