Right now, almost four billion people live in a city somewhere in the world. By the middle of this century, that number is set to jump by a staggering 2.5 billion, with 90 percent of that growth happening in cities located in Asia and Africa.
However, with many cities doubling in size every 15 to 20 years, our urban environments currently lack the resources necessary to adapt to the forces of urbanization. Our cities will need to accommodate spiraling numbers of people, servicing their needs and stimulating trade and investment to create jobs, all within the constraints imposed by mega-challenges, such as climate change, poverty and employment. In Europe, two-thirds of people already live in cities.
Investment, development and technology will all be crucially important. For city leaders under pressure to deliver on a number of fronts — from sanitation and education, to security and public transport — there is nothing like a regional competition to spur innovation and help to justify and attract inward investment.
Since 2010, the European Green Capital scheme run by the European Commission has been doing just that, with cities all over Europe vying to be awarded the title. Sweden’s Stockholm won the inaugural title, followed by Hamburg in Germany; Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain; Nantes in France, Copenhagen in Denmark; Bristol in the UK; Ljubljana in Slovenia and Essen in Germany which picked up the accolade last year.
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In Bristol, which has long had a strategy to foster low-carbon practices, the win (and campaign towards winning) has allowed the city to trial a number of innovations. This includes the high profile hydrogenesis hydrogen ferry, commissioned as part of the European Green Capital bid and sponsored by the city council, as well as a consortium of local businesses keen to see their beloved Bristol on the world map amongst the pioneers of what they see as an emerging hydrogen economy.
Meanwhile, the city has made good use of European Investment Bank finance to form its own energy services company, believing that localised low-carbon energy production will help the city plan its finances with greater certainty in the longer term and provide local businesses with stable fuel prices.
For 2018, the city of Nijmegen picks up the mantle becoming, rather surprisingly given the cycle-friendly nature of the country, the Netherlands’ first Green Capital. Situated in the East of the country near to the German border, the city fought off competition from the likes of Ghent (Belgium), Lahti (Finland) and Tallinn (Estonia) and will use the next 12 months acting as a role model for sustainable urban development, sharing and promoting best practices that have been tried and tested there.
This is a city that has “shown what true collaboration can achieve,” according to Karmenu Vella, the European Union’s Commissioner for the Environment. From its ambitious energy targets and commitment to the circular economy, remarkable cycling movement and green transport, to impressive flood protection measures at the River Waal, Nijmegen has made a name for itself on the European urban sustainability stage.
The city administration, which looks after almost one million people, leads by example. There is 1,400m2 of green roof atop its range of municipal buildings, as well as almost 1,500 solar panels. It uses purchased clean electricity and runs a car fleet on biogas. In fact, the city’s entire bus fleet runs on regionally-produced biogas.
For those Nijmegen-ians not taking the bus, there is the bicycle, the ultimate symbol of Dutch living. With a quarter of a million bicycles in the city, cycling accounts for 65 percent of all journeys made into the city centre and to the local Radbound University. The 60 kilometres of cycle superhighways helps, and the further 20 kilometres coming soon will continue to make the bike the vehicle of choice.
Elsewhere, 67 percent of Nijmegen’s waste is currently recycled, with a target to increase this amount to 75 percent in the next two years. All of the remaining domestic waste is converted to energy, providing district heating for city residents.
And the beacon scheme that seems to have got the Green Capital judges very excited is the Room for the Waal project. Engineers have created a new channel to drain the Waal River that runs through the city during high-water periods, greatly reducing the risk of flooding and increasing the entire region’s resilience in the face of our changing climate.
There are plenty of examples out there of cities doing great things, and the list of past European Green Capital winners is a useful starting point. A city’s ability to reduce its carbon emissions and foster sustainability are, in many ways, limited by the parameters of the national agenda. However, rather than await instruction and encouragement by national governments, more and more city leaders are taking up the mantle to create positive change in their own neighbourhoods.
And in cities like Nijmegen, citizens are a key part of the engagement and decision-making process helping to give people a sense of pride and belonging, as well as the wider, watching world inspiration and hope that cities of the future will be places in which we will want to live and play, rather than just exist.