Sustainable European cities: overview of innovative urban planning projects

energy efficiency, smart grids, renewable energy, Europe, greenhouse gasThe future of our cities lies in sustainable urban planning, which attempts to reconcile environmental, social and economic challenges. This introductory article is an overview of the most innovative initiatives to date and will be followed by other pieces focusing on several sustainable cities across Europe.

Diverse scholarly background

The UNESCO forged the expression “sustainable city” in the 1970s under the Man and Biosphere programme (see Albert Levy and Cyria Emelianoff, Espaces et sociétés n°147). This concept is partly based on publications by Abel Wolman on urban metabolism (“The Metabolism of Cities, Scientific American, Vol 3, 1965). Other works on political and urban ecology contributed to defining the so-called sustainable cities; for instance, Murray Bookchin stresses the ability of small urban entities referred to as “sustainable communities” to rely on a circular and autonomous ecosystem (« Libertarian Municipalism : An Overview », A Social Ecology Publication, Oct 1991). Earlier in the XXth century, Patrick Geddes depicted an ideal, sustainable city carefully managing natural resources and energy (Cities in Evolution. An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and the Study of the Civics, 1915, London Wiliams & Northgate). These various takes on sustainable urban planning underpin the current conception of sustainable cities as intelligent ecosystems reconciling the well-being of their inhabitants with social, economic and environmental issues.

Sustainable European cities: common goals, specific solutions

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and its adoption of Agenda 21 provided the impetus to policies fostering sustainable cities. The action agenda suggests means to be implemented by local governments (chapter 28). Following a proposal from the International Council for Local and Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a number of municipalities are implementing local Agendas 21. European towns and cities signatory to the Aalborg Charter (May 17th 1994) endorsed the concept of “sustainable environment” as a priority for their future development and committed themselves to establishing a European network of sustainable cities. The 27 states party to the Leipzig Charter (May 24th 2007) approved roadmaps towards sustainable urban environment; the EU Commission Reference Framework for European Sustainable Cities offers guidelines on the practical implementation of this charter. However, a reference framework and common goals do not entail a one-size-fits-all model: each town or city must carry out measures adapted to its characteristics (historical, political, social, economic, etc.). The point of local Agendas 21 is to reconcile global norms with local specificities (see Nicole Mathieu and Yves Guermond).

From sustainable to smart cities through intelligent energy systems

In 2009 the EU climate and energy package set the “3 x 20” targets of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% and increase energy efficiency as well as the use of sustainable energy sources by 20% by 2020. The following Energy 2020 roadmap describes municipalities as a major player in meeting these targets through the emergence of “smart cities”. Recently the European Commission published a European Initiative on Smart Cities, putting special emphasis on energy systems as the key to sustainable cities. According to head of Committee 21 Anne-Marie Sacquet, towns and cities can use a “smart energy supply system” to increase their economic and social attractiveness. A publication by the University of Lausanne on sustainable neighbourhoods emphasizes the need to consider urban energy management as a global issue and advocates “integrated strategies including issues such as transport, construction, urban landscape and energy supply”. The “smart city” concept derives from this global perspective on urban issues, that is an in-depth rethinking of the use of urban infrastructure (buildings, facilities, vehicles) including energy-efficient systems and adequate monitoring technologies (for instance smart grids)

See also :

  • French Senate report on cities of the future, by Jean-Pierre Sueur (2010-2011)
  • Report on Energy and Urban Innovation, World Energy Council, 2010
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