Cities insist on a sustainable future at Eurocities 2024

31 May 2024

“Acting on climate change is not an option, it is a must,” Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Vantaa told the hundreds of European city representatives gathered at the Eurocities 2024 Annual Conference in Cluj Napoca. With the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey having identified climate action as by far the number one priority for mayors, followed by social inclusion and affordable housing, he was far from being alone in this sentiment.

Timonen warned against seeing climate action as one stream of work among the many, “it has to be part of everything,” he insisted. Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz, underscored the necessity of political consensus around this issue: “We can discuss how we do it, but not whether we do it,” she said.

Together with the people

Effective climate action and urban sustainability are not something that a municipality can achieve alone, Timonen emphasised, “Whatever you do, involve stakeholders – business community, academic community – they help you with the dilemma of how to move forward.” This approach is essential both for generating innovative solutions and securing buy-in from all sectors.

Britta Behrendt, Secretary of State of Berlin, emphasised the importance of climate communication. “We have to explain to people that it’s not an option. It’s not a green issue or a conservative issue, it’s not even a political issue – it’s an issue of to be or not to be,” she warned. She also made a plea for solidarity among political parties to combat public backlash and climate misinformation.

It’s an issue of to be or not to be
— Britta Behrendt, Secretary of State of Berlin

Zdanowska stressed the need for cooperation with national and European bodies, particularly in securing the regulations and funding to support vulnerable populations during transitions: “Without special regulation and special funds for poor people, we will not be able to do it.”

Better buildings

The issues of climate change, social inclusion and affordable housing are closely intertwined, especially when it comes to enhancing the efficiency of cities’ buildings. Several cities pointed to their efforts in transitioning from legacy infrastructure to energy efficient and sustainable alternatives. “Decarbonising the heat supply is a huge task for the city of Berlin,” said Behrendt, with many of city’s buildings being over 200 years old.

In Lodz, the majority of building stock is also this age, and many still rely on individual coal heating systems, “We have to renovate these beautiful heritage buildings, both to protect them and to improve the quality of life,” Zdanowska said. Timonen emphasised the challenge of Vantaa’s rapid growth for sustainability: “Being northern, with cold winters, we have to make sure that district heating reaches new buildings and becomes more and more sustainable.”

We have to renovate these beautiful heritage buildings, both to protect them and to improve the quality of life
— Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz

Being able to upgrade buildings presents an opportunity to improve the living conditions of local people while furthering climate objectives, and saving them money on their energy bills. However, it must come hand in hand with robust housing policy.

A roof over their heads

Lodz’s approach to housing has to take into account an influx of refugees from Ukraine and changing work patterns among the younger generation. “We have a lot of young people who want the opportunity to find a cheap house and social housing,” noted Zdanowska, pointing to the need for innovative solutions and support from national and European levels. “Without special regulations, special funds for poorer people, we will not be able to do it,” she stressed.

We focus on getting the housing we need at the scale we need
— Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester

Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester, highlighted the importance of local initiatives and partnerships in the face of high levels of centralisation: “We focus on getting the housing we need at the scale we need, without government support, with innovative financing and city-to-city collaboration.” However, she also alluded to a potential for changes in the system on the horizon: “Cities getting more fiscal responsibilities and tools will allow them to accelerate the pace of change.”

Sustainability is social

Gathered city leaders further stressed the importance of social cohesion and inclusivity in creating sustainable cities. Nicola Barbuto, Deputy Mayor of Sofia, pointed to the need for spaces that can foster a sense of community and bridge societal gaps. “People are more divided than ever,” he said. “We need to have more social places where people meet.” Barbuto also emphasised the need for more investment in sustainable mobility to enrich the public space: “We need to get people from their cars into public transport by making it more convenient, faster. It also makes people more active, more social.”

People are more divided than ever
— Nicola Barbuto, Deputy Mayor of Sofia

Engaging younger generations is also crucial, as Zdanowska noted: “The young generation is the key in this dialogue. They must be sure that the world will not change.” The concerns of this generation can also be a good way to reach people less interested in sustainability. “When the young girl or boy asks his grandfather, ‘please do it for me’, it is quite different from the city saying we must do it,” she said.

