Who wouldn’t want to live in a neighbourhood where one could open the windows to breathe clean air and hear birds chirping instead of honking cars? Where one could reach work by bike or hop on a bus that shows up on schedule, cutting across green spaces with a pleasant temperature?
One hundred and one (and counting) cities have pledged to improve local people’s lives and create a healthier urban environment. They have promised to invest in green spaces, reform public transport, improve air and water quality, and tackle noise pollution while protecting the environment and biodiversity.
These cities are signatories of the Green City Accord (GCA), a tool that helps local leaders achieve ambitious sustainability goals through collaboration and the exchange of best practices.
“The EU Commission is far away from cities, so we have to have these networks to work together, improve and share experiences,” said Sergi Campillo Fernández, Deputy Mayor, Valencia, the European Green Capital of 2024.
The Deputy Mayor was speaking at the GCA high-level ceremony in Brussels on 29 November. During the event, the city of Aarhus joined the agreement, becoming its 101st signatory while Bolzano, Taranto, Trieste, Tampere, and Fyli renewed their commitment.
A list of challenges
At the GCA high-level ceremony, Patrick Ten Brink, Secretary General, European Environmental Bureau (EEB), noted that Europe needs municipalities to achieve what multilateral actions didn’t. “Cities need to act,” he remarked.
Some people seized on the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine to promote anti-environment agendas, Ten Brink remarked. He sees this as pushback against the European Green Deal, noting that the green transition “is more an issue of political will than a technical challenge or a money issue.”
The EEB Secretary General encourages urban leaders to act in key areas such as domestic heating, peri-urban agriculture, zero-pollution policies and microplastics.
Domestic heating “creates troubling air pollution and cities can play a role there to improve air quality”, Ten Brink said. Cities must also address peri-urban agriculture challenges and “pay attention to industrial farming to reduce emissions,” he added.
In addition, Ten Brink encouraged urban leaders to upgrade waste water treatment facilities that handle pharmaceuticals, beauty products or recycled tyres to ensure that microplastic and other dangerous materials don’t end up in the water.
Campillo Fernández told the audience that the European Union member states and the European Commission have a fundamental role in the green transition; however, he said that it’s cities that push for changes. “We can’t leave anyone behind, otherwise people will see the green transition as something elitist, for the elites,” he cautioned.
“Not everyone can buy an electric car, not everyone can make this transition because it’s expensive, so we have to be very careful not to make the transition hard for people,” Campillo Fernández remarked.
“Local governments have to have spaces for listening to people, to hear what citizens think about the transition and how they can take part,” he added, encouraging urban leaders to ensure that the sustainable shift is inclusive and fair.
The role of the European Commission…
Patrick Child, Deputy Director General for DG Environment & EU Mission Manager for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, noted that “the Mission [100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities] is focussed on climate neutral cities by 2030 and the GCA has a rather broader agenda covering different areas of environmental policy. We see it as a great opportunity for cooperation and to change people’s lives.” The Commission is fully committed to helping finance the green transition, he pledged.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, echoed those words: “Cross-collaboration is part of the solution, with cities that are part of the Green City Accord also joining projects such as Living-in.EU, among others, and counting with the support and financing from the Commission.”
Eurocities’ EU project for governance, Living-in.EU, aims to bring together European efforts on finance, technology, legislation, education and capacity building, and monitoring and measuring.
“The pressure is increasing, we need urgent measures, we need to tackle microplastics and air pollution; 300,000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution and we are revising limits and policies,” Sinkevičius added.
Cities are more than happy to take part in this dialogue. They are convinced that they can play an essential role to push the green transition agenda and the goals of the GCA. For Filipe Araújo, Deputy Mayor, Porto, “it’s important for the Commission to support the cities so they can escalate measures towards the GCA goals.”
… and of cities
Porto has been investing in environmental sensors to collect data on climate and pollution. “We want to bring all actors and stakeholders to the table to reach our targets by, for instance, improving public transportation, using electric cars for the administration and increasing green areas,” Araújo explained.
Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor, Vilnius, explained that his city’s goal is to improve people’s lives. “When you understand this, everything is combined in a perfect way,” he said.
Vilnius is the greenest city in Europe, Šimašius said, yet the administration is still planting trees because “streets must also be green. Planting a tree changes everything, it helps with high temperatures,” he explained.
Biodiversity in the city is great for its residents and Šimašius believes that he has “to educate citizens, show examples. The more radical you go, the more criticism you get, and we have to deal with it, so we need to engage with local communities and show them the effects of change.”
Vilnius used thermo-images to show how trees change a city’s temperature, bringing positive change for the whole population.
The Lithuanian capital is also a leader in the sharing economy which involves partaking in goods such as shared vehicles. The city is planning to advance this model by seeking the involvement of not only activists but also companies, businesses, and the general public.
Malmo offers another example of how to foster sustainable change, particularly when it comes to transportation. Sofia Hedén, Deputy Mayor, said that “26% of journeys within the city are conducted by bike, and we plan to increase these numbers. Mobility is a major concern, and we are electrifying all city buses with the goal of reducing space for cars and building a city for its citizens.”
Anna-Kaisa Ikonen, Mayor of Tampere, noted how new urban initiatives must reconcile development with sustainable growth. “We should consider land use, green areas, noise and air quality for a more sustainable tomorrow,” she noted.
Anna-Lisa Boni, Deputy Mayor, Bologna, touched upon the impact of climate change. Over the past three years, temperatures have increased in her city and all over Europe; Bologna is taking action by expanding green areas thanks to a new regulation that encourages to build green roofs and plant more trees, among other measures.
All over Europe, cities are ready to be drivers for change and eager to put innovative policies into practice, with the support of the European Commission.