Engineering firm sees climate change opportunity in cities

A Dutch engineering company that is helping New York and New Orleans defend themselves against big storms and rising seas says climate change will be a source of business for decades regardless of the outcome of current climate talks in Paris.

Arcadis, which doubled sales from 1 billion euros($1.08 billion) to 2 billion in 2007-2014 as it invested heavily in water management, says its future focus will be on 13 of the world’s major urban centres threatened either by too much water or too little.

“We’re looking at cities as a major target of opportunity: cities in coastal areas, delta areas, river basins, areas that have groundwater vulnerability, and drought-stricken areas, like Sao Paulo, Brazil,” John Batten, Arcadis’ Global Director for Water and Cities, said in an interview.

The company’s activities include designing water defences, building infrastructure, urban architecture and environmental engineering, with climate change mitigation at the heart of its strategy.

The nature of the business is shifting in important ways, Batten said. New construction strategies are coming into use. Sources of funding are becoming more diverse. And cities increasingly see coping with extreme weather as an economic as well as a safety issue.

In order to allocate personnel and resources, Arcadis is focusing on New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; Shanghai and China’s Pearl River Delta; Kuala Lumpur; Singapore; Sydney; London; The Amsterdam-Rotterdam “Randstad”; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Doha, Qatar, and Sao Paulo.

All are located in coastal areas impacted by climate change, have lots of work to do, and can pay for it.

“Funding is clearly a challenge,” Batten said. “We would love to work more in Jakarta (Indonesia) and in Bangladesh, but … we need to make a living.”

As part of lobbying efforts, Arcadis participates in public discussions and on government advisory panels.

“We maintain high visibility in those cities,” he said. “We want to be perceived as a problem solver and a stakeholder in their success.”

Water abundance, water scarcity

While Arcadis hails from the low-lying Netherlands, historically a champion of sea walls and river dykes, both the Dutch and the company have been moving away from rigid water defence projects.

“Mangroves and wetlands and tidal areas are really part of the buffering that delta cities require to withstand storm surges, so you see a lot of restoration projects,” he said.

For instance in China’s “Sponge Cities” project, ponds and wetlands are being created in 16 cities to help absorb influxes of heavy rain.

Meanwhile, in drought-ridden areas such as Australia and California, advances are coming at a furious pace, Batten said.

Cutting edge projects the company participates in include cleaning chemicals from Los Angeles groundwater once considered irreparably polluted; transforming sewage into drinking water in Singapore; and capturing torrential rain and injecting it into depleted aquifers in the US Southwest.


A final trend is the move for funds and private companies to get involved, viewing climate change from an economic perspective. He cited an ongoing Rockefeller Foundation project to make 100 cities around the world more resilient.

There’s “a recognition growing that it is good business for a city to invest in the capital infrastructure that can keep it up and running during difficult weather events,” he said.

“There’s a case to be made that better resilience leads to more economic investment.”

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