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Vibrant and diverse sustainable cities in CEE

A clean transportation system, effective land planning, energy efficiency in buildings, water sector policies, waste prevention, good governance and appropriate financial mechanisms. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), these are the main ingredients of a modern sustainable city.

In 2018, the United Nations reported that 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050. In Europe, in particular, 74 per cent of the population lives in cities. Therefore, cities that strive for urban sustainability and eco-innovation are a step closer towards the fulfilment of the European Green Deal.

Keeping the cities green and the citizens safe

Especially under the current situation, due to the coronavirus’ outbreak, to keep the cities green and the citizens safe was not an easy task. But all cities are still determined not to let the short-term crisis get in the way of their long-term green investments for the future.

On the sidelines of a webinar organised by the EBRD green cities project, it emerged that there have been fears that, with global oil prices very low, cash-strapped countries and cities might jettison investments into cleaner energy and stick with oil and gas.

“I agree with the need to continue investments in energy efficiency and more sustainable practices,” said Lviv’s Deputy Mayor Serhiy Kiral, when asked what sustainable infrastructure to prioritise, “We are not going to stop any of that, regardless of what the prices of oil are at this stage.”

European cities are not stopping and nine of them recently entered the final stage of the European Green Capital and Green Leaf Awards, showing continued commitment to sustainability. Two cities from Central and Eastern Europe also made the list: Tallinn (Estonia) is among the finalists for the title of European Green Capital 2022, while Gabrovo (Bulgaria) runs for the European Green Leaf 2021 contest, open to smaller urban areas.

“In a context of climate emergency, Europe needs inspiring stories and good examples to follow,” said European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius. “This year’s finalists are providing that: they are quieter, healthier and greener cities, all proving that local solutions already exist for the vast majority of the urban problems we face.”

They are ambassadors for change, showing that we can build a better environment, creating resilient cities for a more secure future.

Ljubljana’s vision

Central and Eastern Europe already count a past winner: Ljubljana. Over the last decade, Slovenia’s capital has significantly boosted its reputation in the international environment, where today is recognised as green, safe, clean, and hospitable European capital.

According to the municipality’s experts, in the current financial perspective of 2014–2020, the city has so far successfully run for projects in the total amount of 148 million euros. The largest and most important cohesion project of this financial period for which the European Commission granted funds in 2017 is the extensive project of Wastewater Drainage and Treatment of the Ljubljansko polje Aquifer Area, worth a total of 111 million euros, which will increase the number of connected users to the sewerage system to 98 per cent.

The city’s sustainable strategy Vision 2025 brings together plans covering environmental protection, mobility, energy and electric transport and it helped the city to win the European Green Capital award in 2016.

Sharing is very important, as underlined by the municipality of Ljubljana, however, in this process, every city modifies and adapts good practices to their needs and situations and in this way, new good practices come to light.

Diversity

When it comes to CEE countries, they are home to vibrant and diverse cities. According to the EBRD, these cities face numerous challenges, including insufficient infrastructure investment, demographic changes, poor air quality and historical legacies of high energy and carbon intensity. Solid waste management is another pressing issue, with recycling almost negligible compared to the European Union average of 39 per cent and far short of the EU target of 50 per cent of municipal solid waste recycling by 2020.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“This is a very diverse region in which different countries and cities have a wide variety long and recent history and diverse systems of national governance determining their current situation,” underlines Paulius Kulikaukas, Head of the UN-Habitat Office for Europe and European Institutions. “It is methodologically complicated to single out a city from its regional and national and increasingly also from a supranational context.”

According to him, two factors made a decisive influence on sustainable urban development: the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the consequent decision from part of the region to integrate with the Euro-Atlantic community while another part decided to take a different path.

“Yet there is more to the diversity of the cities than just this geopolitical factor: old cultural traditions, geographical differences, positions on established and newly developed trade routes, economic specialisation and many other characteristics,” Mr Kulikaukas tells CEENERGYNEWS. “One striking commonality in this region is overwhelming privatisation of the housing stock in the 1990s and consequences to the functioning of the housing markets. One amazing difference is the rich variety of how countries and cities deal with urban and regional planning and development controls.”

Therefore, the extent of criteria of sustainability also varies: from the three pillars of social, economic and environmental sustainability to a very complex integrated measurement of attainment of all UN Sustainable Development Goals measured by all officially adopted indicators.

“Hence meaningful comparisons of the overall sustainability of different cities are difficult, if not completely impossible,” he continues. “So is selecting a good practice, in as much as what works great for Tartu may be difficult to attain and much less effective at a given time in Luhansk or Peja which have different possibilities and priorities.”

In this regard, the UN-Habitat awards a Scroll of honour each year: the diversity of winners respects the difference of their contexts and awards the transformative efforts.

What makes a city sustainable

According to the Sustainable Cities Index, London ranked as the world’s most sustainable city in 2018. The best performing city in CEE was Prague, which ranked 23rd. Only two other cities made the index: Warsaw at the 54th place and Budapest (57th).

Then, why is one city more sustainable than another? The European Investment Bank finds a definition within the word smart. By harnessing the benefits of information technologies and innovation, modern cities have the opportunity to streamline their day-to-day management, become more efficient and improve many aspects of our daily lives. And the opportunities are countless. Smart cities not only use innovation and technology to tackle complex challenges but also contribute to making the city climate change resilient, socially inclusive and green.

What seems to be universally important is a concerted, well-balanced system of multi-level and multi-stakeholder governance, where governance roles and responsibilities are distributed to various levels and sectors of the government and communities so that they are most effectively assuring long term desired results in a given society, Mr Kulikaukas says.

“In the end, it is not about winning a beauty contest – sustainable urban development, however, measured, seeks to generate and sustain highest economic productivity per capita in a most equitable society with least environmental impacts over a given time, underpinned by democracy and rule of law, and offering a high quality of life through essential services: not only health, clean water and air, adequate housing, efficient mobility, but also educational, cultural and leisure opportunities, to all citizens, reaching well beyond the administrative and geographical limits of one city or even one country.”

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