About the Project

Background to the project

This research is concerned with responses to climate change and variability at the local scale.  It critically investigates tensions, synergies and potentialities between local governance agencies’ formal policies and innovations by local groups and NGOs. It develops ways of identifying and implementing responses that are socially innovative and capacity building.

Aims and justification

The task of adapting to climate variability and change (CVC) is acutely felt at the local scale. This is where international, national and state policies are translated into practices that help people and places better prepare for, and adapt to, the anticipated impacts of climate variability and change (CVC). Paradoxically, it seems that local government, tasked with leading local adaptation, is presently caught in what might be called an ‘implementation trap’. This research seeks to understand why. Central to this research is critical interrogation of tensions and potentialities between (a) top-down risk assessment by agencies of local governance and (b) bottom-up innovations by local groups and NGOs. The project will thus investigate the framings and practices of local governments, community groups and NGOs as they seek to create local adaptation strategies that reflect lived realities at the neighbourhood scale. It then goes further to use this understanding to direct policy attention to building social innovation and capacity-building practices at the local scale in response.

A second key project aim is to develop conceptual and theoretical explanations for how various actors operationalise their response to climate variability at the local scale to develop (mal)adaptive responses (Steele et al. 2012; Hillier et al 2013; Fünfgeld & McEvoy, 2014; MacCallum et al. 2011, 2014).

The research seeks to answer four questions:

1.  How do citizens, political decision-makers, policy-makers, planning officers, and service and advocacy groups frame climate adaptation at the local scale and do different framings lead to conflict and/or cooperation?;

2.  What institutional and cultural forces shape local actors’ understandings, framings and practices and how do local actors respond to these forces, especially across scales?;

3.  What factors determine whether the different framings and practices they engender translate into policy decisions and on-the-ground actions for CVC adaptation?

4.  How do local actors ‘go round the back’ (Hillier 2000) of local institutions’ mainstream approaches in search of socially innovative responses that better meet their needs? How might such practices be incorporated in CVC adaptation governance processes?

Research design

Adaption strategies are informed by the practices that constitute policy framing and implementation (Shove 2010). A practice-approach is thus crucial for understanding the potential for local scale actors to effect socially innovative adaptive responses to CVC (Schatzki, 2001; Shove & Spurling, 2010). Extending work that the research team and others have done in relation to climate justice in Australian planning (Steele et al. 2012; MacCallum et al. 2011, 2014; Schlosberg 2012), the research will focus on how practices associated with climate adaptation responses shape lived outcomes.

Previous research shows that local adaptation strategies and policy-makers focus almost exclusively on scientific and technical concerns (eg Byrne et al. 2009, MacCallum et al. 2014). Some commentators have suggested that the innovativeness and local appropriateness of community and NGO approaches to CVC tend to be undervalued or discounted in local adaptation plans (Ireland & McKinnon, 2013). Yet little is known about why this occurs and what alternatives might exist.

The research is concerned with what causes practitioners and other actors to think and act the way they do. It will initially focus on their framing, which serves to define problems, diagnose their causes, evaluate and make judgements about agents and impacts, and suggest remedies and predict their impacts (Rein & Schön, 1994). The research will further identify the kinds of (institutional) learning that may (or may not) occur in adaptation planning processes, and how far they encourage (or inhibit) processes of creative discovery of new practices, through which new policy frames can become recognised and adopted (Healey, 2008).

Because practices are situated in the particular circumstances of sites, the research will be grounded in specific local governments and actions in each of the four states in which the research team are based: Victoria, Queensland, WA and NSW. The case study locations will be finalised in collaboration with the Project Reference Group and a comprehensive audit of local government and community-based websites (see below).

 Research Methods

Practice theories as described above will inform the methods used.

The research will be carried out in a three year period and involve 5 Specific phases, as follows:

Phase 1. 2015 Establishment and first meeting of Project Reference Group.

