The Challenges of Green Urbanism

At times, the descriptions of these selected European cities may seem excessively optimistic—these are clearly cities making impressive strides and moving significantly in the direction of more sustainable futures. Even for the most holistic and forw a rd-thinking of the lot, however, implementing the ideas of green urbanism raises serious challenges and dilemmas. These cities, despite their tremendous accomplishments, are not perfect examples of sustainable places, but struggle with difficult conflicts and trade-offs. A number of these dilemmas have emerged from the case studies and are instructive for other cities pursuing urban sustainability.

Several dilemmas arise from the objective of promoting dense, compact development patterns. Although most of the case cities examined have managed to protect extensive parks and open spaces, compact development policies do often result in the gradual loss of vacant green areas within the cities.

Compact growth policies in cities like Amsterdam have indeed resulted in the loss of some neighborhood greenspaces. A report by the Amsterdam Physical Planning Department talks about these negative impacts on green-space (City of Amsterdam, 1994, p. 156):

In the past few years Amsterdam's compact-city policies have led to a more intensive use of land, the expansion and compaction of the city have largely been carried out on open space in the city districts. Sports fields have been rezoned for housing purposes, for example in Geuzenveld, and parks and gardens have also been used, often small plots left over from the days of the General Extension Plan. The urban designers and physical planners at the Physical Planning Department proved unable to redirect the powerful thrust of these policies. The value of this green space for the city as a whole was ignored.

And, in cities such as Amsterdam, although the per-capita greenspace available is considerable (estimated in Amsterdam at 14 square meters per person on average), this space is unevenly distributed across the city. In many of the older areas of cities, greenspace and nature are not prominent features; many of these urban spaces, delightful for other reasons, are admittedly quite gray.

Numerous specific examples of this conflict between compactness and urban greenspace arise from the cases. One example, the Ijburg project in Amsterdam, represents to many in the Dutch environmental community an unfortunate loss of aquatic habitat (although its ecological value appears debatable, and Amsterdam officials argue the project is necessary to accommodate new housing in close proximity to the urban center). Other cities in the study have faced similar trade-offs.

Another challenge also arising from the desire to develop in a denser, more land-efficient pattern emerges with respect to the aesthetic and liv-ability qualities of the resulting housing. A number of the larger projects visited (e.g., Rieselfeld in Freiburg and GWL-terrein in Amsterdam) involve large, high-bulk housing blocks, with less than inspirational architectural qualities. Although admittedly subjective (and admittedly premature in the sense that a number of these projects have yet to be finished), the architectural and building qualities of these places are somewhat cold and harsh. This creates a strong challenge to design new dense housing and living environments that are human-scale, enjoyable places to live—as aesthetically uplifting as they are energy- and environment-conserving.

The same might be said for many of the public spaces designed as part of new developments. They almost always fail to live up to the plazas, pleins, and civic spaces of the older city. A related question is whether it is truly possible to create new settlement quarters (e.g., Almere and Houten in the Netherlands) that have all of the human qualities of place that older European cities have. One of the most impressive qualities of many Euro p e a n cities is the organic nature of their development: they have grown, developed, and changed incrementally over many years, and the current environment is the cumulative result of this organic growth. Much of the current approach to building re p resents large-scale new neighborhoods and communities, and although this undoubtedly has many economic and sustainability advantages

(e.g., the ability to extend public transit), the result is often less than ideal visually and socially. The policy ramifications of this issue are not clear, but the issue does lend further support for eff o rts to infill, to redevelop sensitivity, and to encourage adaptive reuse—all strategies undertaken to various d e g rees by the study cities. And, it further strengthens the importance of incorporating green features into any future development projects.

Despite these dilemmas and challenges presented by compactness, many of these cities demonstrate creative balancing of public goals. An important observation is that many of the European cities studied and visited are (and have managed to remain) amazingly green. The Scandinavian cities especially have a high green quotient, and at the same time they are highly dense. Other impressive green and dense cities include Berlin and Freiburg, among others. This "greenness" is a function of the presence of trees and vegetation, green vacant land, and the close proximity of cities to a large (protected) natural landscape and surrounding natural topographic features (e.g., lakes and seas). Many of these cities have worked hard to protect this ecological capital, while also growing compactly.

One important response to the gradual loss of greenspaces within cities (in addition to protecting a certain green structure that should at some point be considered untouchable) is to actively "green" existing areas of the built environment, as we have seen in many creative examples in the European cities. This includes tree planting, greenroofs, green walls, taking up impervious surfaces, and many of the other greening strategies that have already been in use in a number of the cities studied. These are essential design and planning ingredients, and a necessary companion to compact land development policies.

Certain other environmental goals may come into conflict with developing in a more compact way. Compactness may suggest the need, for example, for building in close proximity to highways (which raises noise problems) or near airports (or other land use uses, which raises public safety issues), or near former industrial sites (which raises questions of exposure of the public to environmental risks, such as contaminated soil). Cities are presented with trade-offs between growing outwardly and growing in ways that support a more sustainable urban form but that raise other concerns about environmental and social risks.

Some creative ways for resolving these dilemmas can be seen in the cities studied. The Netherlands is experimenting with a flexible environmental s t an d a rdssystem, under its stad en milieu (city and the environment) initiative. Under this program, selected cities around the country are allowed the flexibility at particular sites to supersede certain environmental regulations (such as noise) in order to allow development projects with strong mitiga-tive features to move forw a rd where a strict interpretation of national stand a rds would otherwise prevent them. For example, the CiBoGa project in

G roningen, a former industrial site, is being allowed to move forw a rd with a less-costly soil remediation plan (one-third of the soil will be removed and the rest will remain on site with high containment). Most of the planners and public officials interviewed felt this new flexibility was badly needed, and at the same time would not put the public at any substantial risk.

There are also clearly opportunities to increase density while at the same time enhancing the environmental qualities and overall livability of an area. Amsterdam is attempting to do this in several places. In one area, the city is simultaneously adding housing density while also converting a straight (unnatural) canal into a bending, greener ecological waterway. In the Bijlmermeer area of the city, plans have been developed to provide substantial infill housing and to at the same time "green" the area (e.g., through the creation of green corridors, tree planting). Berlin has been pursuing a similar strategy to green its large housing blocks as a way of enhancing the natural environment and the quality of living environments.

Amsterdam has also made creative use of, for example, an environmental matrix, which helps to sort out these site-specific tradeoffs (see Groot, 1997; Groot and Vermeulen, 1997). Having a strong set of mitigation standards seems to be another important response to this issue. Berlin has such a system under its landscape protection program. Loss of green areas requires extensive compensating actions, including requirements for extensive tree planting (and a system for allocating these trees across the different districts of the city; see City of Berlin, 1996).

It is also important to recognize that there are indeed significant challenges to urban sustainability even in the most progressive, eco-minded cities profiled here. Deconcentration of growth—albeit in a fundamentally more concentrated form than in the United States—remains a serious force and trend, and the accompanying rise in auto usage and dependence are troubling. Car ownership has grown a whopping 40 percent in the United Kingdom since 1980, for example, and car usage in the Netherlands, as noted earlier, is predicted to grow by 70 percent (from 1986 to 2010). These hardly sound like sustainable trends.

Indeed, even in cities that have managed to create, maintain, and strengthen a compact, walkable urban form, there are powerful political forces working in opposite directions. A recent controversy in Groningen, for example, has thrown into question the city's commitment to keeping the automobile out of the city-center. Specifically, there is a proposal in the works in which Vroom and Dreesmann (V&D), a large Dutch department store, is willing to move to the north end of the Grote Markt, substantially renovating a deteriorating building and thus perhaps serving as a catalyst for other private investments in the area. However, V&D wants, as a condition of doing this, to have the city build a parking garage under the Grote Markt. There is considerable opposition to this move, but it is believed that the city will eventually agree to some version of it, accepting more cars in the city-center than desired. Car-ownership growth in Edinburgh, the fastest growth rate in the United Kingdom, was an amazing 57 percent in the decade of 1981 to 1991 (Johnstone, 1998). While this city is doing many positive things, including building a car-free housing estate, there are many forces working against sustainable mobility.

