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November 2012: City Sustainability – can we learn from other European Cities?

With 50% of the world’s population now classified as urban (approx. 3.5bn) and, according to the Hard Rain’s Tour exhibition some 6 to 7bn urban dwellers expected by 2050, life on Earth depends upon achieving sustainable towns and cities.

For the past 7 years I have led the Academy of Urbanism’s assessment of cities which have been shortlisted for its European City of the Year Award and last week I attended a ceremony in which Antwerp was announced as this year’s winner having seen off strong competition from Hamburg and Lyon.

The Academy’s award process seeks to identify and share learning from successful places ranging in scale from individual streets and neighbourhoods to towns and major cities. There is no standard formula for success. Indeed in our increasingly global world places need to remain true to their history and culture and promote their distinctiveness as a means of attracting and retaining human and financial capital – think Amsterdam and Barcelona.

What European cities do face however is a common set of challenges, such as:

  • preventing the continued outward spread of population; the land area of many European cities has doubled in the past 50 years driven by a desire to consume more space and increased mobility.
  • reducing the dominant use of the car in urban environments; the installation of mass public transit (trams and metro systems) emerges a key tool of urban transformation, although increasingly cycling is being promoted as a key means of urban mobility - Copenhagen shows what can be done –with more than one third of all journeys to work taking place by bike.
  • reusing former industrial and waterfront land to create new sustainable communities which mix housing and employment - Hafen City, Hamburg, Le Confluence in Lyon, and the former shipyards in Gothenburg are just some examples of how our cities are restructuring.
  • accommodating a growing number of immigrants from less prosperous parts of Europe and indeed further afield. Successful cities are increasingly multi-cultural cities with London as the prime example. It has to be recognised, as a visit to Oslo last year demonstrated, that in some societies achieving this is not without its challenges.
  • mitigating and adapting to the challenge of climate change. Membership of the EU is driving concerted efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop renewable sources. Combined Heat and Power is standard in Helsinki, and other Scandinavian cities and Freiburg has built an exemplar ‘green economy’ around the development and use of solar power. Flood management is now a key consideration in urban planning and cities such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Valencia are having to find ways of living with a higher level of risk.

I am inspired by the enthusiasm and commitment with which European cities are addressing the challenge of making our cities sustainable for the 21st Century and the evident signs of progress. More than anything I am impressed by the quality of both political and technical leadership which is driving change under difficult economic circumstances.

I am convinced that the UK and the rapidly urbanising world can learn from successful European cities. However we face a real challenge in practical delivery as a result of weak city governance and over reliance on market based solutions. We know what to do…but can we do it?

Professor Chris Balch – Professor of Planning and Chair of ISSR Management Team

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