Cities in (climate) change – Design methods as a tool for sustainable urban planning

Urban planners face many challenges in their work. The world is changing and so is urban planning. One of the biggest future challenges is the question of how to adapt to the effects of climate change: what to do, how to do, when and by whom?

Urban buildings and structures are planned to be used for about 50–100 years. During this time, the effects of climate change will become clear. Once created, the community structure is very permanent with road networks and plot divisions. In order to support city planning and finding sustainable solutions, there is a need for cross-sectoral cooperation and the involvement of a multidisciplinary team of experts in the zoning process.

Understanding the complex connection between climate change adaptation and the process of urban planning is clearly demanding. It is important to broaden the view of how and from what point of view the city planning practices are produced, and who participates in the process. This is how we can support resilience and adaptation in a way that makes our cities even more attractive in the future.

This article focuses on design methods, service design tools and their possible connection to the resilience principles and climate change adaptation needs in sustainable urban planning. One of the purposes is to stimulate new ideas and to open up the discussion for novel ways of enhancing resilience and adaptation in the city planning process.

Case study: rethinking the Helsinki urban planning process

In my thesis “Climate changes, will the city adapt? Design methods as a tool for sustainable urban planning” the case study concerned the City of Helsinki city planning unit and its processes (Liiri 2020). The implemented test service design project included interviewing city experts, exploring the city’s climate policy reports and documents, observing the reference cases and testing promising climate tools and services. The project aimed to understand and possibly develop the way in which urban planners can take into account the future impacts, risks and adaptation needs when moving towards resilient cities and planning practices.

The user-oriented, multidisciplinary perspective provided a cross-cutting guideline for my work. In addition, the second aim was to clarify and discuss the terms and themes of climate change adaptation and resilience, some of which remain unclear in the practical work of city planners.

Twelve development ideas were produced during the process, each of which was made into a concise prototype and provided with a short description. The overall theme of the development ideas focuses on multidisciplinary design practices, cross-functional monitoring and promotion, user-centred visual information design, and data accessibility improvements.

As a result, the development ideas were intended to serve as a basis, guidelines and preliminary proposals for possible future development projects within the city planning unit of Helsinki city. The aim was to demonstrate the value of a multidisciplinary and user-driven approach to aid in the design of future adaptive cities.

Why do we need new tools and methods?

As I started looking for City of Helsinki background materials and guidelines concerning climate change adaptation, I discovered there was plenty of it. As my process went on, I also explored a wide range of publications, studies, policies, and articles on the topic. However, based on my findings and subsequent interviews, many of the planners were either not aware of the materials or found them difficult to access.

Most of the data concerned the entire city of Helsinki, or at least the entire Urban Environment Division, as very little of it was dedicated for urban planning and zoning needs. The material as a whole did not seem very user-oriented or approachable. It was very eye-opening to note how much fact, advice and a high level of expertise there is within the city, but to make use of it at the level of practical action seems challenging. A number of reports based on research data have been made, but often they provide little concrete help in terms of zoning.

Based on the interviews, the urban experts had a unified view of the overall aim of the city planning unit and the purpose of town planning. As a whole, the answers created an impression of the city aiming for design that provides the best possible living and working environment for the citizens. Several challenges were, nevertheless, stated as well, especially identifying multiple different objectives exist.

“Balancing between economic, environmental and social goals is difficult. It is also often difficult to find the right experts and data from a city organization that is so wide and diverse.”

“How to implement city climate programs and policies that are so far from the practical level? Concrete means and tools are needed to support the objectives.”

The experts commonly shared a concern over how the city is expected to take into account myriad different factors: good living environment, people’s daily needs, unified and a comfortable cityscape, economic boundaries, business, green spaces as well as climate change. For many experts, the form of current climate policies, surveys and tools seemed demanding: it often means writing reports running over tens or hundreds of pages. This was felt to be time-consuming and almost impossible.

“Who analyzes the climate data as a basis for planning? What’s the role of the detailed planning anyway? This is the most valuable question for now. ”

When discussing the current state of climate adaption and their understanding of it, the experts raised multiple questions. Based on the analysis on their responses, it seems clear that there is a need to increase multidisciplinarity and to improve data utilisation. The importance of the user perspective and citizen-driven design was also emphasised in the responses.

The value of multidisciplinary and user-driven approach in urban planning

In brief, design thinking and service design aims at solution-focused activities that utilize multidisciplinary expertise, user understanding, and visual and functional methods. The value of this approach in sustainable urban planning can be seen in 3 categories:

1. Multidisciplinary planning cooperation supports resilience

Multidisciplinary planning means that experts in many different fields are involved in the urban planning process. The planner acts as a project manager who brings together expertise in many areas into a single plan. For example, the role of climate experts in urban planning could be significantly stronger. In addition, solid understanding of accessibility, user-centred approach, diversity, etc. is needed. Resilience requires collaboration and joint efforts, it is not created by an individual expert.

Multidisciplinary approach requires forming a common understanding and language between different experts. This as well requires teamwork, the right process and tools. Common, concrete objectives facilitate cooperation and desired results. Finding the right questions and solutions in each case.

The role of the (service) designer in urban planning cases can be versatile: a researcher, a designer, a coordinator, a facilitator, a concretiser, a common language and vision creator, a summarizer, a conversationalist, a data clarifier or an impartial interrogator. The presence of this kind of mediator role is a significant, yet often missing, element in multidisciplinary teams.

2. Supporting and clarifying the operational focus with user-centered approach

The city is designed for its users. Climate change, like other crises and unexpected risks, is affecting the people and their living conditions in the city. That is why it is important that the citizens are at the heart of all planning.

By focusing on users, the direction of urban planning becomes clearer and brighter. Exploring, analysing, and profoundly understanding users through empathy provides clarity for the work.

3. Finding new tools, data and methods for planning processes with design thinking

The amount of data is huge today. Putting it in an understandable and easy-to-use format supports both user-centred design and successful collaboration. Urban planning is a multidisciplinary activity and thus the relevant data is also a joint output of many fields. However, large amounts of data and high top-level expertise alone are not enough: we need ways to utilise them and adapt them as a part of the city planning process.

For example, in Helsinki it seems that the climate reports and sustainability materials are so far still little known and often difficult to find. Data clearly needs formatting!


Design thinking and design methods are well suited for almost any development challenge and situations where a solution-oriented approach is needed. I would see service design playing an even bigger role in such themes in the future. Strong user orientation, a deep understanding  of the real users’ needs, and diligence, creativity, bold brainstorming, early-stage testing, co-development, and continuous iteration could be the key to finding better solutions for the future.