A greener future means investing in cities

Despite improvements, Europe's cities still face huge environmental challenges, with more possibly to come, writes Hans Bruyninckx.

By Hans Bruyninckx

17 May 2016

Around three quarters of the European population live in urban areas, with even more people expected to move to cities in the years ahead. Cities are often the centre of economic, social and cultural life in Europe, contributing to quality of life. 

At the same time, local authorities face a long list of problems including long daily commutes, traffic congestion, social exclusion and air pollution, which have a negative impact on that same quality of life. Cities have an important role to play in tackling these challenges. They also need to anticipate and prepare for other challenges linked to climate change and demographic changes.

Human health, wellbeing and the prosperity of cities are closely linked to the environment. A healthy environment - clean air, clean water, productive forests, land and seas - is an essential element that also influences our quality of life, from our standard of living to our public services and education.


Acting as hubs for food, water, housing, energy and transport, urban areas have a key role to play to address this situation. Cities can be designed to be more resource-efficient and energy-efficient, reducing impacts to ecosystems, minimising pollution and acting to mitigate and adapting to climate change.

Despite significant improvements, air pollution remains a major environmental health risk in our cities, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer and other health effects. 

Exposures to particulate matter, ozone and carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene are of high concern. Congested urban traffic conditions and frequent short journeys results in higher air pollution emissions per kilometre compared to free-flowing longer journeys.

Noise pollution is also a challenge. At least 125 million people in Europe were exposed to high levels of road traffic noise in 2012. Exposure to environmental noise has been estimated to contribute around 10,000 cases of premature deaths due to coronary heart disease and stroke each year. Almost 90 per cent of noise-related health impacts are associated with road traffic noise.

There are also lesser-known problems, which can lower quality of life. For example, urban sprawl can increase car dependency, which in turn increases the risk of obesity. More cars on the road can increase commuting stress and wasted time. Similarly, growing and inadequately connected cities can present a risk of isolation for ageing populations.

The challenges we face underline the need for action to reconfigure systems of production and consumption so that they operate within our planetary limits and thereby ensure the wellbeing of current and future generations. This need has long been recognised in the European Union: the EU's longer-term policies increasingly call for sustainability and greening the economy.

The EU and its member states are already putting in place measures to facilitate a transition toward a truly sustainable society. Different EU funds are clearly earmarked and spent on making this green transition happen. 

This combination of measures, funds and a coordination framework between different governance levels is essential for enabling city authorities to take action on the ground. So are knowledge and knowhow.

The European Environment Agency's work also focuses on urban issues to inform decision makers on how cities can become cleaner and more resource-efficient. It is clear that Europe needs to invest in greening its economy, and thereby its cities.

More concretely, cities can work on waste management, promoting recycling and re-use of materials, and avoiding waste by better organisation.

They can also develop integrated urban planning and management which minimise the use of natural resources, energy, and the loss of biodiversity.

Similarly, urban planners can focus on the 'greenification' of city areas, with ample green and blue spaces which contribute to clean air and reduce noise. These areas encourage physical activity, improve mental health and social interaction. 

Planners can also look at improving mobility, making transport infrastructure modern and more efficient, with more walkable and cyclable neighbourhoods and by facilitating access to local services. Such green planning can also contribute to local climate regulation to reduce heat in core built up areas of cities.

Our intensive consumption in Europe has put excessive pressures on the environment and it is clear that a 'business as usual' approach is no longer a viable development path for Europe. 

The burden on our environment in Europe and abroad represents a growing threat to future advances in living standards and increasingly raises questions about the fairness of the wealthy imposing disproportionate burdens on the global environment.

Well managed, well planned and well governed cities can be a positive game changer. Urban areas already serve as magnets for talent and innovation and are well placed to lead the way to a greener future. Cities are a source of problems, but at the same time they also have a huge potential to develop solutions towards a resource-efficient economy and a low-carbon society.


Read the most recent articles written by Hans Bruyninckx - Reversing the climate crisis