The Global View

Do EU sustainable city policies work?

It makes sense that Europe would try to take a lead in developing smarter, more sustainable cities for the 21st century. While it’s far from the most populous continent, it is one of the most urbanized, with more than two-thirds of its people living in cities.

That kind of concentrated population offers both advantages and disadvantages on the sustainability front.

Large, diverse numbers of people mean larger, more diverse impacts on everything: from infrastructure to the environment to the economy and more. So problems can quickly gain overwhelming momentum. At the same time, though, big populations can provide economies of scale for the right solutions, making it more cost-efficient for leaders to take bold action.

So where do Europe’s cities stand now in terms of being ready and more resilient for whatever the future might throw at them? And how do EU innovators and decision-makers see them evolving in years to come? Let’s take a look at the policies and circumstances that are shaping the continent’s urban evolution.

Laying the groundwork

Building on earlier efforts to improve urban sustainability, EU officials in 2007 adopted the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities.

“With this charter, the 27 member states have, for the first time, outlined an ideal model for the European Sustainable City and laid the foundations for an integrated urban policy,” officials stated.

The charter – designed to “ensure economic prosperity, social balance and a healthy environment” – identified a number of goals around which to build EU urban policies:

  • High-quality public spaces;
  • Improved energy efficiency;
  • Modernized city networks for transport, water, energy and communications;
  • Proactive, innovative approaches to education;
  • Upgraded homes and buildings;
  • Special attention to the needs of deprived neighborhoods.

One year later, European ministers created the Reference Framework for European Sustainable Cities (RFSC) to serve as a “toolkit for the integrated approach.”

The EU’s goals for sustainable cities have also grown out of its broader Europe 2020 growth strategy. A response to the economic crises that began in 2007-2008, Europe 2020 calls for tighter economic coordination across the continent, stronger governance and “a new kind of growth” that is “smart, sustainable and inclusive.”

The 2020 targets aim for, among other goals, greenhouse gas reductions of 20 to 30 percent, 20 percent of energy from renewables, 20 million fewer people in or at risk of poverty and social exclusion and a 75 percent employment rate for 20- to 64-year-olds.

The EU began working toward those goals by looking first at the challenges of low-carbon energy and transport, launching its Smart Cities & Communities Industrial Initiative in mid-2011. The following year, it expanded its vision to include solutions for Europe’s social, environmental and health challenges. This became the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities.

In October of 2013, the partnership adopted its Strategic Implementation Plan.

To “focus energy and gain momentum,” the plan zeroes in on three key areas:

  • Sustainable urban mobility (which includes public transport, alternative energy and more efficient logistics);
  • Sustainable built environment (ie, more energy-efficient buildings, more renewables and improved livability);
  • Integration of energy, transport and ICT (that is, greater networking for an “internet of things”).

Changing times, changing places

While guided by the Leipzig Charter and other programs, sustainability efforts across Europe vary widely according to city, region and country. EU officials intended this by design, having long recognized that “(t)here is no one-size-fits-all solution for integrated urban development, no universal recipe for success. It’s the shared vision that matters, the timeframes, targets and themes should be decided locally.”

“(A) sustainable city should encompass all aspects of what makes a city livable and sustainable and that includes policies that meet basic needs like finding employment or affordable housing,” says Keith Thorpe with Local Growth, High Streets and Regeneration at the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government. (He is also the UK’s national contact for the RFSC.) “It isn’t just about the environment but about an integrated approach that combines economic, social and environmental priorities rather than separates them. A key principle underlying the RFSC is checking that an integrated approach is being taken at all levels from the neighborhood up to city and even city-region level.”

Tackling multiple problems at once is necessary, agrees Taina Susiluoto, director general for the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy. But addressing one challenge – say, the environment – can often help in multiple ways, she says.

“It is not contrary to develop economically smart cities and take the environment and social cohesion onboard at the same time,” Susiluoto says. “Smart city as a comprehensive way of doing things helps cities to attract businesses, for example, grows exports of cleantech solutions and brings jobs and welfare to a city. Smart city … is also increasingly about social well-being and mobilization of citizens to co-create the environments they live in.”

While each European city is unique, communities throughout the continent are feeling many of the same pressures. Populations are aging and also becoming more culturally diverse. Globalized manufacturing means fewer, well-paying jobs for Europe’s low-skilled workers. Income inequality is growing. Meanwhile, urban sprawl, dwindling natural resources and climate change are hurting biodiversity and the environment.

