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Transformational climate action at the city scale: comparative South–North perspectives


David Simon ,

Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, GB
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Ryan Bellinson,

Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, University College London, London, GB
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Warren Smit

African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, ZA
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Conceptually grounded, integrated, city-scale and comparative studies remain rare and are based mostly on meta-reviews of the literature or broad surveys. Conversely, debates about the limitations of incremental or transitional change and exhortations towards more ambitious processes of system or transformative changes are rarely grounded in adequate empirical analysis. Accordingly, this paper examines city-scale plans and actions in order to throw light on these issues in a carefully contextualised Global South–North comparison between Cape Town, South Africa, and Greater Manchester, UK. Cape Town has a considerable pedigree of citywide climate policy and action but achieving cross-departmental integration remains a key challenge, along with operationalisation and monitoring. Greater Manchester has abundant climate ambitions to become a leading European green city, but recent innovative policy processes revealed a lack of capacity and in-house expertise. The comparative analysis therefore focuses on capacity constraints hampering fulfilment of progressive city aspirations that engage with global agendas, and on how they use innovative planning and implementation processes and different forms of knowledge to address integrative or cross-cutting issues, as well as on their relative success to date in doing so in the face of different extents of inequality and power asymmetry.


Policy relevance

A comparative analysis of city-wide climate policy initiatives provides four insights that are highly relevant for policymakers. First, the political–institutional context in which local climate policy is designed invariably shapes the policy process, making it imperative to consider redesigning the ‘multilevel governance’ structures between the local governments that ‘hold the problem’ of climate change with the tools required to address the root causes. Second, policymakers need to grapple with and negotiate across the conflicting rationalities held by different professionals and stakeholders to bring together and integrate different types of knowledge into a comprehensive perspective. Third, local governments must find ways to address the underlying challenge of institutional inertia to embrace more ambitious, transformative policy agendas, moving away from incrementalist approaches. Finally, local governments should integrate debates on socio-spatial fairness and justice with climate policy, recognising the interdependencies between these agendas.

How to Cite: Simon, D., Bellinson, R., & Smit, W. (2022). Transformational climate action at the city scale: comparative South–North perspectives. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 1000–1018. DOI:
  Published on 29 Nov 2022
 Accepted on 03 Nov 2022            Submitted on 14 Apr 2022

1. Introduction

The burgeoning literature on urban climate change mitigation and adaptation actions remains dominated by diverse single empirical case studies. Moreover, these focus predominantly on individual sectors or areas within a city. Conceptually grounded, integrated (cross-sectoral), city-scale and comparative studies remain all too rare, and are based mostly on meta-reviews of the literature or broad surveys (e.g. Bulkeley & Castán Broto 2013; Bulkeley 2019; Castán Broto & Bulkeley 2013; Castán Broto & Westman 2020). Conversely, debates about the limitations of incremental or transitional change and exhortations towards more ambitious processes of systemwide or transformative changes (e.g. Pelling 2014; Pelling et al. 2015; Revi et al. 2014; Simon & Solecki 2018; Bulkeley 2021) are rarely grounded in adequate empirical analysis, although the emphasis on feasibility is increasing (Patterson et al. 2021).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report (2022) recently underscored the urgent need for more informed and well-calibrated policy processes that can progress the political commitments of cities into practical action of sufficient ambition if the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is to be met. Sufficient time has also now elapsed to allow for rigorous assessment of the growing number of comprehensive citywide climate and resilience strategies, and the extent of potentially differential impacts on particular groups and areas and the extent to which they affect equity and socio-spatial justice (Castán Broto & Westman 2020; Westman & Castán Broto 2021). Also important is the extent to which these strategies engage with the global sustainable development agenda, especially the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and New Urban Agenda. Furthermore, municipalities and city membership networks such as Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group are now increasingly prioritising actions deemed to have the highest potential impact on reducing emissions and on enhancing equity and resilience.

Accordingly, this paper seeks to advance the understanding of these issues by examining relevant city-scale plans and actions in a carefully contextualised Global South–North comparison between Cape Town, South Africa, and Greater Manchester, UK, in order to compare and contrast processes and outcomes between cities in very different geopolitical and socio-environmental contexts, which have often been argued in the past to render such exercises implausible. By contrast, such a comparative analysis is valuable in terms of its potential to illuminate how global processes of climate change and the global academic and policy discourses around them are received, internalised and acted upon in the respective city and national contexts.

2. Conceptual perspectives

The ways in which local governments are addressing and, in turn, are being affected by climate change and its impacts have been addressed in diverse ways in the literature. This reflects the evolution of debates over time and perceived inadequacies of more instrumentalist approaches. The range of approaches has recently collectively been termed ‘climate urbanism’ and engaged with by means of critical urban theoretical perspectives (Castán Broto & Robin 2021). Similarly, Bulkeley (2021) suggests that we are now in a third phase of evolving approaches to climate change over the last 30 years, characterised by integral connections between climate change actions and wider sustainability and resilience agendas. This paper contributes to the debate on transformational urban climate change politics and policies by assessing the two case studies from a similar perspective across the so-called Global North–South Divide, which appears increasingly outdated in relation to global environmental and climate change and related phenomena and associated discourses.

Climate and related environmental changes are particularly challenging because of their all-encompassing, intractable and global nature, and therefore because no one stakeholder or political entity can have much impact by acting alone within specific jurisdictional boundaries or activity spheres. Hence, they are commonly referred to as a wicked problem. Indeed, it is now well established in the academic literature (e.g., Bulkeley & Betsill 2005; Leck & Simon 2013, 2018), and explicit in Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda, that tackling climate change effectively requires collaborative multilevel and horizontal transboundary governance, characterised by clear divisions of labour between national, regional and local governments and appropriately matched resourcing. Particularly in the current context of often substantial local government budget cuts since the financial crisis of 2008–09, this is rarely the case, with municipalities, in particular, often having additional roles assigned—as recently in the battle against Covid-19—but without commensurate extra funding. Hence, mismatches are often substantial and even growing, so that having champions in key positions to push the importance of climate change agendas is often crucial (Leck & Roberts 2015). UN-Habitat’s (2022) recent guide to effective multilevel governance in the Global South is intended to assist countries in formulating and implementing appropriate arrangements and divisions of powers and responsibilities to enable cities to act effectively. It cites South Africa as a positive example. The situation is assessed in relation to the two case study cities.

One potential external influence on governance and policy is a city’s membership of transnational municipal networks (TMNs) and how well the information exchange and networking and peer-learning opportunities to adopt good practice thus offered are used or create self-referential ‘lock-ins’ (Acuto & Ghojeh 2019; Acuto & Rayner 2016; Bansard et al. 2017; Bellinson 2018; Castán Broto 2017; Cortes et al. 2022). For instance, the C40 Climate Cities Leadership Network—to which the City of Cape Town (CoCT) belongs—recently reported on how member cities have increased their levels of ambition and progress in relation to integrated climate actions through progress against five so-called high-impact declarations (C40 2022). These address net zero carbon buildings; good food cities; advancing towards zero waste; clean air cities; and green and healthy streets, respectively. Cape Town is one of 23 C40 city signatories of the net zero declaration, which has influenced its recent 2021 Climate Strategy. It is also one of 29 signatories of the green and healthy streets declaration, focusing on pedestrianisation and electric vehicle charging facilities in the city’s main business areas, linked to its Transit Oriented Development Strategy (2016) (C40 2022). CoCT is also a member of the Global Resilient Cities Network (the legacy organisation of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities Network), UCLG and ICLEI. Meanwhile, Greater Manchester is also a member of the Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN) as well as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

Notwithstanding this increasing emphasis on transnational networks, many other elements and complexities of city leadership institutions, tools and processes often exert stronger localisation pressures (McGuirk et al. 2016; Van der Heijden & Hong 2021). A systematic review of over 200 cities worldwide found that the tools used remained predominantly very local in nature, the strategic urban plans commonly had downward linkages to localised plans but few contained upward links to national and global agendas, and that actors participating in such plans were often very localised (Rapoport et al. 2019: 100). However, the research predated implementation of the global sustainable development agenda from 2016 onwards, and the picture today appears rather different, at least in terms of upward linkages, as the C40 (2022) evidence cited above and the case studies presented here reveal. This probably reflects the evolving nature of city networks—especially those like C40 and GRCN which were formed with those specific objectives—to help address the global agendas, the growth of study visits (Perry & Russell 2020; Haupt 2021) and other strategies to learn from elsewhere.

2.1 Transformation agendas

The growing emphasis on transformative agendas and actions recognises the limitations of hitherto often incremental or other limited interventions, the so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’ that have often already been implemented when deemed helpful, affordable and relatively straightforward socio-technical interventions. Such approaches are often characterised as the building blocks of urban sustainability transitions (Hölscher et al. 2018). However, they are also commonly argued to be too limited in scope and ambition to address any of the fundamental structural problems and associated unequal power relations that provide institutional inertia or defend the status quo. Instead, more ambitious programmes are required to implement a structural step change if net zero or the sustainable development agenda targets are to have a far greater likelihood of being met. This applies to urban areas as well as other scales or spatial entities (Pelling 2014; Revi et al. 2014; Hölscher et al. 2018; Simon & Leck 2015; Simon & Solecki 2018). For instance, Aylett (2014) and Romero-Lankao et al. (2018a: 587–589) demonstrate the transformative ambition and impact that can be achieved by integrating urban climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes rather than acting on each separately, which generates only incremental change.

Recent research has, nevertheless, challenged the notion that transformative adaptation (or adaptive transformation) necessarily requires major step changes. Indeed, Termeer et al. (2017) argue that this is unrealistic in most cases and there is little evidence of existing urban local governments or other governance institutions having done so or being able and willing to undertake such fundamental change. Instead, drawing on a long tradition of organisation theory research in which concepts such as the ‘reflective practitioner’ (Argyris & Schön 1978) were coined, they argue—with a logic reminiscent of the rationale of earlier incrementalist or reformist arguments—that accumulations of deliberate and interlocking smaller, incremental changes can and do generate continuous transformative change. In other words, even under such processes, the whole can and does become more than the sum of the parts. Similarly, Patterson et al. (2021) underline the importance of an insider view for understanding the myriad of constraints in urban planning in practice when seeking to undertake transformation in non-ideal institutional settings. Such critiques of transformation discourses appear to have validity, yet they may also, at least in part, constitute accommodationist responses when initially radical or progressive discourses become institutionalised, thereby losing their critical edge and being constrained by practicability within those institutional parameters (Pelling 2014: Simon 2003: 20–21). The extent to which organisational champions as discussed above (Leck & Roberts 2015) can bridge such constraints is probably context dependent. This conundrum is discussed further under governance below.

Furthermore, uncertainty and risk constitute key inhibitors of more far-reaching change, especially in relation to the outcomes of substantive changes and in situations of scarce resources that now constrain urban governments almost universally. This challenge has often been overlooked as a result of focusing on structural opposition to change and, in contrast to the perspective of Pelling (2014) and others cited above, Roslan et al. (2021) argue that a transformation to risk-sensitive urban planning and development is required to mitigate the uncertainties associated with climate-related disaster risks. Their schema identified seven principal risk themes, of which negotiating trade-offs and governance of multiple stakeholders were the top priorities for attention to enable such a transformation. Reducing differential vulnerabilities is also crucial to coping with urban risk (Romero-Lankao et al. 2018b; Romero-Lankao & Gnatz 2019), as examined in the next subsection.

Accordingly, one objective of this paper is to examine, by means of a comparative study of Cape Town and Greater Manchester, how the plethora of interventions of all scales and levels of ambition to address climate and environmental change interact. The respective local governments, the City of Cape Town and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) (and its 10 constituent local authorities), understand the challenges and have undertaken many actions and formulated climate, environmental, resilience, mobility and economic regeneration strategies and plans to this end. These differ in comprehensiveness and ambition within and between cities, as revealed by the previous cross-city comparative research (e.g., Perry et al. 2021; Valencia et al. 2021). However, these have been produced with differing extents of public consultation and active engagement, and often remain the responsibility of individual municipal departments or sections. Hence, the extent to which these suites of actions and strategies interconnect is assessed, and whether, taken together they represent, or over time are generating, continuous transformative change. For reasons explained above, the potential value of TMN membership in such policy formulation and implementation is also addressed.

2.2 Urban justice agendas

Though differing in extent over space and time, persistent poverty, racial inequality and other forms of non-normativity that produce exclusion are defining features of unsustainability and poor resilience that result in injustice. The notion that sustainability cannot be attained with substantial poverty and inequality has been globally recognised at least since the Brundtland Commission Report (WCED 1987) and underpins the current global sustainable development agenda (see below). It has become increasingly understood in recent years that ‘the good city’—one based on ‘utopian thinking’ where there is the capacity to imagine and strive towards an emancipatory and equitable future that departs transformatively from present conditions (Friedmann 2000)—is also a sustainable city where goods, resources and space are distributed equitability to meet the needs of local people while conserving the environment for the future.

Achieving this ambition of conjoining just and sustainable urbanism, however, requires action to change the structural relations that generate and maintain inequalities, such as land and housing tenure and security systems, access to health and education and effective governance—the key bases for accumulating social power, as Friedmann (1992) put it. Since those who hold power very rarely surrender or loosen it willingly, the challenges are formidable and concerted resistance can lead to violent conflict. In this sense, just urbanism has often been conceived as a normative agenda, envisioned and defined by power holders as an agenda which can be achieved through incremental actions rather than transformational structural changes (Fainstein 2014). This underlines the necessity for actively pursuing transformative change that links sustainable urbanism with justice agendas.

Concerns with urban justice, albeit expressed in diverse terms over time, have resonated through the history of urban planning since the utopian visionaries such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. More recent articulations have focused on notions of the good city and just city as articulated by progressive urban planners and sociologists such as John Friedmann (Friedmann 2000) and Susan Fainstein (Fainstein 2014), respectively, as well as rights-based, participatory and inclusive approaches such as the right to the city, participatory budgeting and the like (Parnell 2016). These ideas and approaches now underpin the urban components of the global sustainable development agenda, SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda, and advance urban debates by clearly linking justice with sustainability and other urban agendas. As Parnell’s (2016: 137) detailed review concludes:

Achieving greater urban fairness presupposes a capacity to learn and to do things differently; this is not a new agenda and there is a rich legacy of urban utopian thinking, albeit largely European and North American, from which we can and should draw while thinking innovatively about a collective, more fair, urban future.

Building on these legacies, Realising Just Cities became the organising framework for the innovative comparative urban research agenda of Mistra Urban Futures from 2016 to 2019 (Simon et al. 2020), which also provided the framing context to the research reported here.

The focus within most climate change and disaster risk reduction literature naturally falls on extreme events and the differential human and spatial vulnerabilities exposed and deepened by one-off and repeated exposure to such hazards in various kinds of human settlement (Simon 2012; IPCC 2022). However, chronic or everyday risk exposure to climate-related hazards (Ziervogel et al. 2017), often compound other ongoing environmental and health exposures that create chronic vulnerability and low resilience, especially among the urban poor, whose capacities have systematically been diminished by economic and social structures. This constitutes one often-overlooked dimension that must be incorporated into transformative risk-sensitive urban development and planning (Roslan et al. 2021) in terms of rights-based and equity approaches. This is consistent with the South African constitution, while the need for a just transition is an explicit objective of the Climate Change Bill currently before Parliament (Republic of South Africa 2022) (see Section 4 below).

3. Methods

To develop a robust understanding of city-scale climate policy and action through transformative, justice-based and politically contextualised lenses, this paper adopts a cross-case qualitative analysis of two cities to enable a Global South–North comparison. Cape Town and Greater Manchester were selected as the two case sites for this comparison for four primary reasons. First, both cities have undertaken major climate policy design and implementation processes within the last five years, enabling the paper to capture data on relatively cutting-edge urban climate policy processes. Second, both have gone through institutional reorganisation processes in the last 30 years, through which their local government structures have been reshaped with institutional policy development cultures that are relatively unfixed and dynamic. Third, both sites must contend with complex multilevel governance structures and intricate governance dynamics that necessitate approaching climate policy through a city-scale lens. Fourth, both cities can be considered as exceptions or ‘extreme cases’ since they have both invested enormous capacity towards developing city-scale transformative climate policies, informed by concepts discussed in the previous section, while extreme cases are thought to provide particular richness in comparison to typical or critical cases (Yin 2013).

To explore these case sites, researchers in Cape Town and Greater Manchester undertook ethnographic analysis to understand and evaluate the activities taken with climate policy development processes in each city (Atkinson et al. 2001; Atkinson & Hammersley 1998). In this study, the researchers used methods that enabled relative proximity to decision-makers within the City of Cape Town and GMCA, respectively, through a process of ‘embedded ethnography’ within collaborative knowledge co-production processes. Embedded ethnography allowed for the researchers to be placed alongside the policymakers and stakeholders that they were examining in each case site, enabling the researchers to analyse the climate policy processes as sociocultural apprentices and placing them as a vessel through which contextualised knowledge could circulate (Lewis & Russell 2011).

The Cape Town case study is based on more than 10 years of collaborative knowledge co-production processes with the City of Cape Town, involving multiple embedded researchers who worked on climate change-related issues, a number of research studies, and many publications jointly written by researchers and local government officials (e.g., Cartwright et al. 2012; Miszczak & Patel 2018; Scott et al. 2019; Smit et al. 2015). In Greater Manchester, the embedded researcher collected data through a placement with the GMCA Environment Team, helping policymakers design an approach to facilitating public participation within a climate policy development process. In both case sites, the embedded ethnographers adhered to stringent reflexive evaluative practices to maintain perspective of their own positionality within the data collection processes and preserve space for objective critique (Coghlan 2007). This approach allowed the ethnographers to develop nuanced perceptions surrounding the complex relationships between individuals and institutions involved in the climate policy development processes.

Maintaining ethical boundaries and space for critical reflection while undertaking embedded ethnography was important. In both case sites, the researchers preserved boundaries as to their relationships with the City of Cape Town and GMCA, respectively, by adopting a reflective fieldnote practice where they would reflect on activities they observed and explicitly describe them within the context of their own positionality. This entailed how dimensions of the researcher’s identity, ideological standpoint and relationships to power structures affected the researcher’s actions and observations in the field, enabling reflexive analysis where transmutable knowledge can be produced from individual observations (May & Perry 2017). Ensuring and maintaining these boundaries through rigorous reflexive praxis was especially significant as the research took place through partnerships between the researchers based at their local universities and the city governments. These partnerships were formed over several years of academic-policy engagement that was enabled through the Mistra Urban Futures programme highlighted above.

Both the Cape Town and Greater Manchester cases are based on in-depth fieldwork, including semi-structured interviews with policymakers and key stakeholders in each city, reviews of existing research, and also documentary analyses of strategic relevant policies. Informed consent was sought from all research participants before interviews took place. The Greater Manchester case is based on 21 interviews undertaken for this research, while the Cape Town case is based on several research studies undertaken over the past decade by a number of different researchers who participated in the Mistra Urban Futures programme in Cape Town, and these are referenced in the relevant section of this article. For both cities, the research is based on interviews and other types of engagement with a range of stakeholders, such as local government policymakers, activists and campaigners, and private sector representatives who were actively involved in the climate policy development process. This methodological approach has enabled the generation of rich contextualised data from each case site, creating opportunities for robust analysis and nuanced understandings of each city’s process of city-scale climate policy.

The data gathered through field notes, interviews, documentary analysis and analyses of previous research studies were analysed through a thematic qualitative approach, which focused on examining qualitative patterns of behaviour as well as the attitudes and perceptions of those involved in the climate policy development processes by interpreting meaning from the descriptive data (Attride-Stirling 2001). Thematic qualitative analysis was the approach adopted because it allows the data to be evaluated discursively, enabling the data analysis process to uncover meaning and new understandings (Jonsen & Jehn 2009; Attride-Stirling 2001). The thematic qualitative analysis approach has enabled this study to draw upon the data’s thick qualitative richness while preserving critical rigour, producing knowledge through a systematic process of interrogation.

The methodology used to collect data and analyse these case studies was also chosen to enable the research to evaluate Cape Town and Greater Manchester’s climate policy agendas through the lenses of transformation and justice. As outlined in the conceptual section above, the progressive conceptualisations of urban transformation and justice within climate policy debates are holistic, integrated frameworks. Their application to the two case studies therefore enabled a comparative assessment the broad impact of climate policymaking processes in terms of transformation and justice.

These city studies were undertaken independently and the comparative exercise was conducted subsequently for purposes of this paper. This precluded an a priori comparative research design in which specific parameters, sectors or processes might have been identified and consistency of approach ensured in one of the various possible research designs (e.g. Simon et al. 2020). Instead, an ex post comparative design is used, somewhat akin to the ‘retrofitting’ of comparison explained by Oloko & Ness (2020). Because the individual city studies had been completed, a purposive comparative framing is used. This focused on the respective perceptions of the climate change, sustainability and resilience challenges and associated global discourses and calls to action; the structures and motivations of the respective local authorities; and the processes through which debates, research, public consultation and institutional mobilisation occurred; as well as the coherence, effectiveness and degree of holism or cross-sectoral integration of the resultant policy documents and programmes formulated for implementation. These foci are reflected in the remaining sections of the paper.

