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EEA Signals 2014 – Well-being and the environment

How to make cities ‘green’

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Article Published 02 Jun 2014 Last modified 05 Nov 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Jacob Härnqvist, Asa Hellstrom
More than three quarters of Europeans live in urban areas. What urban residents produce, buy, eat, and throw away, the way they move around and where they live all have an impact on the environment. At the same time, the way a city is built also affects the way its residents live. We asked Roland Zinkernagel from the City of Malmö in Sweden about concrete actions to make their city sustainable.

What makes a city sustainable?

Cities are centres of economic and social activity. They can grow; they can decline. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to make a city sustainable. Different aspects of urban life need to be addressed. It is not just about building green spaces, attracting innovative and green businesses and building strong public transport. It is about looking at a city as whole, including the well-being of its residents.

Malmö is an industrial city of roughly 300 000 people with diverse backgrounds. The city has high-rise buildings constructed in the 1960s as well as single-family houses with gardens. It also has new neighbourhoods, where we tried to build the city of the future: carbon neutral, compact, green.

After the closure of its large shipyard in the beginning of 1980s, its population started shrinking, mainly due high unemployment rates. It took time to replace this negative image of the city with a positive one — a pleasant living environment, a front-runner in environmental policies and awareness, a fair-trade city that is green and clean, and so on.

How can a city be made sustainable?

The City of Malmö has outlined its general environmental objectives in a long-term programme agreed across the political spectrum. The environmental programme stipulates that the city administration of Malmö will be climate-neutral by 2020, and the whole municipality will run on 100 % renewable energy by 2030. There are also targets to reduce energy consumption per capita, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental programme also foresees more sustainable use of resources, including water, land and biodiversity in the city, as well as in the wider surrounding area. We also aim to create a more pleasant living environment for everyone, in other words, to help build the city of the future.

How are these objectives translated into concrete projects?

On the basis of the environmental programme, the City of Malmö adopts action plans with more specific targets. For example, one of the concrete targets in our action plan states that by 2015, 40 % of organic waste should go to biogas production. A concrete target like this requires action at different levels and stages. Households need to sort an increasing share of their waste. Waste management authorities need to prepare for collection of increased amounts of organic waste. And finally, to convert the increasing amount of organic waste into biogas, we need new plants, or additional capacity for existing plants.

Some targets, like higher sorting rates in households, can be achieved through information campaigns. Others might require investing in infrastructure, including in waste collection fleets and energy plants.

As with this example, one concrete target requires the involvement of many different actors. To bring these projects to life, we are and need to be in constant dialogue with civil society, public institutions and the private sector. Many of our projects receive funds from the EU.

How do the residents get involved or contribute?

A key component of our environmental programme is what we call ‘making it easy to do the right thing’. We need to offer them the possibility to opt for the more sustainable alternatives, including facilitating the use of public transport and improved waste management.

When it comes to behaviour change, knowledge is vital. Our approach rests on enabling our residents to make informed decisions. What does their decision to take their car mean for the city’s air quality and traffic, compared to using public transport?

One of our objectives is to make the city socially sustainable, with more interaction between people living in different parts of the city. This involves creating spaces and opportunities for Malmö’s residents to come together, like green spaces or festivals. This also contributes to fostering a positive image of the city, as well as improving the living environment.

Recycling boxes

(c) Daniel Skog

How long does it take to transform a city like Malmö into a fully sustainable city?

Each city starts from a different point. It depends on the existing infrastructure, political priorities and objectives. Malmö has an advantage compared to most European cities. This forward-looking vision has been in action since the 1990s. As a result, we have parts of the city already built and developed with this vision in mind.

We are talking about very concrete projects and concrete problems, and we have a better understanding of the tasks at hand. So in this sense, we are among the front-runners in Europe.

In the neighbourhoods where we have been active for 15 years, we can see that the programme has gained its own momentum. Some projects, such as waste sorting and recycling, might take 5 to 10 years to implement, but public perception might take up to a generation to change. Other cases, including transforming the existing buildings, might take even longer.

The transition certainly happens in small steps. Public authorities play a certain role in facilitating this transition, not only by providing a framework but also by leading by example.

What are the main challenges?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is to plan for the long-term; in other words, to move away from short- to medium-term planning. Politicians are elected for four- or five-year terms and their policy priorities can change after elections or during their term in office. The same is true for businesses. An investment decision depends on how much they can earn in return, and when. When it comes to building sustainable cities, we are actually looking at many different elements, as I mentioned earlier.

We need to plan and prepare for a horizon well beyond our 5- to 10-year action plans. For example, the buildings we are constructing now might actually still be in use in 2100. Are we factoring in future energy needs or the use of buildings when we design them? We need to be visionary and flexible at the same time. There might not be clear answers to these questions yet, but they are certainly worth considering.

Roland Zinkernagel

Roland Zinkernagel
Environment department of the City of Malmö


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