Adaptation to climate change is gradually becoming accepted as one of the major challenges in regional and urban planning. However, the scope for options that make our societies less vulnerable to flood risks, disruptive quantities of rainwater in cities, or urban heat stress tends to be narrowed down, often implicitly, by the existing institutional context.
Institutions reflect past choices made regarding the legitimate distribution of burdens and benefits between government and society of measures against weather-related calamities. Alternative options, like innovative dyke concepts, green roofs, or urban planning to reduce heat stress, would require political debate on the legitimacy of different arrangements and would take climate adaptation policy out of the technocratic ‘comfort zone’. This article offers a framework of analysis for describing the institutionalized distribution of responsibilities for initiation, implementation, costs and liability for climate adaptation measures, and the shift in these that alternative options would entail. Furthermore, it offers four perspectives for assessing the legitimacy of present and alternative distributions. The framework is applied to the Dutch context in three cases concerning flooding, urban water drainage and urban heat stress.