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

Co-production in the criminal justice system

Community concept word cloud background

By Rebecca Jackson

Co-production in criminal justice was the core theme of a conference held last Wednesday by the Scottish Co-Production Network.

The speakers were invited to showcase their organisations as three examples of best practice. All the organisations have integrating partnerships and co-production at the heart of their values, and they spoke of the benefits and challenges they had faced, as three very different organisations, all looking to use co-production in the context of criminal justice.

Startup Stock Photos

Startup Stock Photos

Supporting vulnerable women

Tomorrow’s Women Glasgow, is part of a national pilot which aims to develop community- based justice options for people who are offenders. This specific pilot focuses on vulnerable women with complex needs who are in, or have recently been involved in, the criminal justice system.

The women-only centre offers a safe space for women to come and spend time and to work with mentors to address the barriers and issues which prevent them from leading positive, healthy lives. In addition to this, the women are invited to contribute ideas towards the running of the centre, planning activities, contributing to a newsletter and hosting open days.

“The scheme gives vulnerable women a choice, a voice, a direction and opportunities”

The project is run in association with the social enterprise Outside the Box. There are some examples of Outside the Box’s other projects here.

woman hands isolated on sky background

Improving transitions from prison

Pete from Positive Prison? Positive Futures… delivered an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation about his experiences as a person with a conviction who had served time in prison and how that drove him to help others upon their release from prison. He helped to set up the organisation Positive Prison? Positive Futures… (PP?PF) which seeks to “improve the effectiveness of Scotland’s criminal justice system so as to reduce the harms caused by crime and to support the reintegration of those who are or have been subject to punishment”.

He was keen to stress that the charity is not a service provider; rather it is an initial point of contact to help direct people with convictions to the available and relevant services which already exist.

“We’re kind of like in space when you use the gravitational pull of an object to slingshot you in the right direction (Apollo 13 reference anyone?!). People are coming to us going one way, we come into contact with them, build their speed and send them in another, safer, hopefully better direction!”

In addition to this, the charity engages regularly with the Scottish Government as part of committees looking into reform of the prison service, the redesign of community justice and have, among other things, influenced policy decisions around the release of individuals from prison including transitional care.

The charity works with recently released, or soon to be released people with convictions, looking at building relationships during the vulnerable first few weeks ‘on the outside’ where re-offending and suicide rates are high. They also offer mentoring to help prepare people for the transition from prison life.

Two adult education students studying together in class.

Co-production and young people

Space Unlimited is a social enterprise based in Glasgow, which offers a creative space for young people to become involved in the planning and review of the criminal youth justice system. It encourages young people from vulnerable backgrounds, as well as young people who have served time in prison, to use their experiences to change how offending and criminal justice is viewed by young people.

The scheme aims to provide a space to show how young people can use their views to influence how the system can work best for them, to avoid re-offending and help integrate them back into society. The young people interact with adult stakeholders from across the local authority and criminal justice sector, as well as charities and third sector organisations.

“We promote and encourage children and young people to view themselves as experts in their own right, using their own experiences to promote positive change in the youth criminal justice system”

Category Picture Community Development

Creating new spaces for dialogue

What all of the case studies sought to highlight were the key elements of co-production:

      • Assets
      • Capacity
      • Mutuality
      • Networks
      • Shared roles
      • Catalysts

The speakers discussed their learning and experiences, as well as the challenges they face, but all highlighted the fundamental belief underpinning co-production – that service users and service providers can learn from one another. We create better services by engaging service users – creating services with people, not for them.

Co-production is an approach which is widely spoken about in health and social care, but as the conference and its speakers highlighted, the application and remit of co-production could be rolled out over other areas of policy too. It is all about finding groups of people willing to engage and to listen – creating a space for an exchange of dialogue, knowledge and learning. And the results could potentially be hugely beneficial for both service users and service providers. This video from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) highlights some of the benefits of co-production in practice.


Co-producing Positive Futures learning event: how co-production, learning and partnership building can improve community experiences and engage people in the criminal justice system. Scottish Co-production Network, Glasgow, 28 October 2015.

Commissioning the third sector … are we outsourcing authority as well as services?

By Rebecca Jackson

Public sector cuts under the coalition and current Conservative governments’ programme of austerity have been far reaching and severe. Social enterprises and charities have been promoted by government as a new and effective way to deliver public services in a way which meets the needs of service users but are more cost effective than previous models.