Thomas George, Global Lead for Urban at UNICEF, reinforced the importance of inclusive policies, stating, “A Europe for all people is a Europe that puts the wellbeing of children at the heart of all its actions.” He highlighted the role of local governments in addressing inequalities and achieving air quality targets, emphasising that child-friendly cities are beneficial for all residents. “In some countries, one in ten children live in poverty, in others, the amount is four in ten,” George added, underscoring the disparities that need to be addressed.

Innovation for resilience

The Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey found that 85% of mayors believe that government innovation is essential to meet local challenges, including climate change. Margot Roose, Deputy Mayor of Tallinn, noted her city’s extensive use of digital tools to predict problems and optimise resource allocation. “Tallinn is very highly digitalised. We have done a lot to predict problems, to be a smart city,” she said.

We have to work with the private sector
— Margot Roose, Deputy Mayor of Tallinn

However, despite these advancements, Tallinn is still affected by the housing shortage that many European cities are facing. “Now prices have gone through the roof, but the city doesn’t own much housing,” she explained, “So we have to work with the private sector.” She also shared the city’s efforts to support vulnerable residents by offering utility services at a cheaper price.

Craig stressed the need for local services to be responsive and innovative, particularly in sharing data around climate adaptation and resilience. “Citizens now expect things differently. They expect us to be immediate,” she said. Highlighting how local innovation can be more responsive to local needs, Craig stated, “Decisions are more beneficial the lower down the level they are executed, and the closer to the communities they are.”

Decisions are more beneficial the lower down the level they are executed
— Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester

Innovation also presents opportunities for more local prosperity as the private sector creates solutions for climate and environmental challenges. “I would really love to see our companies start reusing materials for a second, third and hundredth time,” Roose said.

Financing transformation

“Working with the private sector is the only way to address the investment gap,” insisted Kyriacos Kakouris, Vice President of the European Investment Bank (EIB). The EIB estimates that closing this gap will require around €650 billion by 2030. While national funds can cover about 55%, the rest must come from private investment, a target the EIB is committed to meeting.

Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca, stressed the importance of working with cities to help them receive and absorb climate finance, highlighting the need for synergy in funds from local, national, European, and private sources. “If the funds from the EIB, Horizon, etc. do not complement each other, we are in trouble. We need synergy, and less bureaucracy,” he said, going on to point out that “money is not the first and only problem – administrative capacity and technical support are vital for cities in Europe.”

Money is not the first and only problem
— Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca

Kakouris acknowledged this need, stating that the EIB aims to help cities build this capacity and mobilise private investment, making securing funds more efficient. “There is an institutional barrier,” he said, “a lack of capacity in many cities to identify and implement the financing opportunities.”

A better city

Conversely, in her keynote speech, Julia Okatz, Director at Systemiq, pointed out that urban regeneration cannot be left wholly in the hands of the private sector. “The more public financed regeneration schemes are better than the purely privately financed ones,” she explained, noting that the key is not choosing between public or private financing, but rather ‘how to mix it well’.”

Many investors say that they can’t figure out how to cooperate with cities
— Julia Okatz, Director at Systemiq

Okatz also discussed the complexities investors face, noting, “Many investors say that they can’t figure out how to cooperate with cities in a good way.” Successful engagement, she said, involves open conversations, clear planning processes, and an attractive, growing city.

Optimising urban environments is far from being just about climate change, though “if we mainstreamed our best practices, we could save 45% of our emissions,” she noted. All of the speakers were in agreement that sustainable solutions needed to go beyond tunnel vision towards climate targets, but needs to be part of a just transition that fully leverages all the potential social and environmental benefits of well-designed climate policy.

A sustainable city is a better city
— Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Vantaa

As Mayor Timonen articulated it, climate action is not just about creating more environmentally friendly cities, but cities where everyone’s quality of life, happiness and prosperity are increased. “A sustainable city is a better city,” he said.

You can discover more insights from the Eurocities Pulse here.

Here, you’ll find the reporting on earlier sessions of the Eurocities 2024 Annual Conference.

And here, you can discover the winners of the 2024 Eurocities Awards.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer