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Who's in charge of greening cities?

Irene Banos RuizJune 30, 2016

By 2050, 70 percent of the population is expected to live in urban areas. With pressing environmental problems, it's hoped cities will shift toward sustainability. But without a specific framework, who will lead the way?

Borsigplatz in Dortmund (Picture: imago/Hans Blossey)
Image: imago/Hans Blossey

Urban population has been increasing for the last decade - along with environmental problems that accompany cities. Air pollution, noise, too much heat and a lack of green areas are shared concerns for cities - and all are a result of deficient urban planning.

The magnitude of these problems have been measured in a recent study carried out in Barcelona, which has shown that better urban and transport planning in the Spanish city could avoid 20 percent of annual premature deaths.

In light of these problems, sustainable urban planning has taken up an important place in the journey toward sustainability across the European Union, where urban areas are home to more than two-thirds of the population.

The European Commission has launched various initiatives, such as the European Green Capital competition, and has developed some directives to boost the greening of cities, such as through the implementation of sustainable urban and transport planning.

And national and local governments are starting to make the EU guidelines a reality. In addition to governments, citizens - who are the most affected by the sustainability, or lack thereof, of their cities - are also an important element in building this green future.

But while the need for further sustainable urban planning seems to be shared by both citizens and policy-makers, it is still unclear who should take the lead on such transformation.

Spanish beach in Benidorm, Alicante (Photo: picture alliance/dpa/M. Lorenzo)
Better urban planning is essential for urban areas, which host around 70 percent of European citizensImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Lorenzo

Clear need for better urban planning

Natalie Müller, leading author of the Barcelona study, told DW that premature deaths due to urban planning has not been of interest until now. "Urban planners have been only considering deaths from traffic accidents."

Developed under a sustainable framework, urban planning could help manage the land use of cities and better cover citizens' basic needs, such as housing and transportation, while reducing the carbon footprint - through less-polluting energy sources and more green areas, among other things.

The EU's Regional Policy has put urban planning as a main focus for the period 2014 to 2020. Around 10 billion euros will be allocated from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for sustainable urban development - not only for the environmental dimension, but also for economic, social and cultural ones.

Maggie Cazal, president and founder of the nongovernmental organization Town Planners Without Borders (USF), told DW that "a good urban planning is the solution to reduce pollution and adapt the city to climate change."

Barcelona view from the funicular railway of Port Vell (Photo: picture alliance/dpa/R. Wilms)
Only 6.8 square meters of green space is available on a city-wide average per resident in Barcelona, the study saidImage: picture alliance/dpa/R. Wilms

But who moves first?

With the issue on the table, the question remains: Who is in charge of finding a solution? This does not seem to have a clear answer.

Initiatives such as the European Green Capital competition seek to raise awareness among the different EU member states on how to make cities more sustainable. The competition's secretariat explained to DW that winners serve as a role model, so that other countries can follow the practices implemented.

They regret, however, that they cannot offer any financial support to the cities - neither before nor after the competition. As in other cases, although the EU mostly elaborates directives to follow, the cities have to figure out the challenge of sustainability mostly on their own - and with the occasional grant from the ERDF.

"The European Commission plays a big role providing the main directives to follow and encouraging governments to act," Cazal said. "But then, each local and national government has to act by itself to implement sustainable urban policies."

Recent signature of the "Pact of Amsterdam" seeks to boost direct partnerships between city governments in order to bypass slow movement by national governments and the EU on tackling air pollution.

German city Essen is European Green Capital 2017 (Photo: pixel)
The German city of Essen was chosen as the European Green Capital for 2017Image: picture alliance/blickwinkel/A. Held

Bottom-up, global reach

Cazal believes citizens would also have an important role to play. "It would be more interesting if the changes would come from the citizen, from other urban stakeholders, and from the local authorities in a bottom-up way," she said.

Cazal believes active citizen participation and a close relationship with local authorities is the best way to promote more sustainable urban planning - but for that, strong public awareness would be the challenge.

But even supporting a bottom-up approach, Cazal highlighted how the EU could reinforce harmonization of sustainable urban planning norms, such as environmental building standards, or lists of eco-friendly building materials - currently different in each country - and encourage dialogue among countries.

And wherever they start, all initiatives must be accompanied by a global dimension of ecological transformation and include all actors, she concluded.

"The most important thing for sustainable urban planning is to not get deadlocked at local or national borders."