But the closure of Kids Company last month raised questions about the difficulties of outsourcing public services. When a body receives public money, but is ultimately a private organisation or business, who is held responsible for how that money is spent, who is responsible for its regulation and who is ultimately held accountable for its failures?

social enterprise 5

Photo By Paul Carttar & Carol Thompson Cole w/ David Gergen and dpict.info Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Rolling back the state

Estimates suggest there are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK, employing around a million people. Social enterprises and charities have been incorporated extensively into the delivery of public services. This is not only to provide efficiency, but expertise and personalised service in a way that national government-led roll-outs could not. There have been a number of schemes which have functioned effectively, where social enterprises and charities have successfully integrated to help local authorities deliver public services.

Social enterprises represent an alternative way of doing business in the UK; one which promotes investment in communities and projects which promote sustainability and collaboration. They include organisations from the economic, social, cultural and environmental sectors. Their diversity is one of their major advantages.

However some more sceptical about their use have commented that a growing government obsession with outsourcing public services, to both the private and third sector, has created a “shadow state”. Increasingly people have begun to question whether this approach is a sustainable or suitable method for the delivery of public services in the UK. There’s no doubt that social enterprises provide an alternative approach to service delivery, but at what cost to the taxpayer and government legitimacy?

Questions of legitimacy and authority

Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh in south London, Kids Company provided a range of services to vulnerable children in London, Liverpool and Bristol. Its high profile supporters within government included David Cameron. However Kids Company was forced to close after a very public “funding crisis”. Now there are questions over exactly whose responsibility it was to make sure that the money given to Kids Company by government was spent correctly and who is liable for the failure of the charity and the potential loss of £3m of public money.

There are two key issues. The delivery of specialist services to improve outcomes for hard-to-reach groups, is not easy or cheap. Commissioning these services from the third sector, when there are recognised issues with their ability to access sustainable finance and investment, as well as workforce and skills issues within the sector, is never going to be straight-forward. The situation of Kids Company is actually very unusual as sector surveys show that the main challenge that social enterprises and the voluntary sector face when delivering contracted services is the risk that the focus shifts from the needs of service users to meeting narrow, performance management requirements. Public sector procurement models based on cost and value for money leave little leeway and also put organisations into competition with each other for scarce funding.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship between transparency, legitimacy and government authority. Kids Company lacked transparency and in the end, by not addressing concerns or applying appropriate scrutiny, government outsourced its authority as well as its services.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons
Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Answers in the form of regulation?

What exactly went wrong with Kids Company will hopefully emerge in time as a result of the statutory inquiry which was announced last week by the Charities Commission.

Within the existing structure in place in the UK, charities and third sector organisations in England and Wales are held accountable for their practice and conduct by the Charity Commission, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own independent regulatory bodies.

However their effectiveness is disputed. Many smaller organisations are left to largely self-regulate. There is no official stance from government on charity regulation, no mandatory standard of practice, only guidance to direct charity conduct. A damning Public Accounts Committee report in 2014 found that “We are dismayed by the fact that the Charity Commission is still performing poorly and failing to regulate the charity sector effectively. It is obvious that it has no coherent strategy and …it is clear that the Charity Commission is not fit for purpose.

It seems that the government lacks the necessary instruments to scrutinise and challenge the way that charities or third sector organisations operate.

Because of the nature of the organisations involved, what the third sector needs is a regulatory body which is able to effectively set out standards and rules of practice, and explicitly state what is expected of charities in terms of accountability where public funds are concerned, but is not a police force. Too much regulation and scrutiny over charities’ practices would make for a sector which was reluctant to contribute to public services and would reduce their focus on the task of delivering effective public services.

This regulatory challenge is something which needs to be addressed if charities and social enterprises are to continue to be part of the public service delivery structure in the UK.


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De-mystifying social enterprise

social saturday 13 september 2014

by Alex Thomas

Tomorrow marks the first Social Saturday (#socialsaturday), a day to celebrate and buy from social enterprises in the UK. Social enterprises are a growing social and economic force with approximately 70,000 operating in the UK contributing £18.5 billion to the economy according to government data. However, despite this presence and impact less than 5 in 10 people know what a social enterprise is and less than one in ten has purchased from on in the last 12 months (according to a recent article by article by Brooks Newmark, Minister for Civil Society). Continue reading

The act is a year old but what does social value actually mean?

people forming a circle

by Alex Addyman

On 31 January 2013 the Public Services (Social Value) Act, or simply the Social Value Act as it is more commonly known, came into force. The law was a turning point for many organisations, particularly social enterprises, with Social Enterprise UK considering it to have: “the potential to transform the way public services are commissioned, requiring public bodies to consider choosing providers based on the social value created in an area and not on cost alone”. Continue reading