A daily bulletin of news & opinion

6 November 2010

Imagine a city where everyone lives next to a park, where people cycle to work on safe bike routes or hop on to convenient trams if it’s raining, where the air is clean and the traffic noise is, if not absent, at least under control. Two small European cities, one in northern Spain, the other in western France, believe they are the greenest cities in Europe – and Europe appears to agree.

Vitoria-Gasteiz and Nantes have been named as Europe’s Green Capitals for 2012 and 2013, following a conference held recently in Stockholm (itself a former European Green Capital).

What makes a Green Capital? Vitoria-Gasteiz and Nantes are both old industrial cities that still manage to give their inhabitants access to green areas. They have made considerable investments in public transport, urban development and bike routes. The Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, with a population of 240,000, currently has 97km of cycle lanes and another 60km are planned. Nantes, home to 285,000 inhabitants, was the first city in France to successfully re-introduce electric tramways, and investments in new ones are on the way. There are also other schemes, such as car-sharing, car-pooling and rental bicycles, in place.

The Green Capital jury also pays attention to local contribution to global climate change, quality of air, water consumption, waste management and sustainable land use.

Although there are laws in place, the most ambitious green city projects happen on a voluntary basis. The will to change is a vital factor in succeeding. Letting go of suspicions and prejudice between the private and public sectors is also crucial.

“Public-private partnerships are important,” said Mercedes Bresson, president of the Committee of the Regions of the EU, when she spoke at the conference. “You need a good business plan, and companies have expertise.”

Hamburg, which will hold the crown in 2011, is a case in point: due to a voluntary scheme, 62,000 tons of CO2 emissions are avoided annually, in addition to reductions in water and chemical usage and waste production.

When the applications for the award first started coming in, 35 cities, covering 17 countries, applied and showcased their progress. This time, there were 17 applicants.

The recent economic crisis appears to have diminished the enthusiasm for environmental investments and projects. As a motivation, in addition to cleaner air and more parks, environmental leadership also means good PR. As Janez Potocnic, European Commissioner for the Environment, pointed out, “It is a rightful source of pride – and pride and prestige are valuable assets for any city.”


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