4. Cape Town

Before South Africa’s democratic transition in the 1990s, what is now the municipal area of the City of Cape Town was fragmented along racial lines into 57 different local government bodies and one regional authority (Schmidt 1998). In 1996, a two-tier system of metropolitan government was introduced, with the Cape Metropolitan Council as the metropolitan authority and with six local councils. In 2000, these two levels of government were merged into one ‘unicity’, called the City of Cape Town (CoCT), covering an area of 2,359 km2, with a population currently exceeding 4 million. The South African Constitution guarantees various human rights, including the right to a safe environment, which includes potable water, clean air and disaster risk reduction. It also establishes an appropriate threefold multilevel governance framework between national, provincial and municipalities, which have the power and responsibilities to act in relation to climate change and other strategic priorities. The arrangements and obligations, including the requirement to undertake a climate change needs and response assessment within a year of the enabling law being published, are enhanced by the Climate Change Bill currently before Parliament with the objective of developing:

an effective climate change response and a long-term, just transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy and society for South Africa in the context of sustainable development,

(Republic of South Africa 2022: 2; UN-Habitat 2022)

One of the key challenges facing the new CoCT was climate change, especially in terms of adaptation. Cape Town faces severe risks from climate change, given that it is a coastal city in a Mediterranean-type climate. Climate projections suggest that there will be a decrease in mean rainfall, while the frequency and intensity of both dry spells and extreme rainfall events, the average temperature and both the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, the average and maximum wind speeds, sea-level rise and the frequency of size of coastal storm surges will all increase (City of Cape Town 2021; Scott et al. 2019). Cape Town’s climate adaptation risks include increasing probabilities of drought, both inland and coastal flooding and heat stress (which also increases fire risk). In 2018, after a few years of low rainfall, Cape Town almost ran out of water in the ‘Day Zero’ crisis (Robins 2019; Ziervogel 2019), which highlighted the potential risks from climate change. There has also been increasing recognition of the need for mitigation measures, such as promoting renewable energy and encouraging the design of ‘green buildings’.

The CoCT has been very active in terms of citywide climate policy and action, as regards both climate change adaption and mitigation (Cartwright et al. 2012; Lewis and Jooste 2012; Scott et al. 2019). Soon after the formation of the new unified CoCT in December 2000, work began on a draft Energy and Climate Strategy, which was published in 2003 and eventually adopted by the city in 2006. This was followed by a detailed Energy and Climate Change Action Plan in 2010 and seven sectoral Climate Adaptation Plans of Action in 2011. From 2014 onwards, the development of climate change policies and plans by the city accelerated, with the adoption of the Climate Change Policy in 2017, followed by the Climate Change Strategy and City of Cape Town Climate Action Plan. Cape Town’s overarching climate vision, as per the 2021 Climate Change Strategy, is:

to become a climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and carbon-neutral city that enables inclusive economic development and healthy, thriving communities and ecosystems.

(City of Cape Town 2021: 20)

The focus of much of the climate change policymaking in the CoCT has been on ensuring that:

All City of Cape Town-led policies, plans, programmes and projects have effectively incorporated climate change considerations into their design and implementation.

(City of Cape Town 2021: 22)

Underpinning the CoCT’s climate vision are a set of objectives, including strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change impacts, adapting to and mitigating climate change in a socio-economically inclusive manner, to optimise sustainability, ecosystem functioning and green infrastructure, and to ensure carbon neutrality, e.g. for municipal buildings by 2030 and for all buildings by 2050 (City of Cape Town 2021). Linked to the City of Cape Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan are a range of other strategies relevant to climate change, such as the Transit-Oriented Development Strategic Framework, Environmental Strategy (2017), Resilience Strategy (2019) and Water Strategy (2019). The CoCT is also committed to collaboration:

The City will work to ensure that its actions and decisions are informed by partnerships and collaboration with external organisations and entities focused on addressing climate change. […] The City will also work to increase public consultation and engagement, and build trust with the public with regard to the City’s climate change response.

(City of Cape Town 2021: 20–21)

The CoCT has been enthusiastic in embracing global climate change policy initiatives, such as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and is a member of numerous TMNs relating to climate change, as discussed above, including ICLEI, the C40 Climate Leadership Group (joined in 2014), the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (joined in 2015), the 50 Municipal Climate Partnerships Programme (joined in 2015), and the 100 Resilient Cities Network, now the Global Resilient Cities Network (joined in 2016). Participation in these networks has enabled sharing with other local governments and access to capacity development and technical support, resulting, as discussed above, in Cape Town’s climate change policies having many similarities to those of cities elsewhere (e.g. the promotion of green buildings, renewable energy and water-sensitive design). In addition to participation in international networks and engagement with international organisations, Cape Town has a large number of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organisations and academic research institutes involved in climate change, and co-production between different stakeholders has been an important complement to the city’s policies and strategies, e.g. through the Climate Change Think Tank (Cartwright et al. 2012). One of the main challenges the city faces, however, has been the lack of financial resources. A Norwegian-led study of climate change policies and strategies between Cape Town and three cities in Scandinavia highlights the disparity between the cities, e.g. Oslo has a per capita budget 16 times higher than Cape Town (Hofstad & Vedeld 2020). In addition, South African local government financial frameworks can constrain the procurement of innovative technologies and higher upfront capital expenditure that is more sustainable in the longer term (Taylor & Davies 2019).

