Lessons from the Water Governance in Cities conference

Last October, IPoP – Institute for spatial policies organised the international conference Water governance in Cities in Ptuj (Slovenia). Together with the Ministry for Environment and Spatial Planning, IPoP wanted to tackle urban water management, which has not yet been comprehensively addressed in Slovenia. Our goal was to stimulate a discussion about how Slovenian cities and towns are actually managing the issue of adapting to climate change. Together with foreign guests and Slovenian experts and highlighting good practices, we emphasized the importance of comprehensive, collaborative spatial planning and management in well-organized interdisciplinary teams.  

The conference was held on October 17th in northeastern Slovenia, in the city of Ptuj, which had been affected by heavy floods in July of this year. Some 80 participants from a diverse set of disciplines listened to the experience of 10 speakers, one of whom was from Bologna (IT) and one from Antwerp (BL). Despite the initial expectations that not much can be done to change the circumstances in the field, in the end, we evaluated the conference as a success. We put quite an effort into gathering the various views from the attendees, representatives of municipalities, stakeholders and expert organisations and managed to come to the common agreement that the conference served as a valuable opportunity for public debate and formulating worthwhile conclusions.

A full report from the conference is available here, but we do want to outline a few additional key points, which we feel obliged to keep in the public sphere and also share them with the Ministry for Environment and Spatial Planning. We feel they can become the first steps towards raising a wider interest for comprehensive urban water management in Slovenia to be followed by the next steps of the national and local actors.

  • The System

The Slovenian water management system is deficient in several respects: most obviously, there is a lack of cooperation between the actors and the measures, knowledge and experience at the various levels and disciplines/sectors even among municipalities. These openly expect the support of the state in the planning and implementation of water management measures, pointing out differences in the needs for action arising from the physical-geographical features of the urban aquatic environment. There is a lack of dialogue and competent experts at the level of the municipalities and the state, as well as lacking knowledge of water management issues in the urban environment in complementary fields: spatial planning, urban planning, architectural design, infrastructure construction and others.

  • Strategic planning

Water management requires a comprehensive treatment of the water cycle and the aquatic environment, which is why actors must act in a coherent manner at all stages of regulation. This is possible only through interdisciplinary strategic planning and well-organized cooperation between the actors. Sustainable measures for managing water in urban areas, so-called blue-green infrastructure, cannot be effectively implemented in cities without the space provided for them. The new Strategy for Spatial Development of Slovenia (outlined at the conference by State Secretary Aleš Prijon) should therefore appropriately and strategically address the field of urban water management and include planned measures to ensure the resilience of cities and other settlements to climate change, also in relation to ensuring quality of life and sustainable urban development.

  • Status quo analysis and verification of possible measures

The first precondition for effective water management in urban areas is knowledge and data about the current situation (conditions, physical features of waters, history of sewage and water management tools, the surface flow of rainwater, etc.). Each local environment should be aware of its natural and built environment and be opened to improvements in order to mitigate the effects of extreme water events. By collecting relevant data about water infrastructure and surface water flow in the urban area and using them for urban drainage modelling (hydro-hydraulic models), cities can evaluate the effectiveness of individual alternative scenarios containing possible water management measures. In this way, cities can transparently and efficiently identify the most appropriate socially, economically and environmentally sustainable system of measures for their environment. European funds and mechanisms for the exchange of experience, also supported by the URBACT program, can be an important resource for promoting the application of modern methods and processes for planning and implementing the measures in practice.

  • Participation

In order to be efficient, strategic planning of urban water management should involve all actors, including residents and landowners as well as sectoral and professional organisations and political bodies, which means the process of public participation is of the utmost importance. It is necessary to go beyond the otherwise very good communication practice of the Civil Protection and Disaster Relief Office during storms and floods, with the aim to ensure the active co-participation of land and real estate owners and civil society both in the process of integrated strategic planning and the implementation of the measures. By ensuring the participation of different stakeholders, we learn about how our decisions and actions affect urban areas in terms of water management and how we can reduce our impact. Proper information and communication can significantly reduce the number of inappropriate and illegal interventions in the water and river basin area and increase the effects of the planned measures.

  • Development of an urban water management system

Slovenia has an excellent tradition and practice of its disaster response system at different levels. However, it is becoming more and more obvious under the pressure of climate change that the country lacks an operative prevention system that will enable the cities and towns to adapt to the quickly changing weather conditions with more frequent heavy rains and dry periods. The most evident issues are preventing construction in flood areas and the provision of space for controlled flood spillage and containment. Another important issue is the implementation of communal and blue-green infrastructure for water retention as part of the adaptation to disaster occurrences.

In conclusion, the gathered professionals from the University of Ljubljana and independent professional organisations want to propose three practical measures whose implementation could significantly improve the urban water management practice and become a good starting point for a new urban water management system:

  1. Preparation of a general educational-informational manual on urban water management with the key concepts and explanations for the impacts of interventions on the aquatic environment and recommendations for integrated water management through strategic planning.
  2. Preparation of recommendations for the management of urban drainage for spatial and urban planning and design.
  3. A collection of good practices in water management and settlements’ adaptation to climate change in terms of rainfall management should be created, regularly maintained and communicated.

Head photo: Ronny Van Looveren (keynote speaker from Antwerp) in a debate with conference participants / Photo: Gregor Salobir

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