Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Some facts about the urban habitat

What kind human habitat is a city?

Urban planners think of cities as hubs of innovation, centres of efficiency, and also sources and drivers of environmental problems. 72% of EU residents live in cities, towns and suburbs, which take up 17% of the land. Europe does not have the largest cities in the world. Paris and London, the largest cities of Europe with just over 10 million inhabitants in 2015, remain smaller in both number of inhabitants and in area, than the other major urban agglomerations of other continents.

European cities tend to have higher diversity but also higher inequality, more women in employment, more young people, and a higher quality of life for those living alone (an increasing share of the population), but also fewer available good housing options. But people who work and consume in cities don’t always live in cities—Eurostat’s map of “commuting zones” around European cities makes this clear. The less-dense suburban areas from which commuters come are increasingly large.

Cities do not necessarily have higher employment rates than rural areas: Anywhere from 100% (Malta) to around 12% of the workforce was living in urban areas within the EU countries, with lots of variation. The two countries with the most rural “wilderness” areas in the EU, Spain and Sweden, have very different proportions of the workforce living in cities: around 60% for Spain and around 24% for Sweden. City dwellers in northern and western EU countries had lower levels of job satisfaction than suburban and rural dwellers, possibly due to working conditions or the types of jobs available in urban areas (e.g. desk jobs, service jobs).

High population growth between 2004 and 2014 was observed in the urban areas of Sweden, Ireland, Czech Republic, Finland and Spain; but the most rapid urbanization of the population was observed in Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Sweden.

According to EUROSTAT, the cities in the EU where it is easiest to find both a job and good, reasonably priced housing include Aalborg (Denmark), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Cluj (Romania). By contrast, the cities with the combination of best public transport and best air quality were Vienna (Austria), Helsinki (Finland), Zurich (Switzerland) and Rostock (Germany). The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency suggests that, overall, Aalborg, Newcastle, Belfast, Cluj, Ankara, Antalya, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, Burgas, Bucharest and Leipzig might be cities with a good balance between affordable housing, job availability, good administrative services, public transport, safety, and—perhaps importantly if you feel like moving to one of these cities—integration of foreigners.

The EU hopes to improve living conditions and ameliorate environmental harms of cities through a “smart city” approach. This refers to the use of digital and telecommunications technologies to make urban economies, environments, transportation, governance, and other services, more efficient and optimal. For example, the Spanish city of Santander has technologies and data-sharing services to help residents find parking spaces, save water and electricity in public spaces, share transportation option information, and optimise refuse collection (http://www.smartsantander.eu/).

Other ways to reduce the environmental footprints of cities are to continue investing in the aspects of their urban design that make them better than peri-urban and suburban areas—for example, a high density of inhabitants tends to reduce per-individual expenditures of energy, apartments and large office buildings are generally more energy efficient that separate houses or offices, and short commutes and accessibility of services and resources on foot or bike reduces pollution. Urban dwellers typically perceive the most important environmental problems that they face to be air pollution, noise pollution, climate change, access to green areas, and grime.

WWF Sweden conducted a survey of 1000 urban residents each in India, Mexico, USA and Sweden. They found that the main action that respondents wanted from their cities was investment in renewable and non-polluting energy. Of specific approaches to solving those problems, solar panels on roofs was supported by 18-22 % of respondents in India and the US, while free public transport was supported by 28% of Swedish respondents.

WWF runs a competition called the One Planet City Challenge, to identify global cities that “demonstrate inspiring, ambitious and credible climate agendas that reflect how cities contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.” The five winners so far have been Vancouver, Cape Town, Seoul, Paris, and, this year, Uppsalla. WWF emphasizes that mobility, accessiblity and renewable energies for transport are key elements of sustainable and resilient cities. Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy envisions cities that incorporate nature in their structures and functions. They work with cities around the world to develop plans to improve their climate resilience by saving water and creating natural defenses against climate changes such as heat waves and storms.

In fact, cities are leaders in climate adaptation and mitigation. The C40 group of 40 global cities take advantage of the smaller scale of cities compared to nations, their more accountable politics, and well-defined place-based problems and solutions, to commit to climate actions. These commitments include a “Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration” to adapt existing buildings and create standards for new ones; an “Advancing Towards Zero Waste Declaration” to reduce food waste, and to reduce, reuse and recycle other kinds of waste, favouring circular economies; and a “Commitment to Green and Healthy Streets” aiming to reduce private vehicle pollution, procure zero-emission buses, and increase walking and biking. See https://www.c40.org/other/city-commitments for more information, and a list of cities that have signed each declaration. The UN Environmental Programme also has a Cities for Climate Protection programme partnered with over 650 local governments. The programme promotes dense developments, energy efficiency, renewables, and clean development. The Carbon Cities Climate Registry allows participating cities to transparently report their commitments, greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigation and adaptation actions.

For more data and information about the urban habitat, have a look at these online sources and reports:

https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/03/13/rise-cities-battle-climate-change/

https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/3217494/7596823/KS-01-16-691-EN-N.pdf

http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/projects/one_planet_cities/urban_solutions/

https://www.coursera.org/learn/gte-sustainable-cities

P.S. The image of a model city is a photo of the work of the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, that I saw at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein