Conference on the Future of Europe: Greening Europe's cities
In the Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens have set out ambitious recommendations, including for our environment and climate. Creating more sustainable European cities must become a top-flight priority for EU policymakers.
Three-quarters of all EU citizens live in cities, taking advantage of the employment, educational, cultural and entertainment opportunities that urban areas offer. And this number continues to rise. But the higher the density, the greater the climate and environmental impact. Greenhouse gas emissions linked to inner-city transport, local industries and individual households contribute to the growing urban climate footprint. Waste generation; urban sprawl; and air, noise, ground and water pollution add to the unsustainable record of today’s cities.
The EU’s green transition must be coupled with a clear vision of how to mitigate cities’ negative effects on the climate and environment, and make them accelerators of sustainability instead. A fast and inclusive energy transition has also become especially urgent in light of the EU’s need to halt its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
Sustainable mobility, green urban development and protected natural environments
The European Citizens’ Panel 3 in the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) propose 51 concrete measures targeting the EU’s broad climate, environment and health agendas. As for greening Europe’s cities, their measures focus on three different aspects: (i) sustainable and safe road transport; (ii) placing nature at the heart of urban development; and (iii) expanding, restoring and protecting natural ecosystems in cities.
First, the citizens call for prioritising cyclists and pedestrians over vehicle drivers. Providing further rights to the former would result in more and safer bike lanes and extending car-free zones (recommendation #4). Cyclists and other stakeholders of inner-city traffic should be trained on road safety, while producers of green vehicles (e.g. e-bikes) should be held accountable for raising consumer awareness of the safety risks. These measures could make climate-friendly transport more attractive and safer for citizens.
Public transport, walking and cycling in cities provide the best possible benefits for “human health and the environment” over other green mobility options. Europe’s cities already established over 250 Low and Zero Emissions Zones by 2019, and the trend is ascendant. From Lisbon to Helsinki, cities have set out strategies to reduce cars or expand city infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. But much more remains to be done if the EU’s downtown areas are to become fully car-free or road traffic “drastically less pollutant” to achieve the European Green Deal’s 90% reduction target by 2050.
The EU has continuously promoted sustainable transport systems, and with COVID-19 in mind, the European Commission recently called for “a greater focus on walking[,] cycling [and] micromobility” in its new EU Urban Mobility Framework. The framework will increase investments in Europe’s cycling infrastructure, including research in and the use of e-bikes and e-cargo. In its Road Safety Policy Framework 2021-2030, the Commission also lays out a roadmap for its ‘Vision Zero’ of zero road traffic deaths by 2050. Beyond these efforts, the citizens’ recommendations mandate the EU to further assist cities in rendering inner-city traffic more sustainable, bike-friendly and safe and extending car-free zones.
Second, the Conference participants argue that greening cities and urban infrastructure should be at the heart of the EU’s climate and environmental ambitions for urban areas (recommendation #6). An EU directive requiring urban development programmes to fulfil minimum standards should be enacted to ensure that new buildings and infrastructure are as green as possible. The citizens argue that the ideal green building relies on renewable energy sources, has low energy consumption and emits little carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, nature should be at the heart of architectural projects. Urban development that considers climate-related and environmental aspects is fundamental for greening cities and generating benefits for citizens’ health and well-being.
This recommendation has leeway for more action. Following milestones like the Leipzig Charter (2007) and the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (2011), the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 (2020) proposes allocating at least €20 billion a year to incentivise private investments which promote ‘urban green infrastructure’ (UGI) (1) and support the EU’s biodiversity protection programme, Natura 2000. The 2030 Strategy also urged cities of over 20,000 inhabitants to develop their own Urban Greening Plan before 2022. These plans cover the creation of ‘green urban spaces’ for social and environmental well-being (e.g. parks, forests, urban farms, green roofs) and are coordinated under the Green City Accord. Still, the EU should evolve ambitiously from coordinator and facilitator to an enhanced regulator of minimum standards for urban development.
