Role models for a new economic landscape: lessons from Europe’s Green Capitals

Hamburg: StadtRÄDER bike rental system

Last month, the French city of Grenoble was crowned European Green Capital for 2022. Since 2010, this award has been presented by the European Commission to cities judged to be at the forefront of sustainable urban living.

Being named Europe’s Green Capital is good PR for any winning city, and the €350,000 prize is an additional incentive to win. But the award also places demands on the winners to build on the environmental improvements that helped put them in first place.

The key message of the award is that Europeans have a right to live in healthy urban areas. Cities should therefore strive to improve the quality of life of their citizens and reduce their impact on the global environment.

Cities bidding for the award are judged on a range of environmental criteria, including climate change, local transport, public green areas, air quality, noise, waste, water consumption, wastewater, sustainable land use, biodiversity and environmental management.

The award enables cities to inspire each other and to share examples of good practice. So far, 13 cities have been named European Green Capitals:

2010: Stockholm (Sweden)

2011: Hamburg (Germany)

2012: Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain)

2013: Nantes (France)

2014: Copenhagen (Denmark)

2015: Bristol (United Kingdom)

2016: Ljubljana (Slovenia)

2017: Essen (Germany)

2018: Nijmegen (Netherlands)

2019: Oslo (Norway)

2020: Lisbon (Portugal)

2021: Lahti (Finland)

2022: Grenoble (France)

Green approaches

Each city has adopted different approaches during its year as a green capital.

  • One very clear example of Stockholm’s commitment to sustainable development during its year as European Green Capital was the opening of a new tramway. The line opened in August 2010 and quickly achieved substantial environmental and economic impacts.

  • One of the campaigns during Hamburg’s year as green capital in 2011 aimed to make it easier for citizens to switch from cars to bikes and public transport. The Hamburg Transport Association distributed 2,735 free tickets to friends and acquaintances of season ticket holders, and many visitors made use of the free advisory and ‘get involved’ activities of Germany’s national bicycle club. During the year, Hamburg’s StadtRÄDER bike rental system was also promoted, resulting in an 8% increase in the number of users.

  • Even before it was named as a European Green Capital, Grenoble, had already made efforts to address noise pollution, promote cycling and reduce speed limits. It has also taken a proactive approach to maximising its limited green space by encouraging citizen-led planting initiatives. Grenoble reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005 to 2016 and is working towards a 50% reduction by 2030.

Britain’s green capital

The only UK city to be awarded the European Green Capital prize is Bristol, which held the title in 2015. The city hosted a number of art projects to raise awareness about sustainable development. Bristol also began a trial of ‘bio-buses’ powered by biomethane gas, using human waste from more than 30,000 households, an initiative that was developed further in 2020.

The selection of Bristol opened up a serious debate about  the true value of the award, with some regarding it as a distraction from Bristol’s serious environmental issues, such as traffic congestion, while others were critical of public funding for some European Green Capital projects as wasteful.

However, an important legacy from the year was the publication of the “Bristol Method”, a knowledge-transfer programme aimed at helping people in other cities understand and apply the lessons that Bristol learned in becoming a more sustainable city.

The Bristol Method is made up of a series of modules, each of which uses Bristol’s experience to present a ‘how to’ guide on a particular topic. Topics include:

  • how to use partnerships to drive change;
  • how to use grants to support grassroots change;
  • how to prepare a winning bid for the European Green Capital;
  • how to grow the green economy in a city;
  • how to get more people riding bikes and walking;
  • how to protect and enhance green spaces in a city.

Green shoots for a post-Covid recovery

Although the world is currently preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, that other serious planetary threat –  climate change – has not gone away. So it’s significant that many governments see this moment as an opportunity to build radical green policies into their packages for economic recovery.

Some of the practical ideas developed over the past decade by Europe’s Green Capitals are important in their own right, but may also be seen as key elements in rebuilding economies that have been devastated by restrictions to suppress the coronavirus.

The German city of Essen, for example, (European Green Capital in 2017) has developed one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, restoring 80 kilometres of waterways and creating a network of green spaces. The project was not only an important climate adaptation milestone, but has also created new jobs and business opportunities. Essen has shown that it’s possible for a city which previously relied on heavy industry to transform itself into a vibrant and sustainable space for humans, animals and plants.

Another project, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, (Green Capital in 2018) is a social enterprise that collects, restores and re-sells second-hand goods. The venture prevents waste, as well as employing people who can put their repair and retail experience to good use. Similar projects across the Netherlands have collected 20,000 tonnes of goods a year, with 80% being re-used. They also provide jobs for disadvantaged and disabled people who have found it especially difficult to enter the labour market.

Europe’s Green Capitals have already become role models for green economies throughout Europe and beyond. Now they can demonstrate the economic as well as the environmental benefits of building back greener. 


Further reading: more on greener cities from The Knowledge Exchange blog

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