Innovation, creativity, cooperation, vision: cities have always been the place where change begins and future is built. The path mapped out by the European Green Deal, then, can only start in the urban context.
This is what was discussed at the European Commission's fifth Cities Forum, which on March 16 and 17 chose an Italian city famous for its change as its location: Torino.
The event, an occasion for the launch of the new European Urban Initiative (EUI), brought together a thousand delegates, civil society representatives, researchers, students, mayors and administrators to discuss sustainable urban development and how to make the most of the legislative and financial tools made available by the European Union for a green, resilient and inclusive future in the next decade.
Renewable Matter, which was present at the Forum, talked about this with Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency.
As you may know, Torino holds the sad record of being the Italian city with the worst air quality. According to a recent EEA report, however, 96 percent of the European Union's urban population is exposed to particulate matter levels that exceed the limit set by the WHO. These are frightening numbers. What do they mean for the quality of life?
As a matter of fact, looking at the entire European territory, the most problematic areas are in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Belgian industrial districts in North Rhine-Westphalia, and, indeed, the Po Valley, where it is mainly the levels of very fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, that have a serious impact on human health.
In our report, we used the methodology shared with the World Health Organization to calculate premature deaths: more than 300,000 people in Europe die prematurely each year because of poor air quality. This is a shocking number, but the problem is even more extensive. The years of healthy life that are lost should also be considered, all the people suffering from lung and respiratory diseases, the number of children living with these conditions, the elderly who are more vulnerable to air pollution. Or even people who have had organ transplants and who, if they live in an environment with heavy air pollution, have a lower survival rate.
And it can also impact our mental health and stress levels.
Yes, mainly because places with poor air quality often also have other forms of pollution, such as noise and light pollution, and this results in multiple burdens on our health, including mental well-being.
So, what strategies have been adopted at a European level?
Clearly, the situation is unacceptable. But at the same time in Europe, behind the push of legislation, we have seen continuous improvements, although not for all parameters: improvements in PM 2.5 and tropospheric ozone levels, for example, are still too slow. The Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to reduce pollution to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and the environment, has set concrete targets for 2030 and beyond. In addition, a proposal for a revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive, which will gradually align European standards with those of the WHO, has recently been presented.
Other parts of the European agenda must also be considered. For example, the shift to increasingly sustainable and electric mobility will have a positive effect on air quality, the energy transition and efficiency policies will help alleviate impacts, as will the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) that sets increasingly stricter standards. All of these actions should over time decrease sources of air pollution to levels that no longer pose an immediate threat to human health.
It is also necessary to consider the social aspect of the problem. The impacts of pollution are in fact not "distributed" equally across all levels of society. There are more vulnerable people, such as the elderly, those with chronic diseases, but also young children who are still developing their organs. And then there are people at the lower levels of the income scale, who obviously do not live in the hills around Turin, but live near industrial sites, far away from nature. As the European Environment Agency, we are also concerned with this social aspect, and as a matter of fact, in a couple of months we are going to publish an online atlas that combines a range of data on pollution factors, health, green areas, and social distribution. Anyone will be able to check, for example, the air quality where they live or other polluting factors and locate the nearest green area.
Protecting and restoring biodiversity – which is a key focus of the Green Deal – can also aid in making cities safer and more resilient places to live.
Yes absolutely. Especially in urban areas, I think people are finally beginning to understand that nature and biodiversity are not just a prerogative of protected areas, the countryside or the mountains. They also affect the city. Not only is there a greater understanding of the role of urban biodiversity, but also of its practical benefits: parks and trees in the city improve air quality, contribute to climate resilience and mitigate the heat island effect, and also function very well as places for sociability.
Combining green with the blue element, i.e., public water points, can greatly improve the quality of life in the city. It amazes me that there are not more mayors and city governments focusing on these aspects in urban planning, as these are relatively low-cost interventions that do not require major infrastructure works. What is needed is a different urban planning approach: giving space to green and blue, rather than parking lots and cemented spaces, is often not very expensive, but it requires different thinking and some courage. As soon as you touch parking spaces, people complain, but once it's done, they appreciate it. It is a kind of mental block that we have to overcome. There are fantastic examples of cities that have turned public spaces into green spaces, cities that are focusing on so-called micro-parks: you take the map and make sure that everyone has a small green space no more than 200 or 300 meters away. We know from some research that even one large tree in a neighborhood has a positive impact on every aspect of life.
Can you give us any example?
Yes. Krakow, in Poland, which also has a very poor air quality. They have a plan for micro parks, especially in parts of the city where people don't have access to green spaces. And among the reasons for this initiative is climate adaptation.
What does the European Union do to promote and support this kind of initiative?