One of the other key challenges identified by this study, as is common with most other local governments, has been that of setting and monitoring measurable targets. While some of the CoCT’s objectives have detailed targets and objectives, e.g. to reduce carbon emissions by 29% by 2030 and 37% by 2040, most of the objectives are very broad and not yet well-operationalised (Hofstad et al. 2021), and they are still mainly at the policy framework level (with a focus on inter-sectoral coordination and mainstreaming climate change). Operationalising and monitoring the broad objectives of these strategies therefore remains a challenge.

The other main challenge has been with regards to inter-departmental coordination. There have been many attempts at inter-departmental integration for climate change adaptation and mitigation. For example, in 2015 the CoCT set up a transversal Green Economy, Energy and Climate Change Working Group to coordinate actions across 14 different line departments. Similarly, in 2017, three successive drought years and fears of running out of water focused thinking and a multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary ‘SDG Lab’ led to the formulation of five methodologically and technically different pathways to climate-resilient development in Cape Town (Snyman-van der Walt et al. 2021). Despite such initiatives, however, in practice, line departments still operate largely in sectoral silos and achieving integration remains a key challenge. A study of climate change adaptation within the CoCT concludes that:

While considerable progress has been made on developing a citywide climate adaptation plan for Cape Town, implementation is constrained by poor monitoring and feedback within and between departments and a lack of oversight and impetus from central authorities within the government hierarchy.

(Taylor 2016: 194)

As an example of the continued challenge of inter-departmental coordination, flooding of informal settlements is a severe problem in Cape Town that occurs every year (Ziervogel & Smit 2009). Approximately 15% of Cape Town’s population lives in informal settlements. Most of these informal settlements are on the Cape Flats, a flat, sandy, low-lying, poorly drained area, and are subject to regular rising flooding during the winter rains. An average of about 33,000 people were displaced from informal settlements in Cape Town each winter as a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in July–August (Wood 2009). In addition, there are major health risks associated with the flooding of informal settlements (Muchiridza 2013). The climate change scenarios produced by the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town suggest that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing, thus resulting in an increased flooding risk (Midgley et al. 2005). Sea-level rise is also increasing flooding risk in coastal areas (Colenbrander et al. 2015).

Twelve different line departments of the CoCT have a direct mandate that relates to flooding. Although there is a task team that brings together representatives of these departments to coordinate actions:

interaction between departments in the Task Team […] is relatively superficial in the sense that it is not a decision-making body, and all their suggestions still need to be approved and implemented by the individual departments (and this does not always happen).

(Ziervogel et al. 2016: 16–17)

In practice, therefore, departments continue to act in very different (and sometimes contradictory) ways. This is because the officials of each department had very different understandings of the nature of the problem and the solutions, closely aligned to their respective disciplinary backgrounds (Ziervogel et al. 2016). For example, the officials of the Disaster Risk Management Centre, who came from a disaster-risk science background, largely viewed the city in terms of hazards and risks posed to residents and, in practice, their focus was on disaster-risk relief. Roads and Stormwater officials had a civil engineering background and saw the problem of flooding as essentially too much water being in certain places, requiring stormwater drainage solutions. Informal Settlements Management officials, who were mostly housing practitioners, saw flooding of informal settlements in Cape Town as mainly a problem of people occupying low-lying, poorly drained areas that are not (in their present state) suitable for residential use, and thus saw the solution as relocation or upgrading. Residents of informal settlements, in turn, had different perspectives about flooding, mainly focusing on its immediate impacts on livelihoods and health, and ways of mitigating its negative impacts at the household and neighbourhood scales.

The fundamental problem, therefore, is that different departments essentially have different rationalities, which means they see problems and solutions in very different ways (Smit et al. 2021). These differences are underpinned by the different disciplinary backgrounds of officials in different departments (e.g. climate change specialists, civil engineers, urban planners, disaster risk practitioners). These different rationalities are a major obstacle to effective coordination. This is reinforced by different sectoral policies and strategies and funding flows that can reinforce specific behaviours within particular departments. Institutional inertia is therefore still a real challenge, as line departments tend to do what they have always done and are driven by their own logics and funding mechanisms and getting them to change fundamentally is difficult. The current pandemic context, which has exacerbated funding and staff capacity constraints, has deepened these challenges (Simon et al. 2021).

5. Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester has a strong political identity rooted in its rise from an old market town into the world’s first industrial metropolis during the Industrial Revolution. Due to Greater Manchester’s strategically developed canal transportation networks, early innovation and adoption of new technologies, the city and surrounding area represented an ideal location with competitive advantages to support a burgeoning cotton and textile manufacturing industry at the turn of the 19th century, quickly becoming one of the largest urban industrial hubs of the time (Marcus 2017). The city-region’s economic boom during the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s was centrally anchored in Manchester with the city gaining political prominence in the region and country, while the surrounding communities also developing their own particular socio-political identities. As Greater Manchester’s, as well as the UK’s, industrial base had largely been outsourced by the mid-20th century, the unity Central Government began its long process of exploring local reform—a continuous process which began with the publication of the 1969 Redcliffe-Maude Report and most recently in the publication of the UK Government’s White Paper on ‘Levelling Up’ (Deas 2014). This tension in the UK between a strong, centralised unitary government structure and the desire to create policy and legal structures which support diverse, robust localities has created a challenging multilevel governance landscape that local governments in the UK must negotiate if they are to deliver transformational climate action.

