Cities play pivotal roles in shifting to green, sustainable future


European cities have the potential to lead the way towards green, sustainable future, according to two assessments on urban environmental change, published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) today.

Cities face huge challenges in trying to shift to a greener future in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the full impact of the pandemic is still being assessed, it is already clear that cities currently face a triple challenge, according to the EEA briefing ‘Urban sustainability in Europe – opportunities in challenging times’. These include tackling the health impacts of the pandemic, dealing with the climate and ecological emergency, and addressing social and economic inequalities.

The EEA briefing says that cities can become major driving forces for a green and just recovery. Infrastructure investments, which can stimulate urban economic activity after pandemic measures are eased, can be an opportunity to align the recovery with climate, environmental and social equity agendas, but will need to be accompanied by better integration of policy sectors and actions to maximise the benefits.

Based on EEA work, opportunities for including environmental sustainability measures should be focused on the following sectors: urban mobility and land use, retrofitting buildings, enhancing the role of green spaces and nature-based solutions, and transforming urban food systems.

No one size-fits-all approach

The EEA also published a report‘ Urban Sustainability in Europe — What is driving cities’ environmental change’, which explores work on what could make up a benchmark on how cities evaluate key drivers of and barriers to urban sustainability transitions. The EEA report is based on a survey and interviews with selected European cities.

Cities are unique in many ways and, as such, transition roadmaps need to be tailor-made to local conditions. The report shows that contextual factors, together with governance, knowledge, culture, technology, data and information and finance, influence the drivers and barriers to urban transitions. Taking this into account will be increasingly important for policymakers, city planners, citizens, non-governmental organisations, academics and other actors in planning urban environmental sustainability and in implementing European Union (EU) legislation and initiatives, such as the European Green DealClimate lawBiodiversity strategy and the EU Urban agenda.

The EEA report presents a set of 14 lessons emerging from the research, noting that flexibility will be key to enable heterogenous cities to put in place measures that work best for their own situations, that EU legislation has played a key role in accelerating change at city level, that city networks and focused partnerships have a vital role in such processes, among other relevant conclusions for cities, countries and EU policy making.

Next steps

The briefing and report are part of a series of products the EEA will publish over the coming months on urban environmental sustainability. Future work will focus on climate resilience, quality of life, accessibility, healthy environment, food security, circularity, clean energy and sustainable buildings — at urban level.

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