For the first time in history, more people live in cities than rural areas. The "European Green Capitals" program aims to ensure cities rise in style to the environmental challenges facing them.
Even cities can tap environmentally-friendly solar energy to power homes
Healthy competition usually spurs contestants to outdo each other and brings the eventual winner fame and glory. That's probably what the 16 representatives from various European cities had in mind when they came together in Tallinn, Estonia, in May 2006 to launch the European Green Capital Award scheme.
The aim was to encourage cities to achieve higher levels of environmental protection and improve the quality of the urban environment.
The first winner of the competition was Stockholm, which served throughout 2010 as Europe's first Green Capital. In 2011, it will be passing the mantle to Hamburg in northern Germany.
A spirit of healthy competition when it comes to green urban development is long overdue: Europe has become an essentially urban society, with four out of five Europeans living in towns and cities.
It's a development seen all over the world, with more than half the world's population, or about 3.3 billion people, now living in towns and cities.
Almost four fifths of greenhouses gases emitted every day originate in cities. So with most of the environmental challenges facing our society arising in urban areas, the logical conclusion is that it is also these urban areas that need to muster up the commitment and innovation to resolve them.
Hamburg meets the mark on several fronts
So what's needed to make cities more environmentally-friendly and liveable in the future? The European Commission has drafted ten criteria that specifically pinpoint steps to solve environmental challenges in cities, improve the quality of life of its citizens and reduce their global carbon footprint.
Harbor City is a new quarter under development in the old harbor of Hamburg, along the River Elbe
The criteria require the winning city to not just meet high environmental standards but also show it has what it takes to be a role model to inspire other cities and promote best practices.
According to the jury, Hamburg won thanks to what it described as “ambitious climate protection targets.”
The northern German port city plans to slash its 1990 carbon emissions levels by 40 percent by 2020, and by 80 percent by 2050.
Cynics might say Hamburg won the coveted title because of its lofty goals rather than its current practices. But that's only partially true.
Hamburg's ambitious climate targets naturally played a role in its victory but the city already boasts lower per capita carbon emissions than Freiburg - another German city that made it to the competition shortlist and one that sees itself as the cradle of the green movement in Germany.
Latest available official figures show that Hamburg's carbon emissions amounted to 8.84 tones per year per resident in 2006, compared to 9.28 tones in Freiburg in 2005.
Hamburg out-performed the other contestants on many fronts. The jury deemed its water quality better than in Bristol, Oslo, Freiburg and Muenster. It has equally excellent air quality and an efficient waste management system.
The city has also apparently achieved good performance levels in terms of cycling and public transport indicators.
Yet some of the rating practices in the competition have raised eyebrows.
The bike-friendly German city of Muenster also made the shortlist
For instance, Amsterdam – a bicycle city if ever there was one – was awarded only one point more than Hamburg for pro-cycling traffic infrastructure.
The jury commended Amsterdam's impressive achievement in getting more of its residents cycling than driving, noting that nine tenths of its roads are bike-friendly, and that anyone who needs to get in the driving seat now and then can use one of the city's efficient car-sharing stations.
When it comes to promoting two wheels, Amsterdam surely outstrips Hamburg, and the German port city may not be making the most of opportunities to catch up.
Even Hamburg's new waterfront district HafenCity, which is currently being developed, is seen as having failed in some environmental aspects.
The new district will increase the inner city area by 40 percent through filling-up expendable harbor basins.
In itself, this is an exemplary way of preventing geographical expansion into surrounding areas, and one that provides plenty of scope for sustainable urban development.
But instead of integrating bike-friendly strategies into the concept, urban planners have come up with a design that suits first and foremost the needs of motorists.
On track to a greener future
The issue has been seized upon by the Hamburg Future Council, which is made up of citizens, companies and associations. According to its press spokeswoman Delia Schindler, Hamburg owes its European Green Capital victory less to politicians and more to grassroots activism and local NGOs.
But the EU Commission jury wasn't splitting hairs. It made a point of praising public commitment to environmental objectives, and Hamburg garnered maximum points for its communication strategy.
The jury was impressed by the involvement of young people; the many environmental networks in operation and the enthusiasm the city shows in cooperating with other environmental organizations within the EU.
It's planning to spread some of this enthusiasm with the launch of a “train of ideas.” This foresees interested cities within the European Green Capital Award network ‘owning' a wagon and traveling around Europe to promote their respective green ideas, achievements and future plans - on track to a greener future.
Martin Schrader (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar