Sustainable cities: transforming Europe’s urban landscapes

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Article Published 15 Sep 2021 Last modified 16 Nov 2021
3 min read
Photo: © Uno Raamat, Unsplash
From carbon neutrality to circular economy, cleaner air to cleaner transport, Europe has set ambitious environmental and climate objectives. Cities, where the large majority of Europeans live, need to play a decisive role in achieving Europe’s sustainability targets. The question is: how can cities become sustainable?

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has recently been nominated the winner of the 2023 European Green Capital Award, and joined the ranks of many other European cities ranging from Stockholm, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Grenoble, Ljubljana, Lisbon and Lahti. The Green Leaf Award 2022 — for cities with a population between 20,000 and 100,000 inhabitants — was awarded to Valongo, Portugal, and Winterswijk, Netherlands. I have had the privilege of taking part in jury deliberations. It was extremely inspiring and enriching for me to see the actions Europe’s cities are taking towards sustainability while preparing for the challenges ahead. Yet, the path to urban sustainability is not an easy one.

Cities are home to about three out of four Europeans. Cities are complex systems, bringing communities and the environment in a living, continuously evolving setting. They are social, cultural and economic centres, embedded in the regions surrounding them. Despite these commonalities, each city and town in Europe is unique. They have unique features developed through history, shaped by their geography, inhabitants and socio-political systems. Consequently, the challenges faced by cities vary significantly.

Some cities face ageing or shrinking populations, whereas others are growing. Decline in an economic sector, such as heavy industry, tourism or fisheries, can severely affect some cities’ economy whereas some cities can act as economic innovation magnets, attracting young talents from across the EU. Similarly, the environmental impacts might differ considerably.

Our tools, such as the European Air Quality Index and the European City Air Quality viewer, show that we don’t all breath the same air, and this has different causes and consequences. Other assessments and indicators show that different regions – and cities – will be impacted differently by climate change. Coastal cities, especially on the Northwest Atlantic, will face greater storm surge risks, while others in the south may face water shortages or forest fires. Our studies also show that some communities and groups, in particular the elderly, within a given city are more vulnerable, as they might affected by multiple environmental hazards, such as air pollution or noise pollution.

At the same time, despite their unique features and challenges, all cities need to take measures to prepare for climate impacts. All cities will need to contribute to climate neutrality, circular economy and biodiversity objectives, while ensuring a cleaner and healthier environment and providing better social and economic opportunities for their inhabitants.

Most European cities have been inhabited over centuries and their streets, neighbourhoods and buildings reflect this heritage. The existing infrastructure partly determines how fast we can replace the building stock or retrofit the existing buildings or create new transport options. Achieving sustainability in these cases requires careful considerations.  

The end goal might be the same but the path towards sustainability will undoubtedly need to cater to each city’s unique set of characteristics as well as challenges. We, at the European Environment Agency, have been bringing stakeholders together to develop a common conceptual framework, which constitutes the base of our recent report and briefing as well as our upcoming assessments on this issue. The framework aims to help city authorities and policy makers to design their sustainability transition by looking at urban sustainability through six different lenses: circular city, resilient city, low-carbon city, green city, inclusive city and healthy city.

From creating green and blue areas within the city centre to integrating public transport with active mobility systems, such as cycling and walking, or developing more effective recycling systems, there are many things cities can do in their transition towards urban sustainability. Wider uptake of technological developments, such as electric vehicles or remote working, can speed up the process. What is also clear from European Green Capitals is that a long-term and coherent vision supported by relevant governance structures, knowledge and data can truly transform a city in matter of decades.


 Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director 
Editorial published in the EEA Newsletter, September 2021


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