Phase 2. 2015 Comprehensive audit of local government, community-based initiatives and identification of case studies

Phase 3. 2015-2017 Case study investigation and analysis

Phase 4 (2016-2017) Analysis and synthesis

Phase 5. Development of a capacity-building resource for socially innovative adaptive practice

The project will develop a practical online resource for capacity-building in local, socially innovative CVC adaptations. The main deliverable will be a manual and training materials which can be used by anyone involved with CVC adaptation. The manual will present a coherent methodological perspective on theories and practices of socially innovative CVC adaptation, which attends to multi-scalar structural, political and cultural forces. Training materials will be developed in relation to socially creative strategies for CVC adaptation. For example, online discussion frameworks will be created to enable focused exchange of practices. Two events will assist preparation of these materials. A Workshop with the Reference Group will focus on issue selection and framings for deliverable refinement. Then a Symposium with the wider practice community, including the case study organisations, will be used to cross-validate, refine and disseminate the materials.



Byrne, J., Gleeson, B., Howes, M. & Steele, W. 2009 Climate change and Australian urban resilience: the limits of ecological modernization as an adaptive strategy, in Davoudi, S., Crawford, J. & Mehmood, A. (eds.), Planning for climate change: strategies for mitigation and adaptation for spatial planners, Earthscan, London:136-54.

Fairclough, N. 2003. Analysing Discourse: Text Analysis for Social Research. Routledge, London.

Fünfgeld H. & McEvoy D. 2014 Frame divergence in climate change adaptation planning: a case study in Australian local government, Environment & Planning C32(4):603-622

Healey P. 2008 Urban Complexity and Spatial Strategies: towards a relational planning for our times, Routledge, London.

Hillier J. 2000 Going Round the Back? Complex Networks, Informal Action in Local Planning Processes, Environment & Planning A, 34:33-54.

Hillier, J., MacCallum, D., Steele, W., Byrne, J. & Houston D. 2013 Climate justice in the Australian city, in Ruming K., Randolph W. & Gurran N. (eds) State of Australian Cities Conference 2013: Refereed Proceedings, SOAC, Sydney: http://www.soacconference.com.au/wpcontent/uploads/2013/12/Houston-Governance.pdf

Ireland P. & McKinnon K. 2013 Strategic localism for an uncertain world: a postdevelopment approach to climate change and adaptation, Geoforum, 47:158-166.

MacCallum, D. & Hopkins, D. 2011. The changing discourse of city plans: rationalities of planning in Perth, 1955-2010, Planning Theory &Practice 12(4):485-510.

MacCallum D., Byrne J. Steele W. and Houston, D. 2011. Environmental imaginaries: climate change as an object of urban governance, in Whitzman C. and Fincher R. (eds), State of Australian Cities 2011 Proceedings, SOAC, Melbourne: http://soac.fbe.unsw.edu.au/2011/papers/SOAC2011_0019_final.pdf

MacCallum D., Byrne J. & Steele W. 2014 Whither justice? An analysis of local climate change responses from South East Queensland, Australia, Environment and Planning C, 32:70-92.

Rein M. & Schӧn D. 1994 Frame Reflection: toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies, Basic Books, New York.

Schatzki T. 2001 Introduction: a practice theory, in Schatzki T., Knorr Cetina K. & von Savigny E. (eds.) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge, New York:1-14.

Schlosberg D. 2012 Climate justice and capabilities: a framework for adaptation policy, Ethics & International Affairs, 26(4):445-4

Shove E. & Spurling E. 2013 Sustainable practices: social theory and climate change, in Shove E. & Spurling E. (eds) Sustainable Practices: social theory and climate change, Routledge, London:1-13.

Shove E. 2010 Social theory and climate change Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3):277-288.

Steele, W., MacCallum, D., Byrne, J., & Houston, D. 2012 Planning the climate-just city, International Planning Studies, 17(1):67-83

Thévenot, L. 2001 Pragmatic regimes governing the engagement with the world, in Schatzki, T., Knorr Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (eds) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, New York, Routledge:56-73.

Van den Broeck P., Abdelwahab M., Miciukiewicz K. and Hillier J. 2013 On Analysing Space from a Strategic Relational Institutionalist Perspective, International Planning Studies, 18(3-4):321-341.


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