Bristol did it! Last Friday, it was announced the winner of the European Green Capital title. In 2015, the capital of South West England will represent the ambitions of Europe in the campaign to make cities greener and more comfortable to live in. But are these ambitions realistic in these financially turbulent times?
These days, many cities struggle to make ends meet and believe they can’t afford investment in environmental improvements requiring high-end, expensive technologies. Previous European Green Capitals prove that green economies work and lead to better outcomes than the slash-and-burn financial management.
The 2015 European Green Capital title was awarded by an international jury composed of seven officials, representing key European organizations active in the environment field. The choice was made from four short-listed cities: Bristol, Brussels, Ljubljana and Glasgow, and was announced on 14 June in Nantes (France), which holds the 2013 title.
The victory of Bristol is not surprising, as the city seemed to be the frontrunner from the beginning of the contest. In the initial stage, when each candidate had to report its activities in twelve environment-related themes, Bristol was the best, or the runner-up, in all of them. Social media was used intensely to promote the bid. Bristol was also a battle-scarred contestant, as it already made two unsuccessful attempts to win the title in the past.
Last week’s success is a result of a consistent plan for the environment. In the last years, Bristol has invested in public transport and decreased the use of energy, in spite of a 44% population growth in the last decade. It also performed forward-looking urban planning to revive the urban space and protect the landscape. 98% of the new business developments and 94% of the homes built over the last decade were localized on brownfield sites.
One of the things that tipped the scales in Bristol’s favour was transport management. The number of cyclists, which increased twofold in the last few years, is planned to be doubled again by 2020. With the €500 million budget dedicated to transport until 2015, the city also aims to increase bus use by 11% by 2016 and train travel by 41% by 2019.
Many cities believe they can’t afford such expense at this time, when there is barely money left to keep the public buses going, not to mention launching new, green investments. They feel forced to rescue their budgets and consequently, make radical cuts in spending.
However, what’s often called “austerity”, causes more harm than good in the long term, from the social point of view. On the contrary to this approach, there are examples that show how going in the exactly opposite direction can produce better results, at a lower social and environmental cost.
Previous cities granted with the European Green Capital title managed to escape the status of an isolated curiosity. In fact, they became benchmarks for dynamic, responsible growth. The award has so far granted to Stockholm, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Nantes, and one more city, which perhaps doesn’t ring too many bells at first. It is located in the Basque country in the north of Spain and its Spanish-Basque name is Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Compared to the rest of the laureates, Vitoria-Gasteiz is little – with circa 240 000 inhabitants, it’s the smallest city to win the award and, quite probably, the least internationally known. It does, however, have a lot to show, both from the environmental, and the economic point of view.
Most of all, it offers very good living standards, 95% of the population lives no further than 500 meters from basic services, such as educational, health and cultural facilities. Since everything is within easy reach, almost half of all the travels are done on foot. Last decade also witnessed a sevenfold growth in cycling in the city. With one third of the urban area composed of public gardens, Vitoria-Gasteiz is the greenest city in Spain.
Such characteristics does not imply that, in fact, Vitoria-Gasteiz is an industrial city, previously, known for its energy, machine tool and aeronautical production. Being dependent on manufacturing, it set its sights on sustainable development long ago. For over three decades, the local authorities have been running an environmentally balanced urban policy, making the capital of the Basque Country a model for green growth.
As a result, the city remains prosperous in the crisis-torn country. Unemployment of 13% is half the national average. While the high standard of living and the reputation as a green city has attracted big business. In the last ten years, Mercedes-Benz, Heineken, Michelin and many others have established their production plants in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Shops revenues have increased owing to the 25% of the streets reserved for pedestrian use
Given that more than €200 billion from the new EU financial perspective (reaching €960 billion in total) will be dedicated to environment protection, local authorities across Europe, especially those in the most subsidized regions, should stop turning their backs on environmental management and realize that if there is any way to steer out from stagnation, green growth is the path to follow.