In May 2017, residents of Greater Manchester voted for their first directly elected Metro Mayor. Upon taking office, the victor, the Labour Party’s Andy Burnham, became the political leader of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), the city-region’s primary policymaking agency. He quickly instructed senior GMCA policy officers to begin creating a low carbon policy pathway aligned with an accelerated climate ambition beyond the city-region’s existing goal, which could be announced at a ‘Green Summit’ (Labour & Co-operative 2017). The GMCA Environment Team was assigned responsibility for taking this objective forward in June 2017.

Following being assigned this responsibility, the GMCA Environment Team began internal discussions on how to design a process for enabling the city-region to achieve carbon neutrality at pace. As these policymakers began exploring how they could create a carbon-neutrality pathway for the entire city-region’s social and economic activity, they quickly realised that this process would demand what can be described as a systems approach to urban transformation. In this context, urban transformation meant a holistic approach to the decarbonisation transition where traditional policy sectors such energy, buildings and transportation are approached in an integrated fashion (i.e. across silos) and activities are facilitated through a collaborative process between public, private and third-sector organisations, along with residents and communities. In other words, urban transformation meant the initiative was not simply a narrow technical policy process that could succeed through only involving a small group of actors but would require a broad change from all actors throughout the city-region that recognised their shared carbon impacts.

As the GMCA Environment Team began outlining the process that would lead to identifying the city-region’s accelerated climate ambition and subsequent low carbon pathway, the small group of policy officers recognised that they would need to adopt a participatory approach to develop the policy. Interview data reveal three primary reasons why the policy officers believed that a participatory process would be demanded:

  • First, they recognised that for the climate policy to achieve its objective of facilitating comprehensive urban system transformation, it would need to evoke voluntary actions by all actors in Greater Manchester. This outcome would be more likely, they presumed, if the policy were designed through a participatory process. Their rationale was a belief that public participation would produce a high degree of transparency and potentially also support for the eventual policy outcomes gaining traction amongst the public as being co-owned amongst those that participated in the process, rather than being created exclusively by GMCA.
  • The GMCA Environment Team was small when they began initial policy scoping—comprising just five policy officers, two of whom were already delegated to work full time on existing projects. Cultivating a highly participatory process was therefore seen to be a means of attracting in kind resources from external organisations. At the outset of the policy development process, the team believed that their limited capacity would be a constraint on their ability to deliver a comprehensive low-carbon policy pathway. Since they lacked financial resources to hire additional internal capacity or temporary external capacity, public participation was seen as an opportunity to generate goodwill and buy-in from external organisations and eventually capture various forms of in-kind support.
  • As a small team within one organisation, the policy officers leading the process believed they would need to crowd in the knowledge of others to design a policy with the broad aim of facilitating urban transformation towards a specific ambition. Urban areas are highly complex, comprising multiple overlapping and interdependent systems which are bound by unpredictable feedback loops. The policy officers understood that they had comprehension of only a fraction of this intricate urban system and would therefore need to seek the knowledge of external actors to develop a more comprehensive comprehension of the city-region they were seeking to transform holistically.

The team had not previously facilitated broad public engagement within a decision-making process. To support this initiative, they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield to create institutional space for an embedded doctorate researcher to work with GMCA, designing and supporting co-productive elements of the participatory policy development process. This embedded researcher was a role that built on an existing relationship between the two institutions and would help bring theoretical knowledge surrounding public participation and engagement within policy design from an academic setting into this urban climate policy development process.

As this process evolved over a 16-month period, the embedded researcher supported external actors to engage through four participatory pathways. Each pathway facilitated the contestation of different transdisciplinary knowledge within the policy development process and was intended to enable a distinct type of institutional boundary crossing between the organisations involved. Through these four participatory pathways, the GMCA Environment Team encountered the dilemma of how it would address perspectives and interests from external actors that conflicted with their own internal organisational values. While they recognised the need to develop the climate policy through a process that would integrate different broad knowledges, there had been limited consideration of how politically challenging or conflicting rationalities (Smit et al. 2021) would be resolved. Therefore, the pathways became a quasi-black box where external actors were able to contribute their views, but there was a lack of transparency regarding how their contributions were integrated or contested within the GMCA Environment Team’s policy development activities. As in Cape Town (see above), how to address conflicting rationalities is an abiding challenge in transdisciplinary research.

This climate policy development process culminated in the adoption of Greater Manchester’s Five-Year Environment Plan and target to become a carbon-neutral city-region by 2038. The plan outlines five areas of action that cumulatively will achieve the intended low carbon urban transformation: energy, transportation, buildings, manufacturing, and natural environment (GMCA 2019). While the plan does create a pathway for holistic urban transformation, the participatory process appears to have facilitated limited co-design of the policy. Although the four participatory pathways enabled a large number of actors to engage in the climate policy development process, the GMCA Environment Team did not appear to dedicate significant capacity towards analysing and integrating this broad transdisciplinary knowledge into their ultimate policy outcomes. Furthermore, this form of participatory policy design did not lead GMCA to explicitly connect the policy’s actions with justice agendas and discourses of transformational change. Understanding, evaluating and incorporating these different forms of knowledge and expertise from non-traditional stakeholders that surfaced through the participatory pathways required the GMCA Environment Team to invest in new capabilities and share their decision-making power with other stakeholders, organisational cultural conditions that were largely absent from this process and limited its radical potential.

6. Conclusions

This discussion of climate policymaking in Cape Town and Greater Manchester highlights the importance of cross-city city comparative research, which, like climate change, cuts across anthropogenic boundaries. Rationales for undertaking comparative urban research vary but clarity is required as the basis for appropriate research design to ensure comparability (Simon et al. 2020). The very different geopolitical contexts of Cape Town in the Global South and Greater Manchester in the Global North informed the analysis in that they shared several crucial characteristics in seeking to address this global challenge (see below).

The main conclusions from the comparative discussion of the two cases are, first, that the political–institutional context is key, as this shapes what happens and how it takes place. It is therefore essential to have a good understanding of local political and institutional contexts and what is achievable within them, including what needs to be changed within those contexts to effect substantive transformation. In both contexts, further improvements in multilevel governance are required, not least to address the resource constraints inhibiting fulfilment of local responsibilities. There are, however, important differences. For example, in Greater Manchester there is a propensity amongst decision-makers to call on and lobby national government authorities to take supportive action where local obstacles emerge, rather than exploring experimental or entrepreneurial actions. Greater Manchester currently lacks the resources required to deliver on its transformational climate ambitions but could innovate and seek to push actions further within the current bounds of the multilevel governance framework. By contrast, because the City of Cape Town (CoCT) is controlled by the main opposition party to the national government, while many national utilities and services, such as the ESKOM electricity corporation, are beset by chronic service delivery problems, the CoCT often undertakes its own experimental and entrepreneurial action. For example, it is currently engaged in urgent efforts to establish its own electricity-generating capacity.

While these cases demonstrate the need for an ‘institutional redesign’ of multilevel governance structures to better align ‘problem holders’ with the legal levers, resources and capacity required to address the challenges of climate change, the reconfiguring of these multilevel governance frameworks should be determined specifically for the context in which they are being redesigned.

Second, also important within this is the issue of conflicting rationalities among different professionals within each local authority and different stakeholder groups and how these can be overcome, e.g. through knowledge co-production processes to bring together different stakeholders and integrate different types of knowledge together into more holistic and comprehensive perspectives (Smit et al. 2021). Even assuming that many practitioners are reflective and seeking to do their best under various constraints, it is essential that the different rationalities of stakeholders are clearly mapped and identified in policymaking and implementation processes to avoid misperceptions and misunderstandings that can block real change.

Third, an underlying challenge is that of institutional inertia and what it implies for achieving sustainability through climate change action. Increasingly, it has been argued that this can be achieved only through radical transformation and the unsettling of the status quo (see above). However, whether such transformative adaptation requires one or more bold step changes or can comprise a series of more modest incremental changes that reinforce one another and enable the whole to become more than the sum of the parts (Termeer et al. 2017; Hölscher et al. 2018) remains moot. Nevertheless, it is clear that both Cape Town and Greater Manchester benefited greatly from major local government restructuring and participation in transnational networks, resulting in new possibilities and opportunities, but major challenges still remain in implementing climate change policies and strategies.

Finally, the extent to which the above considerations and good intentions as embedded in the respective cities’ commitments to inclusion and the promotion of socio-spatial fairness and justice are being realised (Parnell 2016) remains inconclusive at this stage. Improvements have been made but poverty and inequality remain and actually appear to have been widened by countervailing forces and unanticipated crises such as the water crisis in Cape Town exposed by climate change in 2016–17 and the Covid-19 pandemic (Simon et al. 2021).

Through its comparison of climate action from two distinctive South–North urban contexts, this article has sought to produce a distinctive contribution to the urban climate governance literature. Unlike many recent academic comparative works, where the aim has been to produce generalisable knowledge based on a standardised unit of analysis, this article has instead used comparison as a means to ‘value of learning’—an exercise where evaluating the practices that take place in other, contrasting urban contexts enables better analysis of practices in our own cities. Through the lens of this form of comparison, the article has enabled unique reflections on the socio-political cultural practices and social systems that have shaped the potential of transformational climate policy agendas in both Cape Town and Greater Manchester (Perry & Russell 2020).

This highlights the rapidity with which even carefully crafted progressive and transformative policies can be derailed by unexpected crises, which also quickly expose and reflect deeply embedded structural inequalities. Some 30 years after the repeal of Apartheid legislation in Cape Town, the differences between the cities in relation to structural socio-economic and spatial inequality, for instance, are nowadays mostly a matter of degree, even though the Apartheid legacy remains geographically strongly embedded. Ultimately, urban resilience and sustainability will remain elusive in both cities until widespread poverty and inequality are substantially reduced.


Thoughtful comments and suggestions by the editors and referees helped to improve this final version significantly. Beth Perry contributed to the conceptualisation of the paper but was unable to contribute to its writing.

Author contributions

All authors contributed equally to the conceptualisation, design, drafting and editing of this article. Data for the case studies and conclusions can be attributed to prior work from WS and other researchers at the African Centre for Cities (University of Cape Town) and by RB (Urban Institute, University of Sheffield).

Competing interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Data availability

For data on the Greater Manchester case study, see RB’s PhD thesis at:


While no direct grant funding was used to produce this article, some of the authors received grant funding to support research which has been incorporated in this article. RB received a grant from Mistra Urban Futures funded by Mistra, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, and Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Realising Just Cities programme to support PhD research on climate change and environmental governance in Greater Manchester, UK. WS received funding from the GREENGOV project, funded by the Norwegian Research Council.


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