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Cities are turning green

From the World Urban Forum to experiments in big European cities: new horizons for sustainability.

by Eni Staff
01 April 2020
9 min read
byEni Staff
01 April 2020
9 min read

If, as Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, would have it, “urbanisation is unstoppable,” then we need to start looking more at cities as focal points of the so-called “green revolution”.
We know, because the data tell us so, that the number of people living in urban areas overtook that of people living in rural areas in 2007, and that some areas of the world are undergoing mass urbanisation. The inevitable and direct effect of this is more and more people living in less and less space, as well as more rubbish, energy consumption (and with it, atmospheric pollution) and the whole gamut of other phenomena arising from demographic booms. The World Urban Forum was set up in 2001 for this very reason. Every two years, it addresses the “pressing issue [of] rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies.” Five technical round tables were held at this year’s edition, on young people, women, grass-roots communities, government and local and regional businesses. These topics come up in every debate about sustainability, but here they were given added flavour by the urban focus of the event.
Discussion was wide-ranging, but could be summarised into two broad categories. The first concerned big projects, often enacted by public bodies, for example wide infrastructure or regeneration. The second covered more specific projects of direct innovation in processes or tools. Let us take some examples, beginning in Italy then casting an eye further over Europe.

Eco-sustainable events “made in Italy”

Gela, in Sicily, is the first town in Italy to boast an anti-smog oasis. The project is the result of an initiative by Coldiretti, the beginning of its Circular Tour, which it embarked upon to spread the circular economy and essentially to improve quality of life, sustainability and the environment. The oasis is the first example of an “experimental green lung” in a town centre, where locals can relax and enjoy a breath of “regenerated” air, provided by trees chosen specially for their properties of capturing greenhouse gases and blocking fine particles. Shrubs and smaller plants, each with their own anti-pollutant qualities, will be at the forefront of the experimental work in different towns and cities. A simple but significant statistic shows that in 20 years, the greenery at the anti-smog oasis in the Sicilian town will grow enough to absorb more than 20,000 kilograms of CO2 from the air, besides capturing a similar amount of PM10 fine particles.
According to a statistical survey published a few weeks ago by Coldiretti along with Ixe, 47% of Italians see air pollution as the main environmental emergency, implying greater awareness on their part of the need for direct action against pollution. That action must be structural, and take the form of more green spaces, public and private, in towns and cities, fitted to the different needs of different places.
Let us journey up to the North of the peninsula, in Milan, where urban and technological experiments are springing up everywhere. Some, like the “vertical forest” in the Centro Direzionale district, are well known. Less famous are the city’s shared transport and electric cars. Milan was one of the first cities in Europe to ban diesel vehicles and the very first to ban smoking in open public spaces. It will play host to “ONe electric experience”, the first exposition dedicated specifically to electrification, transport, smart cities, respect for the environment, sustainable lifestyles and – naturally, for an event held in the Lombard capital – design. The model district CityLife, a symbol of the city with its cutting-edge architecture, will be transformed for a few days into an “Innovation Design District”, where the public can see in person the latest inventions from the top car and motorbike makers signed up to the project. It’s a perfect example of the impact private investors and companies can have on urban lifestyles.

Moving around the city: alternative ecological ways

Paris was one of the first cities in Europe to invest in alternative transport with its bike hire service and has led the way in the field. Today the French capital has a fleet of 12,000 bikes spread over almost all of its districts and 250 miles of cycle paths (some of which wind through the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes). Almost 160,000 Parisians have got passes for the service, and that’s not counting occasional users. The aim, we read on the city council’s website, is to get 15% of all travel onto two wheels by 2020. The “Paris Breathes” scheme, meanwhile, began in 2016. It has kicked traffic out of some of the city’s districts on Sundays and bank holidays, and ushered in more and more measures to encourage reliance on public and alternative transport. A bike sharing service in Florence, Mobike, has had similar success. More than 300,000 people signed up and had more than a million rides just last year. In terms of pollution, that means more than 300 tonnes of CO2 emissions were cut, which is no mean feat.
In Helsinki they have their sights set even higher. By 2025 local politicians actually want to do away with private cars completely, with a complicated project for a wide-reaching public transport system. This will rely heavily on so-called “infomobility”, on 5G internet networks. Smartphones will give routes, times and means of transport and even take payment for them.
Helsinki is not the only Scandinavian city at the forefront of sustainability. Copenhagen came out with a bike sharing service back in 1995. But let us take a look at two classic cases, Oslo and Malmö. The Norwegian capital is in fact Europe’s most electric capital. There, as elsewhere in the country, the rise in electric cars has been exponential, thanks above all to tax credits for buying them and a charging network (Oslo alone has 4,000 charging points). Malmö, over the border in Sweden, is striving to become Europe’s most sustainable city and has, in the short term, become a model of green building, innovative waste treatment and efficient transport. There are 300 miles of cycle paths within the city’s confines and the traffic lights actually give precedence to cyclists. Already in 2007, the council set up a “low emissions” area, where heavy goods vehicles were banned, and made sure all its own vehicles were “low emissions” ones.


The bicycles of the Parisian Ofo and Mobike bike sharing services

Take cities back

Down in Barcelona, mayor Ada Colau has waged war on speculation and pollution, to defend the “right to the city”, a theme she addressed with London mayor Sadiq Khan in the pages of The Guardian on 3 July 2018. David Harvey defines the right to the city as follows: “To claim the right to the city […] is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made […] Only when we understand that those who create urban life have the most right to make demands about what they’ve produced – and one of those demands is the right to make a city more in line with their more secrete desires – only then can we have an urban policy that makes sense”. London and Barcelona have concentrated their efforts on redevelopment and helping people get housing, with a view to keeping their historic centres alive. They have also promoted green policies, to protect and create urban parks, spread electric and alternative transport, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The regeneration of Le Vele, a decaying housing estate in the Scampia suburb of Naples, is a step in the same direction. The infamous architectural complex will be torn down in its entirety, apart from one tower, Vela B. This remnant will be used for temporary housing at first, then as facilities for the city council’s new offices. There will be an international competition to find a designer for a wide range of connected services in the suburb, including common spaces, nurseries, schools, professional colleges and new homes, at the same time as special projects, for example on the railway station and the big park next to it. The stated aim is to transform these areas into places where people can gather, reconnect with the urban fabric and live as a real community. Most of the above plans fit EU funding schemes and all of them are in line with the targets of the European Commission’s Green Deal, which involves huge spending on modifying the continent’s urban and productive assets. What with turning green, reducing carbon dioxide emissions to zero and sustainable urban planning, many cities are taking on the challenges before us, and some have been declared European Green Capitals and Green Leaf towns. Other initiatives spring from the public and private sector, or companies and universities, working together, showing the need for collaboration on the part of everyone in society, the need for individuals to change their habits and adopt a common lifestyle, sustainable for the planet and for their own health.