At the same time, innovations in networking, cloud computing, big data and analytics promise new opportunities for making city services smarter or more efficient. And growth in the renewable energy base is making it possible for cities and citizens to meet their power needs more cleanly and sustainably.

How have Europe’s cities tackled these issues so far?

Thorpe says it’s hard to identify an ideal role model in the UK, because every community is different. However, he adds, “There are some cities that do seem to stand out on some indicators of sustainability … Newcastle was one of the ‘test’ cities for the RFSC back in 2010-11 along with Glasgow and Belfast. Bristol often leads rankings of the best UK city for quality of life and has become a magnet for green companies and organizations. The European Commission has recognized Bristol’s success in creating a green city by naming it European Green Capital 2015.”

“We can certainly see that some cities have done more than others and are forerunners in creating sustainable communities,” notes Susiluoto, director general for the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy. “Freiburg in Germany, (V)ienna in Austria, Gothenburg and Växjö in Sweden or Lahti in Finland could be mentioned as examples which have profoundly recognized sustainable city as a strategic issue. Linking the potential of green growth to this strategy thinking makes thinking on sustainability even broader. This has taken place, (for example), in the City of Lahti.”

Across Europe, cities are approaching the sustainability challenge in their own unique ways. Barcelona, host to this week’s Smart City Expo World Congress, for example, has a 6,000-bike-strong bicycle sharing program and a new framework for public transportation. London, led by Mayor (and avid cyclist) Boris Johnson is also promoting pedal power, as well as pushing for more green business (it currently counts more than 9,200 green businesses that employ over 163,500 people). And Stockholm, which was named the EU’s first Green Capital in 2010, is aiming to be fossil-fuel-free by 2050, runs all its trains and buses on renewables and combines energy-producing incineration and recycling to ensure that no residential trash goes to a landfill.

“Yes, the one size fits all solution definitely does not exist,” says André Müller, who works with Germany’s Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning and is the national contact for the RFSC. “Yet, some promising and really good city networks exist in and with which cities do exchange and do learn and do support each other in their daily works routine dealing with sustainability, smartness, resilience – you name it. I believe that this is the track to further work on: Learning from the success and failure stories of others.”

Müller, who helped write a study called “Zero carbon cities – between wishful thinking and reality,” points to cities like Freiburg in Germany and Lyon in France as examples of these kinds of efforts.

Big questions remain

For all its charters, initiatives, frameworks and models, the EU hasn’t yet offered a fully crystallized vision of what a sustainable city is. Then again, nor has anyone else.

The Leipzig Charter ends with a simple declaration: “Europe needs cities and regions which are strong and good to live in.” Who could argue with that?

But what does that mean? What would such cities and regions look like? ‘Strong’ in what ways? ‘Good’ how?

Dig even deeper, and there’s another, more profound question that needs answering: Why?

Why are we trying to create sustainable cities? Is it to completely eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels? (And becoming carbon-neutral by exporting carbon emissions elsewhere in the world doesn’t count.) To ensure that our communities, wherever they’re located, can withstand the next Katrina, Sandy, Haiyan or Cleopatra? To become utopias? (And what kind? Technologically advanced, smart and automated ones? Or socially just and equitable ones for all the world’s billions?)

Our current wealth of innovations in big data, analytics, mobile apps and renewable energy can help with some of those goals. But technology alone won’t be enough. Actual wealth – as in massive investments – will be needed too. And where will that money come from when governments are slashing budgets, banks aren’t lending and citizens (under the label “consumers”) aren’t spending because so many are under- or unemployed?

We also need visionary thinking. But that begs another question, Whose vision? The European Commission’s? IBM’s? Boris Johnson’s? Transition Network’s Rob Hopkins’? Reconciling so many different visions will be as large a task as reconciling the differences between rich countries and poor countries on how to tackle climate change … and we’ve all seen how slow, painful and inadequate that process has been so far.

And, finally, there’s the question, When? If our goal is to prevent the worst potential impacts of climate change, cities – which produce more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases – will have to change not only radically, but quickly. To avoid more than 2 degrees C of warming, we must leave two-thirds of our proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground, the International Energy Agency has warned. And if we don’t start reducing carbon emissions by 2017, it adds, 2 degrees’ worth of emissions will be “locked in.” That’s just three years from now.

Lump all these questions together, and sustainable-city advocates are left with some tremendously difficult calculus to solve on a tight deadline. If the EU (and the rest of the world) is committed to doing so, it needs to supercharge its current approach, make some bold decisions and start acting fast.