Europe is doing several things. First of all, there is, of course, the LIFE program, which facilitates funding even in urban areas. Second, there are DG REGIO funds for regional integration, which also has an important agenda for cities and is increasingly focusing on sustainability declined in the green dimension. Finally, we now have better knowledge, and even better shared knowledge, about climate adaptation of cities and urban green. So, administrations and mayors no longer have excuses: they have the knowledge, funding and best practices to refer to. It is all there.
Is EEA monitoring cities' improvement in climate adaptation and resilience?
Yes, we have a dedicated website – Climate Adapt – that we manage, but it's actually a collaboration with the European Commission and its DG CLIMA and also with other partners like the Joint Research Centre, the Covenant of Mayors and others. There's a lot of information on the website and we've produced a whole series of reports with the Agency on urban resilience, adaptation, sustainable cities, green buildings.
Speaking of green buildings: buildings, along with mobility, are responsible for most of the carbon emissions of European cities. Their redevelopment and sustainable design will be crucial to both adapting to climate change and achieving the EU's decarbonization goals.
Yes, there are several levels to consider. First, the existing building stock, which in many countries needs renovation, which is why Europe talks about a renovation wave as part of the Green Deal. Renovation can mean thermal insulation, more efficient heating and air conditioning systems, better fixtures. It can also mean de-sealing the soil around homes, because these are usually cemented surfaces, whereas a garden could make the area more climate resilient. There are many interventions that could be done on existing buildings, but it is not easy because obviously people live there and because it takes a lot of money that the poorer sections cannot afford. So I would prioritize sustainable upgrading of social housing, since people who cannot afford the renovations are generally the ones who would benefit most from less energy-intensive and healthier buildings.
Then there are interventions that can be implemented collectively, such as district heating systems. For example, in Copenhagen, the heat generated by incinerators is used to heat the city by feeding it into a piped system with hot water. I am obviously not promoting the practice of waste incineration, but realistically if that heat is produced, it is better to harness it somehow. In some cities, such as Ghent in Belgium, heat from industrial plants is used instead to power the district heating system, and in some others geothermal energy is used.
Then we have the sustainable design of the new buildings...
Again, there is no longer any excuse for not designing buildings that are completely, or nearly so, climate neutral. The technology is there and should become the norm, because that is what the future demands of us. However, it is not just a matter of preparing new building codes, but also of training and reskilling workers, and providing the right incentives to get projects done. Especially in cities that are still in the midst of building development, such as Copenhagen, which is growing quite fast.
However, it is an integrated idea of a sustainable city that should be the guideline for these interventions. It is not just about designing or renovating buildings and apartment buildings. Sustainable city means access to public transportation, it means a "15-Minute City" model, that is, a city that walks rather than drives a car, with schools, public offices, health facilities, small supermarkets, all within walking distance. This is really crucial if we want truly future-oriented urban development. And there is certainly no shortage of knowledge here either.
Smart city, green city, circular city, 15-minute city... Looking to the near future, what will be the biggest challenge for a new city model?
Integration. I think the city is by definition a place where you cannot do anything but integrate all these elements: the social dimension, the climate dimension, the nature dimension, the educational dimension. The urban context can be looked at through various lenses, but in the end it is a city, of which the green city or the circular city are just different faces, not separable from the others. It is a dynamic reality, which has its own issues, but which is also usually full of creativity and innovation.
What I think is really critical when we look at the Green Deal and its goals - environment, climate, biodiversity - is the socioeconomic dimension. If we don't find ways to be more inclusive, not just talking to people but also working with people, then I don't think it's going to work. We are often asked to give clear explanations to citizens. Yes it is important, but in addition to talking to citizens, we should discuss things with citizens. It is a very different thing.
Giving an example: The city of Antwerp, Belgium, collaborated with universities and some civil society groups on a project called Curious Noses. A thousand monitoring devices were installed in the city, and citizens in their homes could measure air quality. Antwerp previously had only a handful of official monitoring stations, but now it has a thousand data collection points that have made it possible to map air pollution in the city and link it to mobility, traffic, urban geen, etc. The results of the project were presented in a large theater, shown on a big screen and commented on by scientists and citizens, there was a debate, an exchange. This is citizen science.
What we need is to see the city as a vibrant place where people can be directly involved in finding solutions to the problems that affect them. We too often address citizens only as consumers. Of course, we all consume, but we are not consumers, we are all citizens.
Maybe we should go back to the ancient Greeks’ polis…
Exactly. Polytheia means citizenship and that's what politics is about. How you interact, inspire and govern this place that we now call a city. I think not enough attention is paid to that today. But it is only by engaging cities as an integrated context that we can achieve the goals of the Green Deal.
Image: Torino, Lungo Po (ph Andreas Patsalides, Unsplash)