European Environment Agency (EEA)

Urban sustainability issues — Resource-efficient cities: good practice


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Our current pattern of resource use is leading to the depletion and, consequently, scarcity of natural resources (1), the degradation of ecosystems and volatile and increasing prices of natural resources. On a planet with finite resources, the challenge is to find a way of delivering greater value and more services with fewer inputs (EC, 2011a). Resources are defined as raw materials, such as fuels, minerals and metals, but also food, soil, water, air, biomass and ecosystems (EC, 2011b).

Resource efficiency is a priority objective of the Europe 2020 Strategy. The 'Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe' is one of its seven flagship initiatives (EC, 2011a). It sets out a framework to support the shift towards a resource-efficient and low-carbon economy in many policy areas: agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. The Roadmap also gives guidance on the design and implementation of measures to transform the economy (EC, 2011c). According to the Roadmap, resource efficiency 'is a way to deliver more with less'. (EC, 2011a). The 7th Environment Action Programme (7th EAP), 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', which will guide European environment policy until 2020, identifies a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy as a key objective (EU, 2013). Priority 8 of the 7th EAP focuses on urban sustainability.

Traditionally, resource efficiency policy has focused on production and consumption. However, urban areas have considerable potential for improving resource efficiency and helping to deliver the climate and energy package (the 20-20-20 targets) (2). Cities are home to 72,4% of the total EU28's population (Eurostat, 2015), are the engines of the economy, seats of learning and fertile ground for innovation, and, overall, municipalities supply and control public services to city residents and businesses that are responsible for the majority of resource and energy consumption and harmful emissions. However, owing to the density of the population and the proximity of the population to businesses, the urban system is a resource-efficient one.

Like living organisms, cities require considerable flows and stocks of physical, chemical and biological resources through the goods and services they import or export to supply the urban population and to maintain their functions (Barles, 2010). They need input flows (such as energy, fuel, metal, wood, water, food, materials for building and infrastructure, space) to maintain their vital functions (Decker et al., 2000). After transformation and use, these 'metabolic inputs' are discharged to the environment (atmosphere, water and soils) as 'metabolic outputs' in the form of air emissions, liquid and solid effluent and waste materials that have upstream and downstream environmental impacts.

These urban metabolic flows can be considerably reduced and recycled through better design, planning and management of the urban socio-technical system and by raising awareness in society. The main challenge for cities is to move from the current linear model, an open system depending on the hinterland (3) for both supply and disposal, to a circular model, thereby not only reducing metabolic flows but also recycling resources, harvesting (e.g. water harvesting) and producing energy (e.g. local production of renewables) and food (e.g. urban farming, including rooftop gardens). Owing to cities' critical mass, a slight change in the way they use resources can have a huge effect.

The density of cities makes them a resource-efficient model. The consumption per capita of resources (in particular biomass, metals and industrial minerals) is lower in densely populated areas than in relatively sparsely populated areas (Krausmann et al., 2008). Urban density reduces commuting distances, air pollution, energy demand, land take and soil destruction, and the fragmentation of habitats. It allows economies of scale in citizen-oriented services such as collective transport, power, water and sanitation services, waste management and district heating. Municipalities are key players in managing resources. They also have the capacity to raise urban players' (policymakers, city managers and stakeholders) awareness of urban flows and their impact and to encourage participation in decision-making.

Nevertheless, municipalities face diverse problems in managing resources, such as the temporal variations in quantity and quality that affect the supply of and the demand for resources or their dependency on trans‑boundary engineered infrastructures (e.g. power grid, drinking water network). Their latest challenge is to move away from the current centralised system with one-site and end-of-pipe utilities driven by municipalities or utility suppliers to decentralised systems in which users are simultaneously owners and producers. Despite this complexity, some cities find a way of developing innovative place-based policies and strategies with local participants and of cooperating with neighbourhood municipalities instead of competing. Some cities have adopted ambitious agendas with targets, based on a long-term vision, and have successfully implemented transition management based on a co-creative and participatory process to bring about changes in society.

There is no 'one-size-fits-all' strategy. Each city needs to develop appropriate integrated place-based solutions, taking into account all the factors that influence resource efficiency. Technological solutions alone, such as the traditional end-of-pipe and one-site solutions, are no longer sufficient. Examples of good practice show that urban 'flows' and urban 'forms' need to be integrated, and spatial development (urban planning, land use, urban design, density) has to be coordinated with the planning of infrastructure systems (location, concentration, distribution, nature of demand, capacity thresholds, technology choices). Transition towards resource- and energy-efficient cities, and more generally sustainable cities, is a systemic challenge that will require radical transformation of every dimension of the urban system: technical (e.g. the interactions between policies, the long-term impacts, the integration of supply and demand), social (e.g. civil society's expectations, social practices) and institutional (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Urban authorities need not only to develop better integration of sectoral policies but also to collaborate with different levels of government, cutting across jurisdictional boundaries, and to develop the art of working with participants with different interests.

This report is one of a series of three short reports, described below, based on an overview of recent literature and successful case studies focusing on resource efficiency issues in urban areas. The reports analyse the challenges faced by cities and some of the solutions developed to meet these challenges, including governance and finding ways of engaging society in the decision-making process. As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, each city has to find its own path to resource efficiency and, more generally, sustainability.

What is a resource-efficient city?
This report focuses on the concept of urban metabolism and the circular model. Compactness is highlighted as a way of minimising input and output flows. It analyses in particular the need for land and the link between spatial development and the need for energy for transport. Causal loops are developed for water use and energy use related to transport.

Key findings
Urban flows
Urban flows depend on drivers (e.g. urban planning, infrastructure, demography, economic specialisation), spatial patterns (e.g. land use intensity, land cover change, urban density, urban form) and the lifestyle of the population (e.g. mobility, food, income). The spatial pattern is key to shaping flows, in particular those related to mobility. Apart from an efficient public transport system, sufficient street intersections and connectivity are required to achieve walkability and cyclability.

A liveable, compact and dense urban area with an efficient public transport system, mixed land use at the local scale, and green spaces is considered to be a resource-efficient model making lower demands on resources per capita compared with a less dense city. In particular, compactness results in using less energy for mobility and less water and material for infrastructure and reduces the carbon dioxide emissions from housing. Good robust urban planning is crucial to densify the city and limit urban expansion at the same time as improving the quality of life for city residents. Strong urban planning that goes beyond the limits of an individual municipality is critical to achieving compactness.

Research and methodology
Researchers have developed different methodologies to analyse urban material flows. The major limitation of these methodologies (e.g. material flows analysis) is the lack of data on material flows at the city or metropolitan scale. However, studies have been carried on different cities in Europe that help us to understand the quantities in resource flows passing through cities and remaining as stocks (e.g. building, infrastructure) and therefore the opportunities for decoupling.

Land as a finite resource
Land is a finite resource providing space for people and supporting terrestrial ecosystems. Limiting land take is already an important land policy target at national (e.g. Germany) or sub-national level. Studies show that there is no correlation between growth in the urban area and population growth.

Land recycling
Land recycling, i.e. regeneration of previously developed land that is currently not in active use or available for redevelopment (so-called brownfield sites), is seen as a solution to limit land take. The reuse of brownfield land (e.g. former industrial areas, waterfront areas) has become important in developing housing, modernising cities and regenerating deprived areas. In many European cities, the reuse of former industrial and waterfront areas has become a key instrument in combatting urban sprawl and densifying urban areas.

Resource-efficient cities: good practice
This report analyses innovative measures taken by local authorities to minimise the use of resources and to harvest resources (e.g. rainwater) in the city. It considers issues of both supply and demand, from upstream measures (e.g. avoidance, prevention, reduction) to downstream action (reusing, recycling, harvesting).

Key findings
Integration of the demand for and supply of resources Oversized infrastructures that are not adapted to needs (e.g. the housing bubble in Spain and Ireland) result in a waste of resources and of funding for construction and maintenance. They may also limit the options in the future and lock the city in to an outdated vision of the urban environment. Empty buildings and apartments indicate a misuse of resources that is difficult to map owing to the dispersion of the information. Some cities have developed community mapping initiatives (e.g. Hamburg, Vienna, Budapest).

The role of the hinterland
Cities depend on their hinterland — a worldwide hinterland for globalised trade and regional and surrounding rural areas for ecosystem services (e.g. recreational areas, flood protection) — for the supply of resources (e.g. water, food, renewable energy), for the disposal of waste (e.g. waste management, wastewater management plan) and for space for an interconnected infrastructure (e.g. road network, power grid). This interdependence between urban areas and their rural surroundings, far from the limit of the city's jurisdiction, poses a major problem for resource management and governance. Some cities succeed in integrating their surroundings into the supply of resources (e.g. Copenhagen's offshore wind power development, Vienna's forest biomass power station, Amsterdam's food strategy).

Integrated urban developments
The complexity of the metabolism increases with the spatial scale, the mix of functions and sectors, and the complexity of the stakeholders and institutions. To optimise integration, all the initiatives need to be scaled up or down in order to be connected each other. There are many initiatives at the scale of the building unit where technology can be easily changed. The district scale offers more potential to significantly increase the benefits and savings. However, this requires acting on all components of the urban design, not only at the controlled scale of the district. Changes in dense urban areas need to take into account the existing urban fabric, the infrastructure networks and the social consequences (e.g. accessibility to green areas and services, exposure to noise and pollution, regulation of temperature). This requires an understanding of life cycles and flows within and beyond the site. Some cities have demonstrated that it is possible to develop an integrated approach at the urban scale (e.g. Amsterdam).

Improvement of the urban technical system
Improving resource efficiency requires renovation of the urban technical system — that related to energy and water supply, waste management, mobility and housing — that shapes the resource flows and affects the well-being of city residents. The renovation of existing buildings remains a major challenge, although there are technical solutions even for heritage buildings. The main obstacles are lack of motivation on the part of owners due to the cost, uncertainty over the payback period and the lack of expertise. The existence of a reliable framework to promote energy saving and to provide information (e.g. Lyon, Grenoble, Bristol) seems a good way of motivating individual owners and community initiatives.

Demand-side policies
Lifestyle is matter of choice as well as habits that are shaped by the context. Everyday practices depend on normal standards (e.g. going on holiday, owning a computer), the existing infrastructure (e.g. a lack of public transport increases the use of cars) and the awareness of citizens. Municipalities have opportunities to develop demand-side policies to prevent waste (e.g. Brussels), including food waste (e.g. Halmstad, Brno), or to save water (e.g. Barcelona during its water crisis) or energy (e.g. Sønderborg, Gothenburg).

Reusing and recycling resources
The potential for reusing and recycling local resources depends on the scale, local conditions and urban patterns and activities. Some cities reuse energy losses through district heating (e.g. Copenhagen), energy stored in the water cycle (e.g. production of biogas from sewage sludge in Stockholm, energy from micro-turbines installed in the drinking water supply in Nice), promoting the reuse of greywater (e.g. some municipalities in the metropolitan area of Barcelona), and encouraging the reuse and swapping of goods, as well as markets for second-hand goods (e.g. a repair and reuse centre in the city of Graz). Some municipalities have also developed economic instruments to improve their recycling performance (e.g. 'pay as you throw' schemes in Flemish municipalities), targeted information aimed at reducing waste (e.g. the Trenndstadt Berlin initiative), and collection and treatment of organic waste (food waste, garden waste) to produce compost (e.g. Odense) or biogas (e.g. Malmö).

Harvesting and producing
The built environment and city surroundings can be self-producers and reservoirs of primary resources that can be harvested. Some cities have developed their own municipal energy company (e.g. Montdidier) or district heating incorporating a high proportion of renewable energy (e.g. Berlin, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Vienna), some are promoting rainwater harvesting (e.g. some towns in the metropolitan area of Barcelona encourage the use of rainwater after recurrent droughts threatened their domestic supply), and some encourage local food production (e.g. Bristol, Berlin, Bologna). Even if most cities cannot be self‑sufficient in food, energy and water, this sustainable approach changes perceptions regarding resources and therefore urban management and planning.

Smart cities
Information and communications technology is a key enabler in addressing urban challenges. It is a way of providing tools to manage utilities efficiently as well as providing intelligent organisation solutions (e.g. smart tickets and information on public transport such as in Vienna, a smart grid such as that in Sønderborg, car-sharing tools such as the Getaround app), and governance and participatory tools (e.g. smart cycling plans in Copenhagen).

Enabling resource-efficient cities
The policy instruments for achieving resource and energy efficiency are inadequate to deal with the complexity of urban challenges owing to the variety of individuals and organisations contributing to resource efficiency through their daily decisions and practices. Some cities have adopted targeted policy agendas and developed a transition management approach based on dialogue between the participants.

Key findings

Transition management
Achieving the shift towards a resource-efficient society requires fundamental changes, not merely simple optimisation of urban flow management but a transformation in institutional frameworks, mindsets and practices. These changes cannot simply be planned by policymakers and city administrators. Cities and regions that have been successful in following ambitious agendas towards resource efficiency have engaged society in the decision-making process (e.g. the circular economy in Flanders, the sharing economy in Seoul, the transformation of the city of Bottrop). Engaging society ensures a solid knowledge base and co-ownership of the strategy, making it less vulnerable to short-term political changes.

As an entry point for mobilising people, the process can start with something practical and operational. Policymakers can also foster changes by empowering users and stakeholders (e.g. the Bicycle Account in Copenhagen), using grassroots initiatives that emerge at the local level and explore innovative solutions (e.g. 'organically grown' communities, collective gardening, sharing communities) (InContext, 2013).

The arena
Success stories show the importance of 'the arena' in the participatory process, a forum in which all stakeholders (users, firms, public research organisations and public authorities, non-governmental organisations) network to envisage a common future, identify pathways and start experimenting to put things into practice. It is a tool to facilitate societal change (e.g. Bottrop).

To ensure long-term commitment, institutionalisation goes hand in hand with sharing responsibility. The adoption of strategic frameworks or the establishment of new institutional actors (e.g. InnovationCity Management GmbH in Bottrop) act as a driving force for resource efficiency, as well as an insurance policy in the event of short-term changes in political commitment (e.g. Bologna's annual use of ecoBudget since 2001).

Striving for excellence
Choosing an ambitious goal, one that all stakeholders can get behind, has the power to set the entire city or region on a completely new path, setting off a transformative dynamic process and inspiring new, even more ambitious, goals (e.g. Güssing, Växjö).

Scale and level
There is no 'correct' level of governance at which to address the resource efficiency issue. Measures can be taken at all levels, ranging from the neighbourhood to the city, from the metropolitan area to the entire region or on another scale altogether. To a certain extent, the scale depends on the resources in question. For instance, vacant spaces can more easily be addressed at the neighbourhood level (e.g. cataloguing vacant spaces in Budapest, energy targets in Copenhagen's building code), whereas other issues are more appropriate at the regional level (e.g. developing a circular economy in Flanders) or the national level (e.g. legislation with national targets for daily land take in Germany), and some are best handled at the European level (e.g. the Covenant of Mayors).

Taking stock
Each city is unique and there are no one-size-fits‑all solutions. Local specifics have to be taken into consideration in defining appropriate solutions. It is important to understand the assets of a territory and to make best use of them, and it is crucial to play to local strengths. Experience in different cities shows that it is important to learn from local participants and initiatives (Roorda and Wittmayer, 2014) and what already works (e.g. Güssing developed its project based on its rural setting, with an abundance of wood from its forests that could be used as biomass to produce energy).

A long-term vision and a strategic framework need to be combined with monitoring to analyse the effectiveness of policies. Pioneering monitoring initiatives show that one of the major difficulties is finding a reference point against which to judge efforts. Considering the diversity of European cities, any set of quantitative indicators will offer only limited information without the potential for comparison with other cities.

To define strategies and long-term visions and to support dialogue with stakeholders during the decision‑making process, policymakers need to understand the metabolism of cities to properly assess their current situation and to predict the potential consequences of their policy decisions. Existing information on European cities has been growing and improving in quality since 2006, thanks in particular to Urban Audit and Urban Atlas. However, there is no comprehensive database on urban metabolism, except for certain case studies developed as part of projects. The major limitations are different definitions of cities, different time series and sometimes different methodologies (measured versus estimated or modelled). There are considerable differences between European cities concerning the scope and quality of available information. Some Member States have very complete databases, while in other countries data are less systematic and more fragmented. Therefore, finding appropriate information to implement and interpret flows analyses remains a major challenge.

Priority 8 of the 7th EAP underpins the need for 'criteria to assess the environmental performance of cities, taking into account economic, social and territorial impacts'. Some initiatives are either under way or have already been developed to help local authorities to define sustainability criteria and to facilitate comparison between cities with similar characteristics. At the same time, cities are heterogeneous (e.g. in terms of climate, heritage, morphology, demography, geographical situation, trajectory, activities, local culture). The complexity of the urban system makes comparisons difficult but not impossible if they are done within a group of similar cities. In this way, the EEA has developed a typology of EU-28 cities (based on 383 cities) in order to analyse groups of cities with similar characteristics rather than an individual city.

Finally, these three reports show that the main limitation on developing resource-efficient policies in urban areas is not a lack of technical solutions but more a lack of vision in local participants. Some territories, even small towns, have demonstrated that it is possible to set and achieve ambitious goals by systematically implementing them in all domains (sectors and areas) over a long period of time and by mobilising stakeholders. They have experienced not only a new way of managing their city, more goal oriented, but also a new way of thinking about the complexity of the urban system and of cooperating with stakeholders and neighbourhood areas.

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