Who owns the rivers?

Rivers run through many of our cities, but who owns them? By encouraging decentralised ownership of its river, Braga has not only been able to revitalise its green and blue spaces, but also create opportunities for education, advertisement and community building. This was just one of many water-related ideas that Braga and Pau shared in a recent podcast from the Covenant of Mayors, a European allegiance of mayors in which Eurocities plays a key role.

You can listen to the whole episode here:

River management initiatives

In Braga, the concept of ‘adopting’ parts of the river has turned river management into a communal affair. This approach was particularly appealing to Mélanie Pedeutour, Carbon Neutrality Project Manager at Pau Béarn Pyrénées, who notes the programme’s effectiveness in engaging the community. “I think this was very interesting to see. It’s a way to really involve people and make sure they care, because this is their own part of the river.” This personalised approach to environmental care encourages locals to take an active role in preserving their natural surroundings.

It’s a way to really involve people and make sure they care
— Mélanie Pedeutour

Pau and Braga had a chance to engage with each other on climate adaptation through the Covenant of Mayors Policy Support Facility, a programme that mixes peer learning with technical support to encourage innovation in cities tackling the effects of climate change.

Cristina Costa, Environmental Education Technician at the City of Braga, elaborates on the river ownership project, describing how it motivates people to become guardians of their parts of the river. “It includes families, groups of friends, enterprises, and schools. Most of them are schools because it has a very good effect on students.” This initiative not only involves the community in environmental conservation but also serves as an educational tool, helping to foster a new generation of environmentally conscious residents.

Community engagement and ownership

The ripple effect of such initiatives extends beyond mere conservation. Pedeutour, inspired by Braga’s model, expresses a desire to replicate similar programmes in Pau: “We have to find a way here in Pau to do something like that.”

Costa further highlights the practical aspects of their project, emphasising the provision of resources to participants: “The municipality gives a kit of different stuff, like to measure the distance, find out how deep is the river, how wide is the river.” This not only equips locals with the tools they need to care for their environment, but also educates them on the intricacies of ecosystem management.

However, water doesn’t just flow through a city, it’s also a vital resource, in particular for agriculture. Sustainable urban agriculture is a key topic for both Pau and Braga, cities that are repurposing urban spaces for agricultural use, fostering local food production, and involving the community in these green initiatives.

Vegetable gardens and local food

In the episode, Costa shares her admiration for Pau’s vegetable garden projects, which reflect a growing trend in urban areas to use available spaces for food production, contributing to local sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint associated with transporting food over long distances.

Pedeutour detailes Pau’s approach to facilitating these gardens, emphasising the role of community efforts. A model in which cooperatives buy and maintain the plots makes urban farming more accessible to interested individuals. By lowering barriers to entry, Pau has successfully encouraged more residents to engage in local food production.

Adapting land use for agriculture

The challenge of identifying and using land for agriculture is a key issue for Braga. In the podcast, Costa discusses the complexities of land ownership and the need to make land available for productive use. “We want to know who are the owners… Otherwise, we are trying to control invasive plants in other areas, and if they don’t do it, it doesn’t work anymore,” she states.

We want to know who are the owners
— Cristina Costa

Pedeutour echoes the significance of land use in Pau’s agricultural strategy, mentioning the city’s efforts in expanding their vegetable gardens and their cooperative approach in overcoming land ownership challenges.

Addressing heat waves and floods

Water is a resource for more than just farmers, but, along with extreme heat, its overabundance is also a major threat due to climate change. Pedeutour from Pau expresses her concern about heat waves and floods. She explains the increasing frequency and intensity of these events, emphasising their impact on urban life. “We know that in the future we may have a higher number of days where the heat is important,” she states. This concern underscores the urgency of adapting urban infrastructure and community practices to mitigate these risks.

It starts raining, and in 20 minutes you have a flood
— Cristina Costa

Costa shares Braga’s experiences. “Usually September, October, it starts raining, and in 20 minutes you have a flood,” she describes, highlighting the city’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. This underlines the need for cities to develop comprehensive strategies that address both the immediate and long-term effects of climate change.

For Pedeutour, this issue is very concrete: “My house is flooded about three weeks ago. So it’s something that I think we are used to,” she confesses.

Part of Pau’s interest in Braga’s approach to river restoration relates to its use as a means of flood management. “The restoration of the river was a fascinating project which was very, very useful,” she states, emphasising the city’s efforts in the use of natural infrastructure to mitigate flood risks.

Inter-city learning and collaboration

As well as delving into the cities’ innovative approaches, The Covenant of Mayors podcast episode featuring Pau and Braga illuminates the need for greater inter-city learning and collaboration in addressing climate change. Pedeutour expresses her enthusiasm for learning and sharing: “This is what mainly motivated me to apply [to the Covenant’s Policy Support Facility], and also because the subject was about adaptation to climate change,” she says.

Costa echoes the importance of such learning: “The bigger reason was to learn with others, from the diversity.” This approach recognises that while cities may face unique challenges, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from understanding how others are responding to similar issues.

Check out this and other episodes of the Covenant of Mayors podcast here.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer