Translating Climate Adaptation from the Pacific Northwest to Italy

December 09, 2021
5 min read
Photo credit: Zdenek Matyas Photography /
Simone Mangili was thinking fast. What were the best Italian words to communicate “future-proofing” to his colleagues from Torino’s city government?

Simone was leading a delegation of colleagues from Torino on a study tour of Portland, Oregon, as part of the 2017 Transatlantic Cities Lab organized by the German Marshall Fund. The purpose: soak up all of the knowledge they could about Portland’s approach to planning for climate adaptation.

Torino, long a major European center of industry, already took climate change seriously. It was a leader in mitigating its own contributions to climate change; in 2020, the city won the Covenant of Mayors Award for reducing carbon emissions 30% below 1991 levels. The city was doing its part to curb global warming.

The city was doing its part to curb global warming.

But was Torino ready for climate impacts? Climate models suggest that global warming will make northern Italy seem like Texas in the decades to come—hotter, dryer, and prone to floods from more intense precipitation and extreme weather events. The Po River, which flows through Torino, is among the most vulnerable to flooding of all the rivers in Italy. The city and its residents needed to be ready for the new extremes that climate change will inevitably bring.

The city didn’t really have a plan. It wasn’t alone—no other Italian city of its size had a formal climate adaptation plan in place. So, the question was: where to look for guidance?

After looking at cities from Amsterdam to Oakland, California, as potential policy models, Simone and his team decided to drill down on Portland. Other cities had standalone climate adaptation plans, but Portland’s was woven into policy across city government. The city was on its fourth climate adaptation plan, and, perhaps most importantly, commitment to climate adaptation had remained strong in one mayoral administration after another.

Adaptation was new territory for Torino’s public servants and leaders, though. “The first time I used the word ‘resiliency,’ they looked at me as if I had eight heads,” said Simone. To make sense of Portland’s plan, a trip to the city was in order.

The delegation included representatives from different corners of Torino’s city government. Under a mandate from a municipal resolution, the Deputy Mayor for the Environment coordinated an intradepartmental process that brought together civil servants focused not just on environment and infrastructure, but also on mobility, public safety, housing, social services, culture, and technology. People from both the political and the technical side of city government were involved, to make sure that ideas were fully integrated across government as they were implemented.

The representative delegation, which included an official from the Piedmont Regional government as well, met with city officials and environmental practitioners to discuss the ins and outs of a decades-long planning process. They traveled across the city, sometimes by bikeshare, examining infrastructure and looking at the measures Portland had put in place to bear the brunt of expected climate impacts. They saw how the policies that had been set and developed over successive administrations had played out at the neighborhood level. And they imagined how what they saw in Portland’s parks and streets would translate back to Torino’s boulevards and piazzas.

People from both the political and the technical side of city government were involved, to make sure that ideas were fully integrated across government as they were implemented.

The Portland experience was eye-opening, but it was only part one. To cement the learning, Simone knew they had to bring Portland to Torino. In 2018, he hosted six representatives from Portland for an in-depth session with Torino’s city council and a full-day workshop with many others in city government.

“We had kind of a full house,” grins Simone. “We had three deputy mayors and the vice mayor involved, because we also wanted to demonstrate that we were approaching it from a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral perspective.”

The meetings solidified Torino’s climate action planning process, and the Climate Resiliency Plan was approved in the city cabinet in the summer of 2020 and in the city council at the end of the year. Even before the formal stamp of approval, though, the city took steps to implement the plan, with initiatives including increasing green infrastructure through urban forestry, demonstration projects adapting the neighborhood fabric to provide more shade and absorb more stormwater, and updating transportation infrastructure already underway.

And that’s just the beginning. “We have a course to train city employees in climate vulnerabilities and solutions and the actions outlined in the plan,” said Simone. The city is on the path to resiliency—a word it only just added to its vocabulary.

Portland wasn’t the only city Torino learned from in this process. Simone also got to know New Orleans through GMF’s Vibrant Neighborhoods Forum. New Orleans, he learned, had rebuilt after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Yet, in the process, the city government had lost a great deal of trust from its citizens, especially in poorer communities. From looking at how the city of New Orleans undertook to rebuild that trust, Simone envisioned an inclusive process in which all citizens needed to be part of the journey toward a more sustainable and resilient Torino.

“What we learned from both New Orleans’ and Portland’s experiences with the social equity lens was actually something quite new at the local level,” says Simone. “We took away a strong lesson that we needed to try and understand if the actions we were developing and if the vulnerabilities that we had identified are true also for the most vulnerable communities or whether there are other impacts or vulnerabilities that we’re missing and that we’re not addressing.” The sociological analysis completed with the support of the University of Torino in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods is an integral part of the plan, but it is also an ongoing process that will continue to inform the evolution of Torino’s climate adaptation strategies.

As COP26 in Glasgow draws to a close, it is uncertain whether nations’ commitments will curb the most disastrous effects of climate change. Torino will not fully escape its effects, nor will Portland or any other city. But the transatlantic learning through this process positions the city to plan effectively, and perhaps even to teach other cities how to weather the storms that are to come.