Green Cities across Europe Addressing Climate Change
This June, I was among twelve sustainability leaders from across the nation selected to participate in a green cities tour of Europe. Sponsored by the European Union Delegation to the U.S. and culminating in the EU Green Capital Awards Ceremony, our group of local government representatives visited cities in Belgium, Netherlands, and Norway that are at the forefront of addressing climate change. Representatives also shared projects and best practices for promoting sustainability in their cities.
First stop, Belgium
Starting in Brussels, Belgium―European Green Capital Finalist 2015―we visited with the European Union Office of the Directorate-General for Environment, where we learned how individual countries have yielded their authority to the European Union (EU) to regulate a number of environmental issues, including single-use plastics, air pollution, and maritime activities. In fact, more than 20% of the EU budget (€180B) has been utilized for climate-related activities from 2014 through 2020. In 2015, the EU adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan that targets ways the EU can eliminate waste, keep products and materials in reuse, and regenerate natural systems. In alignment with this plan, the EU has mandated that all plastic packaging be reusable or recyclable by the year 2030, which will require major changes in production and manufacturing processes over the next decade.
Moving on to the City of Brussels Department of Environment, we learned that the newest construction trend in Brussels is to design “Buildings as Materials Banks” that can be repurposed and transformed at the end of their useful life in a circular fashion rather than the typical “cradle-to-grave” deconstruction process, aligning significantly with the EU’s Circular Economy goals. Before leaving Belgium, our focus turned from circular design to sustainable transport. First, we visited Europe’s second largest seaport, where we saw how the Port of Antwerp is taking a leadership role in transitioning away from heavy dependence on fossil fuels toward a cleaner energy infrastructure.
And on to the Netherlands…
We next made our way into the Netherlands, arriving in Nijmegen―2018 European Green Capital Winner― where the city’s population of 170,000 is outnumbered by an estimated 230,000 bikes. In Nijmegen, most residential streets have been redesigned for pedestrians and bicycles, with wide sidewalks and narrow roadways that barely fit the width of a single passenger vehicle. Vehicles such as our tour bus are considered “guests” on the road and must yield to bicycles and pedestrians. For those who don’t ride a bike for everything, we learned about Nijmegen’s plan for mobility E-hubs, where low-impact transportation options such as electric vehicles, car share programs, bikes, and scooters are clustered together near a transit stop for “last mile and beyond” connectivity.
While still in the Netherlands, we also had the opportunity to see hands-on how sustainability is being applied in the built environment—specifically in affordable housing. Nijmegen’s Waalsprong community is home to almost 20,000 new housing units, many of which are dedicated to low-income households (about $40,000 to $60,000 U.S.-equivalent annual income). In the neighborhood we visited, prospective residents were required to meet with their potential future neighbors and collectively decide to form a community before they were given permission to build their individual homes. As long as homes were designed according to the ultra-low energy use Passive House principles, there were no other residential design guidelines. This resulted in an assortment of home types, from log cabin to farmhouse to ranch to uber-modern, all in a row. In addition to this, the landscaping included wildflowers, native plants, and edible gardens, resulting in a natural and ecological appearance not typically associated with urban design.
Our third and final stop was Oslo, Norway―2019 European Green Capital Winner. Just like in Fremont, Norway has a high level of Tesla ownership! This past March, over 76% of new vehicle purchases in Oslo, Norway were plug-in hybrid or battery electric vehicles (EVs), including over 8,000 Tesla vehicles! Oslo’s incentives for EV drivers include significantly reduced road tolls, sales tax exemptions, low-cost hydroelectric power, and even EV-only parking garages, making the operational cost of owning a luxury EV such as a Tesla less expensive than most conventional or even hybrid vehicles. Norway’s high household income level helps too; as the second richest country in Europe, Norway can attribute much of its wealth to the fact that 90% of its exports are petroleum products―a paradox that has garnered significant international criticism. Recognizing that its economy is built upon fossil fuels, Norway maintains a government pension fund over $1 trillion in assets that will support its economic transition away from dependence on fossil fuel sales. In the meantime, Oslo itself is working to “take care of its own house,” with ambitious plans in its Climate and Energy Strategy for 100% emissions free power by 2028 and carbon neutrality by 2030.
Our tour culminated in the EU Green Capital Awards ceremony in Oslo, where we celebrated the achievements of Lisbon, Portugal as 2020 European Green Capital and welcomed Lahti, Finland as the next 2021 European Green Capital. True to EU’s branding of “green cities―fit for life,” these cities are committed to addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation, protecting nature and biodiversity, maintaining clean air and water quality, reducing waste and noise pollution, achieving high levels of energy performance, improving urban mobility, promoting sustainable land use, and inspiring green grown and eco-innovation. This vision of a sustainable urban future aligns with our own vision for Fremont as captured in the General Plan of a “sustainable, strategically urban, modern city,” and is furthermore embodied in Fremont’s 2045 Carbon Neutrality Resolution adopted by the Fremont City Council in February 2019.
Thinking global, acting local
There are several lessons we can take back with us as we return to our cities. In Oslo’s Mayor Raymond Johansen’s words, “Climate change can’t be left to someone else, somewhere else, at another time. We need to act now.” We are fortunate to live in California where climate change is not only understood as the scientific reality, but where climate action is a driving force in developing future policies. The effects of climate change are being felt directly by our local communities in the form of extreme heat events, prolonged drought, wildfires, and flooding―to name a few. Tackling these effects requires changes in the way we approach community design, and Fremont is ready to take that on. Fremont is committed to transitioning to a carbon neutral community in the next 25 years and taking part in the global shift to a sustainable economy.