Sustainable cities: transforming Europe’s urban landscapes

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From carbon neutrality to a closed loop economy, from cleaner air to cleaner transport – these are the ambitious environmental and climate goals we have set for ourselves in Europe. Since the vast majority of Europeans live in cities, they must play a decisive role in achieving the EU’s sustainable development goals. The question is: how can cities become sustainable?

Cities are home to around 75 percent of Europeans

A few days ago, the winner of the European Green Capital 2023 award, Tallinn, was announced. Thus, the Estonian metropolis joined the group of other European cities – Stockholm, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Grenoble, Ljubljana, Lisbon and Lahti – honored with this award. And Valongo in Portugal and Winterswijk in the Netherlands received the Green Leaf Award 2022 for cities with populations between 20,000 and 100,000.

It is inspiring and enriching to see what communities are doing to adapt their cities to the challenges ahead. But the road to sustainability is not an easy one.

Cities are home to around 75 percent of Europeans. They are complex systems that bring people and the environment together in a living, constantly evolving environment. They are important social, cultural and economic centers, embedded in their surrounding regions. Despite these common features, each city in Europe is unique because of its history, geography, inhabitants and socio-political systems. Therefore, the challenges they face vary greatly.

Cities are home to around 75 percent of Europeans

Some cities are facing an aging or shrinking population, while others are experiencing steady population growth. Their economies are influenced both by the global health of industries, tourism and fisheries, and by technological innovation which acts as a magnet for young talent from across the EU. Similarly diverse relationships exist between cities and the environment.

Tools such as the European Air Quality Index and European City Air Quality show that we do not all breathe the same air, with different causes and consequences. The scores and indicators obtained in the studies confirm that climate change affects different regions and urban areas in different ways. Coastal cities, especially in the Northwest Atlantic, will face increasing risks of storm surges, while those in the South may face water shortages and forest fires. Our research also shows that some communities and groups, particularly the elderly, are more vulnerable because they may be affected by many environmental hazards, such as air and noise pollution.

Sustainable cities will provide a cleaner

Despite their unique characteristics, all cities must take action to prepare for climate challenges. This activity will be key to achieving Europe’s goals of climate neutrality, a circular economy and biodiversity conservation. Sustainable cities will provide a cleaner and healthier environment and better social and economic opportunities for their residents.

Most European cities were created through centuries of historical processes, and their streets, neighborhoods, and buildings reflect this heritage. The existing infrastructure partly determines how quickly we can replace building stock or upgrade existing buildings, create new transport options. In these cases, achieving sustainability requires careful consideration. The ultimate goal may be the same, but the path to achieving it must take into account the unique set of characteristics of each city and the challenges faced.

At the European Environment Agency, we are working to develop a common conceptual framework to help city authorities and policy makers design sustainable cities based on the concepts of the closed facility city, resilient city, low carbon city, green city, inclusive city and healthy city.

From creating green and blue areas in the city center, to integrating public transport with active mobility systems such as cycling and walking, or developing more efficient recycling systems.

There are many areas where we can do more to move our cities towards sustainability. Wider use of technological advances, such as electric vehicles and remote working, can accelerate this process. The examples of Europe’s Green Capitals show that a long-term and coherent vision, supported by the right governance structures, knowledge and data, can transform our cities into modern and liveable places.

22 April – International Earth Day

We must achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century to limit the rise in global average air temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is a major task for the people of Earth and the best investment for the future.

22 April - International Earth DayWe live on an extraordinary Planet, an extraordinary wonder of the Universe. The Earth, from whose gifts for hundreds of years we draw full handfuls. A place that provides the conditions necessary for our survival – shelter, security and the basics of biological existence. On this day, let’s ask ourselves an important question: have I done enough for Planet Earth to survive and be a safe Home for future generations?

How am I sorting my trash? Am I conserving water and reducing my electricity use? Have I finally switched to bicycles, public transportation? Do I take care of the forest just around the corner and have I stopped buying water in plastic bottles? Did I give up single-use plastic bags? Have I supported the local community in green activities?

When will I finally talk to my family, friends about how to protect the climate and the planet? Have I finally signed a petition to protect endangered species? Have I reduced my carbon footprint? Do I even know what a carbon footprint is? How have I changed my eating habits in the last year and have I stopped throwing food away? How do I heat my home? Have I rethought buying another T-shirt, cell phone just because it looks better than the old version?

This is the moment to change everything and invest in the well-being of the planet. It’s time for bold action. Businesses, governments, citizens – we are all responsible for the future of the Earth. We still have a chance to build a healthy planet for our children. Every minute is a chance to change the world.