“Collaboration is the way to overcome today's challenges”

Interview with Prof. Niki Frantzeskaki

All over the world, we will have to reckon with the consequences of climate change in the years ahead: from extreme droughts to floods, biodiversity crises and even serious public health implications. Due to the higher density of people and bricks, the challenges posed by climate change to urban areas are different from those in the countryside. Niki Frantzeskaki, Chair Professor of Regional and Metropolitan Governance and Planning at Utrecht University, focuses on these urban issues related to climate change. How do we keep the city liveable?

Prof. Niki Frantzeskaki

"A city is often a collection of contrasts, and there is an interesting dynamic. You see areas in a city where there is a lot of attention to sustainability problems; these places are often a hothouse of the positive change we want to achieve. But then just a few streets away, there is an area where they are stuck in the past in their way of doing things. These contradictions are what excite me about cities. Of course, every city has its own reality and identity. But at the same time, you see a worldwide movement of empowerment of cities. Sustainability is becoming more and more important."

"At the moment, I am working a lot on mainstreaming the sustainability transition in urban planning," Frantzeskaki explains. "Urban planners consider things like safety and accessibility. I want topics like climate adaptation, social innovation initiatives and nature-based solutions to become just as logical to consider. Fortunately, municipalities are focusing more and more on sustainability, and this movement must also be supported by the academic field. I deliberately say also, because to deal with this crisis we need everyone’s knowledge of everyone, not just that of experts.

Biodiversity crisis

Frantzeskaki is currently the coordinating lead author for the IPBES transformative change assessment. IPBES is a sister organisation to the IPCC, and focuses on biodiversity issues such as the imminent biodiversity loss crisis. On 13 October 2022, IPCC and IPBES were honoured with the 2022 Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity, in recognition of the “role of science on the front line of tackling climate change and the loss of biodiversity.”

"Biodiversity loss is one of the biggest and most threatening issues on the planet; for food systems, for nature, for human health and planetary health. We urgently need to identify the necessary transformative changes, to understand what holds these transformations back and how we can move them forward faster. In my research, I focus on climate adaptation in cities, using a variety of planning and governance approaches. Things like partnerships or future assessments, but also nature-based solutions or low-carbon solutions. Many cities are taking incremental steps, but now we need to take the daring steps."

Collaboration is key

Frantzeskaki joined Utrecht University in January this year. She gained international experience at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, at Monash University, Melbourne Australia, Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Delft University of Technology in Delft and Cornell University in Ithaca, USA, among others. During her career, she has worked with cities in Brazil and Japan, with Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia, and with several European cities including Rotterdam, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Antwerp, Genk, Thessaloniki and Ioannina. She therefore brings with her a wealth of international and transdisciplinary experience. "What I found very welcoming is that having academic freedom in Utrecht is a given. It is very much appreciated and guaranteed. In addition, collaboration, both within and outside the university walls, is embedded in the university’s DNA. I have experienced that collaboration is the way to do impactful science, for society and the well-being of humanity, so that we can overcome the current and future crises."