Public services in the public eye

23 June 2023

When Proust said that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” he was reminding us that we are surrounded by seemingly mundane things that reward deeper scrutiny. Today, on International Public Service Day, urbanites across the world are encouraged to take a second look at the public services that make our communities and common wellbeing possible.

We all rely on a secure supply of energy and water, affordable housing and public transport, healthcare, and efficient waste management for our daily wellbeing. Indeed, the importance of such services has never been more evident than during this period of multiple crisis, from covid to energy to war. Public services also play a key role in achieving climate targets and other elements of the European Green Deal.

For instance, Oslo is taking bold steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions from its food systems. “One of our strategies is making vegetarian food the default option at the city’s events and meetings,” says Mari Jerman from City of Oslo’s Department of Finance. This initiative has been integrated into the educational system. We provide vegetarian meals daily in high schools,” Jerman says, and the city plans to extend this to kindergartens and after-school programmes.

Meanwhile, the Nantes Metropolitan Area is serving 40,000 homes, which includes 25,000 of social housing units but also public buildings, and institutions with its 150km district heat network. “Today, 75% of the network’s energy comes from renewable sources, with the ambition to become carbon neutral,” says Frédéric Amiand, the city’s EU Policy Officer. This network supplied 450 GWh of energy in 2021, primarily from renewable and recovered energy sources, thereby replacing over 65,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

In Bruges, the city’s climate goals are encapsulated in the ‘BruggeNaarMorgen’ (Bridges to Tomorrow) programme. The city is forming a climate alliance that engages locals, enterprises, and organisations in the global energy transition. “We’re taking the lead in translating climate goals into concrete actions,” says Lut Laleman, Bruges’ Economic Coordinator, whose city aims at halving local emissions by 2030 and creating more green spaces for water control.

The city focuses on renovation of houses and fossil free heating and mobility, as well as creating more green and smart water control. “We combine many of these goals in Kerkebeek,” says Laleman, “a river in our city that we’re regenerating to create more space for greenery and water collection, active mobility and placemaking.”

Vienna is charting a path towards climate neutrality by aiming to phase out gas usage by 2040. “We are working on an ambitious program to replace 600,000 gas boilers still

People standing in front of geothermal energy drilling equipment in Vienna
Geothermal drilling equipment in Vienna. ©Tobias Holzer. Left to right: Peter Hanke, Deputy Mayor Kathrin Gaal; Jürgen Czernohorszky

heating flats all over Vienna,” explains Peter Hanke, Executive City Councillor of Finance, Business, Labour, International Affairs and Vienna Public Utilities. Vienna provides incentives for a switch from gas-fired heating systems to alternatives such as decarbonised district heating, geothermal energy, and heat-pumps.

“Phasing out gas not only has positive effects on the climate, it is also a major factor in maintaining Vienna’s high quality of life and making sure that Vienna stays an innovative and attractive business location in the future,” says Hanke. To eliminate its dependency on external energy suppliers as soon as possible, the city of Vienna has already started implementing the transition to climate friendly heating and cooling alternatives in social and affordable housing projects across the city.

In Munich, the city administration is implementing measures to increase cycling and walking in the city as part of its climate strategy. A major initiative towards sustainability is the LHMobil project, launched in 2015, which provides municipal employees with electric bicycles to travel between the 15 different departments and attend external appointments. These bikes have already covered 442,000 kilometres, equivalent to 11 laps around the globe, saving 31 tonnes of CO2 emissions. “I am very pleased that the city is playing a pioneering role with this pilot project,” says Dieter Reiter, Lord Mayor of Munich.

Cutting the ribbon on new bike sharing in Munich

As part of its climate strategy, the city of Ghent has implemented a food strategy (Gent En Garde) pushing city school meals towards responsible consumption and production. “Its activities combine agroecology, fair trade, short supply chains, plant-based nutrition, animal welfare, corporate responsibility, health, seasonality, sustainable management of food surpluses, waste and green logistics,” explains Jorn Laveyne, Procurement Project Manager in the city of Ghent. And the effects are visible both on the annually computed municipal carbon footprint, but also on the plates of school children across the city.

Also aiming at climate neutrality, the city of Zurich is tackling not only its own emissions, but also those of industry outside municipal boundaries that impact its residents. “This is done through our procurement impact on providers, as well as through a circular economy approach to things like building materials,” says Martin Horat, an expert working with the city of Zurich. With investments of over €500 million per year required, the municipality works with businesses and residents to fund these transformations. An example is the pilot project conducted in Roggenstrasse: Dark asphalt absorbs solar energy and contributes to the overheating of urban districts; Therefore, Zurich is testing different light-coloured road surfaces to assess how they affect the surface temperature.

In Bilbao, the city has taken steps to protect residents from heat waves by establishing a network of 130 Climate Shelters. As Mikel Gonzalez Vara, Head of the Environment Sub-Area of Bilbao City Council, describes, these are “indoor spaces hosted by libraries, civic centres, sports facilities, transport stations, museums, exhibition halls and shopping centres that can provide shelter and assistance during heatwaves as well as outdoor green areas identified in the Bilbao Climate Shelter Map.” The network is publicly available and could save lives in the high-temperature conditions that climate change is making more frequent and more intense.

Libraries are also seen as key spaces for community building and climate support in Berlin, making knowledge about climate change accessible and engaging residents in concrete action to fight it. “We’ve introduced ‘libraries of things’ that encourage people to borrow useful household items instead of buying them, we’ve established urban gardening projects and we promote a culture of repair and reuse,” says Reiner Schmock-Bathe, Head of Unit for Urban Culture at the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Community. This allows residents to contribute small daily actions towards achieving Berlin’s climate goals.

While these cities lead in climate action, they also strive to maintain their status as not only innovative, technologically advanced business hubs, but also as affordable, high-quality places to live. The International Public Service Day underlines the importance of efficient, well-funded public services in sustaining these standards of living for everyone, regardless of income. Today, take a moment to look upon these services with new eyes.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer