European Environment Agency (EEA)

Urban sustainability issues — What is a resource-efficient city?


Courtesy of Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

What is this report about?

Policy background
Scarcity of natural resources poses a threat to the continued prosperity and well‑being of the world's population. As the global economy and population grows and the standard of living rises, the demand for natural resources increases and this threatens the security of supply. Resources are defined as all inputs into the economy (EC, 2011a). 'These resources include raw materials such as fuels, minerals and metals but also food, soil, water, air, biomass and ecosystems' (EC, 2011b).

The current pattern of resource use leads to the depletion and resulting scarcity of natural resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and increasing and more volatile 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). That means developing more productive ways of using resources throughout their life cycle in order to decouple economic growth from resource use and its environmental impact.

Resource efficiency is now a key objective of the Europe 2020 Strategy. It is seen as a way of increasing competitiveness, securing growth and jobs, and innovating, all while managing resources more efficiently over their whole life cycle. A resource‑efficient Europe is one of the seven flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 strategy (EC, 2011a). The Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe provides a framework to support the transition to a resource‑efficient and low‑carbon economy in many policy areas, including 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 actions to transform the economy (EC, 2011a). The seventh Environment Action Programme, '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, 2013a).

Traditionally, resource efficiency has been focused on production and consumption. However, cities are at the front line of managing change and the driving force for action to reduce the use of resources by taking an integrated approach and planning. Not only are they the engines of the economy and the home of their citizens, but municipalities also supply and control various public services to residents and businesses that influence the majority of resource use, energy consumption and harmful emissions.

Urban areas are critical to achieving resource efficiency
Cities and, more generally urban areas, are growing very fast. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world's population was living in urban areas. Urban areas are supposed to absorb all of the population growth anticipated in the future. Europe had already become predominantly urban by the beginning of the 1950s. Today, approximately 359 million Europeans — 72% of the total EU population (EUROSTAT, 2013) — live in cities, towns and suburbs, and this proportion will continue to increase.

Like living organisms, cities require natural resources, energy, raw material, food and goods to sustain the daily life of their inhabitants and their economic activities (Kennedy et al., 2007). The urban system generally depends on its neighbourhoods, and often from afar, for both supply and disposal of materials. The material and energy needs, as well the emissions, congestion and waste production, of an urban area depend on the components of the urban system. One of the major challenges to overcome to achieve sustainable cities is minimising the use of resources and developing a circular model that recovers local waste closely in line with the needs of the local economy.

Owing to the density and proximity of the population and businesses, the urban system is a resource‑efficient one that brings benefits such as reduced commuting distances, a smaller spatial footprint, optimisation of infrastructure and increased innovation. It allows economies of scale in citizen-oriented services (utilities) such as collective transport, power, water and sanitation services, waste management and district heating. There is no conflict between better resource efficiency and quality of life. Green open spaces, which bring considerable health benefits, can be preserved, and even developed, in densely populated urban areas. Achieving resource efficiency and urban sustainability not only have benefits for the well‑being of the population but also significantly reinforce its prosperity.

The potential to reduce urban flows depends not only on urban management and planning but also on factors such as compactness, urban morphology and urban form. These factors significantly shape resource use, not just because they determine the way the population moves and lives but also because they define the need for maintenance, in particular the rate of deterioration of buildings and roads, and the quality of and way in which services are provided. Badly planned cities can be a permanent drain on resources.

A city has to continuously maintain its existing building stock and infrastructure. Even if the urban structure cannot be easily changed, the 'grey infrastructure' may be effectively managed and retrofitted to enhance its performance. Utility suppliers, urban managers and planners, and local governments can develop integrated urban strategies and resource-oriented policies. Action to improve resource efficiency can be taken on different spatial and temporal scales. The optimisation of urban cycles starts at the building unit, as that is where most urban resources are consumed, followed by the urban block, the district and the city. To achieve the greatest benefits, it is important to manage each resource on its optimal scale (Agudelo‑Vera et al., 2011).

It is important to avoid conflict between policies when managing and planning urban areas to achieve resource-efficiency. Each policy needs to be developed on the appropriate spatial scale (district, city, neighbourhood, region) and in a way that avoids conflict when different scales are addressed at the same time. Policies have to consider the whole system and the its interactions and remain goal oriented in the long term, even in the event of political change. Cities are embedded within larger scale engineered infrastructures (e.g. electric power, water supply and transport networks) that convey natural resources (directly or in the form of transformed resources) to people in cities, often from afar. In this context, urban sustainability depends upon complex and cross-scale interactions between the natural system, the engineered infrastructure and the individuals and institutions that govern these infrastructures (Ramaswami et al., 2012). As cities have a strong relationship with, and rely on, their hinterland, they cannot act alone. However, they can exercise leadership, thereby triggering a process of change beyond the administrative limits of the city.

Finally, there is no conflict between policies to enhance the quality of urban life and those to achieve resource efficiency. Urban management, design and planning can preserve the health and well‑being of all the city's inhabitants and users — such as commuters coming to work or to study, regular and occasional users of urban services (hospital, administration, culture, shopping, etc.), tourists, businesses — and at the same time improve resource efficiency. Generally, there is complementarity between the goals. For example, developing public transport makes daily life easier for the city's residents and at the same reduces fossil fuel consumption. A compact city does not mean no green spaces but better designed and more conveniently located green spaces.

Resource efficiency as a step towards urban sustainability
To achieve resource‑efficient cities, the challenge is to simultaneously transform the interdependent components of the urban system (see Figure 1.1):

  • Society gives the city its character through its behaviour, lifestyles and values. Governance and the policy-making process determines the ability to implement efficient integrated urban planning and to design a vision for the future.
  • The 'grey' infrastructure system (roads, metro, railways, buildings, utilities) determines the spatial extent of the city and the urban pattern (urban form, density, design). It shapes how people live, work and move about. The current expansion and 'engineering' of urban areas results in misuse of resources through soil sealing, fragmentation of natural systems, and encouraging increased mobility and the associated pollution and energy and material consumption, (OECD, 2012b).
  • The 'green infrastructure' system, i.e. the green areas inside and around cities (green roof, green walls, urban parks, private gardens, etc.), brings social, ecological and economic benefits to the urban population, such as air filtration, temperature regulation, flood protection and recreational areas (EC, 2013a).

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