Finally, Panel 3 calls for the protection of ‘greener urban areas’ (recommendation #11). The EU should extend conservation areas of biodiversity and natural ecosystems and strengthen the rule of law protecting them from human interference. The citizens suggest that these areas are well-embedded into their surrounding nature, ideally creating a direct link between cities and the protected areas. Protecting, restoring and expanding green urban areas can promote the visibility and acceptance of natural ecosystems.
The EU has issued several frameworks and funds to strengthen the protection of natural habitats and biodiversity in urban areas, like the LIFE Programme or Natura 2000. Yet as Europe’s urbanity expands, cities remain the source of many environmental problems affecting wildlife dramatically. While some species adapt to harmful artificial surroundings, urban expansion will continue to harm more vulnerable ecosystems. Policymakers at all levels must consider the needs and livelihood of wildlife and incorporate them into their urban planning. Cities are increasingly interested in mainstreaming UGI into their urban planning, so more guidance could be coordinated and provided at the EU level.
More engagement, more visibility
Despite its numerous strategies and proposals to make European cities more sustainable, the Conference recommendations reveal that citizens want a more active European Commission that drives the green transformation further. That local governments are the main actors of urban jurisdiction may tie the Commission’s hands and make it a minor player. But it is also the key player in channelling investments and establishing a level playing field for sustainable transformation, providing technical guidance, and nurturing positive competition between EU cities. The Green Capital Award, European Green Leaf Award and the EU Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities (2) encourage competition while allowing cities to share their best practices. More specifically, linking environmental and climate action, the latter is an opportunity for the EU to assist the recently selected 100 cities in enacting what the citizens of the CoFoE ask for.
If the EU is serious about the transformative and inclusive character of its Green Deal, it should attach importance to the Conference recommendations and translate them into policies which target citizens, cities, industry and authorities on all levels. More concretely, the EU should take the following actions:
- Prioritise inner-city car-free zones. The EU must answer the citizens’ call for a clear prioritisation of cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas. It can help monitor cities’ progress in and coordinate the implementation of car-free zones. Ephemeral measures like once-a-year car-free days or provisional car-free zones should cease to exist; it is time for permanent solutions. More and more citizens want their inner cities to be totally car-free. Any sustainable transport system that incorporates car-free zones should be with the future generations of road users and the needs of today’s citizens in mind.
- Create synergies between nature and urbanisation. The citizens call for dedicated ‘green standards’ for any urban development undertaking. The EU should introduce minimum requirements for green investments in major urban development plans while increasing its investments in UGI. It should also extend the urban developmental projects covered by its Environmental Impact Assessment Directive 85/337/EEC to better assess the risks and benefits for citizens’ well-being and natural ecosystems.
- Protect urban biodiversity and make it more visible. The citizens want not only their cities to be ‘greener’ but also for the existing ecosystems and species to be protected. The EU has already done a lot to address biodiversity protection. Projects like Natura 2000 should be complemented with further frameworks which target urban biodiversity protection. Furthermore, the EU should help cities and municipalities make inner-city nature more visible to their inhabitants and promote environmental training and urban gardening initiatives.
- Assist the EU’s 100 ‘climate pioneer’ cities in becoming fit for future transformations. Making cities sustainable implies avoiding high costs for future renovation and the unnecessary rededication of urban infrastructure. The EU should incorporate strategies to assess, anticipate and prepare for unexpected crises in the future (i.e. climate, social, economic, war, displacement) into its Climate City Contracts with the 100 cities of the EU Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities.
- Make the sustainable transformation of cities a participatory exercise. Even once the CoFoE has ended, the EU should continue to engage with its citizens when drafting environmental and climate policies. Building on the Aarhus Convention and the rights to access environmental information and justice and participate in environmental decision-making, the EU should institutionalise participatory decision-making for all urban transformation.(3)
The final consolidated CoFoE report will be published in May 2022. EU policymakers will need to translate the citizens’ green visions into concrete measures to make this exercise a success for both participatory democracy and the sustainable transformation of cities. It goes without saying that, especially in times of socio-economic transformation and permacrisis, Europeans should be at the heart of any transformative process in the spaces where most of them live and work.
Filipe Ataíde Lampe is Junior Project Manager of the Connecting Europe project at the European Policy Centre.