Green Cities

The ‘Green City’ understands the urban environment as a living ecosystem and considers environmental sustainability as a key precondition for just and thriving societies. Energy efficiency and environmental performance are the main pillars of the Green City, which are generally articulated across goals of CO2 emissions and municipal waste reduction, shift to renewable energy, promotion of biodiversity and support to more environmentally-friendly production and consumption modes and lifestyles.

The concept of the ‘Green City’ - often referred to as ‘Eco-city’ - is certainly not new in Europe, as it is largely rooted in the broader debate of sustainable urban development that has characterized EU policy-making for at least two decades. Green cities’ strategies, developed across fields such as urban mobility, real estate and property development, waste management and utilities, are often oriented to 'greening the built environment, preserving, restoring and regenerating natural ecosystems. Policies and plans range from urban forestation, green façading, buildings retrofitting and urban gardening to practices of Green Public Procurement, green financing and eco-friendly labeling.

Importantly, the green city is also acknowledged in its potential to support and boost the green economy, operating as a viable testbed for the emergence of new enterprises and jobs that are intentionally directed towards decoupling growth from the use of natural resources, while reducing social and health disparities that often affect poor and marginalized communities in urban contexts (CSIR 2014). Furthermore, green city strategies include resilience-oriented interventions. These aim at improving cities' adaptation to climate change by mitigating its risks in relation to issues such as increase in precipitation, flooding and heating phenomena and their effects over vulnerable categories such as children and the elderly.

The topic of governance in green cities has a number of challenges and opportunities ahead. How can climate-related policies and plans be framed, communicated, funded, monitored and assessed in a way that they prove to be much more than an investment with no or weak returns? A poor and limited awareness of climate and environment-related issues across society often hinders consensus and decision-making, and may decrease the ambition of policies and plans to objectives and actions that do not really tackle the scope and scale of the problems we face. Benefits on domains such as preventative health, jobs and enterprise opportunities or reduced pressure over social services are often not or poorly considered. This factor has at least two major consequences: on the one hand, the missed opportunity to shape new markets and mobilise businesses towards viable, eco-friendly services and products; on the other, the difficulty (often a structural limit) to pool financial resources from different city (and in turn regional and national) departments around a unique, cross-cutting strategy. This often results in complementary sources of funding, e.g. crowdfunding, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sponsorship. Paradoxically, these complementary sources often become a ground of conflict and misunderstanding between the Municipality and citizens, who might perceive such attempts as a step back of the public authority from its key responsibilities. Indeed, this latter point also calls for a general need of cities to develop new, more engaging and comprehensive narratives around green and climate-related policies, making them attractive for the entire array of actors who can both contribute to and benefit from them.

The European Commission has been active in promoting the development of green cities for at least two decades. The Resource Efficient Europe flagship initiative, the Seventh Environmental Action Programme (EAP) or the establishment of the European Green Capital Prize and European Green Leaf Award (EU Policy on the Urban Environment) are some examples of how the Commission is supporting cities in developing urban strategies of ‘living well, within the limits of the planet’. The European Green Capital Prize - launched in 2008 and awarding, over the years, forefront eco-friendly cities such as Stockholm, Copenhagen, Nantes, Bristol, Ljubljana and, the most recent, Oslo - has played a key role in providing cities with a clear and wide set of both quantitative and qualitative indicators to develop, monitor and assess their green development strategies. These indicators span local contribution to climate change, noise, green urban areas, water waste treatment, eco-innovation and sustainable employment, energy performance, among others.

A vibrant movement of green cities is currently underway both across Europe and beyond; Copenhagen has been awarded several times for its eco-credentials, presenting one of the most developed cycling infrastructures across Europe, also contributing to unlock a micro economy of cyclers-related services. Oslo's commitment to prioritizing people over cars and lowering fossil fuel emissions has earned it the title of European Green Capital 2019. The city has been extremely successful in supporting public transportation usage, as well as in pushing the shift towards electric vehicles. Amsterdam also stands as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and is often recalled as ‘hosting more bicycles than people’. Essen, located in Germany’s Ruhr valley, has proven successful in regenerating its coal and steel-based town into one of the greenest cities in the world, also leveraging culture and creativity - with the creation of cultural hubs and districts - to repurpose the city's identity in the broader post-industrial shift. Prato, a city well known across Italy and beyond for its textile district, is currently championing the ‘green transition’ in the country, with a complex and structured plan that combines green façading of public buildings, massive urban forestation and district-based circular practices to drive the city towards sustainable, healthier and thriving urban environments. Interestingly, the city is now working in close collaboration with Universities and research centres to develop a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan able to capture the multiple benefits stemming from green and circular interventions, well beyond the sole environmental performance.

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