Although many European cities have pursued and are pursuing compact growth policies, and countries such as the Netherlands have adopted a national compact cities policy, there is still an active European debate about the merits and virtues of compact development. Breheny (1997), in reviewing the United Kingdom's plans to divert a significant amount of future growth to brownfield or vacant urban sites, raises several questions about its feasibility and social acceptability. Concerning feasibility, he cites the current demographic and market forces that are pushing in the opposite direction.1 He also sites survey data suggesting that housing consumers are—like Americans—mostly looking for single-family homes with gardens and space. "Generally, marketing surveys carried out by housebuilders reveal a strong preference for houses with gardens and as much space in both as possible" (p. 213)

Breheny also cites data that suggest higher rates of "satisfaction" among rural residents compared to "urban" residents and an inverse relationship between density and satisfaction (although, it might be added, the satisfaction rates for urban/city-center locations are not especially low). "The compaction logic implies a need to switch from low-density houses to higher-density houses and particularly flats, but the attitude survey suggests that people overwhelmingly prefer houses" (Breheny, 1997, p. 214). Breheny concludes that the proponents of compact cities, at least in the United Kingdom, may face serious obstacles, not unlike many confronted in the United States: "There is it seems a direct conflict between the dedicated compactionists, who promote the virtues of high-density urban living, and humble consumers, who have consistently voted for the opposite, still expressing a preference for decentralized, spacious living" (Breheny, 1997, p. 215; see also Janks, Williams, and Burton, 1996).

Even in countries such as the Netherlands, there is the growing recognition that the city either must adjust its future development decisions to better respond to the wishes and demands of residents or continue to witness the exodus of residents who can find such housing elsewhere. This adjustment in thinking can certainly be seen in some recent development projects, where the type and density of housing is adapted to reflect market condi-tions.2 While Europeans are generally more willing to live in denser, compact neighborhoods, many of these cities still face the challenge of balancing compactness with the desire of housing consumers for more space.

Another significant dilemma involves the overall consumption patterns

Table 13.1. Overview of Environmental Space, Actual Consumption and Targets for 2010 for the European Union


Present use Environmental


Target 2010

Target 2010

CO2 emissions1






Primary energy use






Fossil fuels


















Nonrenewable raw








Pig iron


















Land use (EU12)


0.64 ha














New import of






agricultural land

"Unused" agricultural



Unprotected woodland






Protected area






Urban area


















1 Present use for Europe-NIS, environmental space and target for Europe.

2 Present use for EU12, environmental space and target for Europe.

4 The environmental space of water cannot be calculated on a European level.

of the residents of European cities, and the fact that trends at this level may cancel out many of the impressive strides of municipal governments. As Table 13.1 notes, European countries use much more than their fair share of the world's resources (although substantially less than the United States does). And although great strides are being made to promote sustainable architecture and design, and more aggressive energy and waste reduction policies have been adopted, for example, European consumers are simply consuming and using more. Even in these countries (and cities), where concern and awareness about the environment are relatively high, consumption is excessive. More, then, is required, and consumers and producers within cities must be challenged and motivated to do more to curtail consumption and waste.

In cities such as London, there is a special dilemma about whether and how to mitigate its tremendous ecological impacts nationally and interna-

tionally. In London, a city that represents a tremendous economic engine, what responsibility the city must assume for the ecological footprint of these activities is a serious issue. The Sustainable London Trust recognizes the immensity of the challenge. Two specific examples are London's role as an international banking center and the resource needs generated by the growing air traffic at Heathrow Airport. In the words of the Trust:

Then, what about the city's trading and financial activities: How do these affect the living conditions of other people or the health of ecosystems world-wide? For instance, when a banker makes a loan to a foreign business, his decisions have far-reaching repercussions. If London is to become a sustainable city, we have to examine these effects: how can we ensure that landowners and their institutions play a life-enhancing, not life-destroying, role in the world? (Sustainable London Trust, 1997, p. 5)

The London Energy Study found that some 15 percent of London's energy consumption is accounted for by the fuel consumption of air traffic going in and out of the city. Fuel consumption from air traffic has been rising in recent years, from 950,000 tonnes to more than 3 million tonnes (between 1965 and 1991). It is not clear who should be assigned the moral responsibility for this consumption (e.g., airlines or air travelers), but the responsibility arguably is London's in the sense that it is a key element of the local economy strongly influenced by local decisions and policy (e.g., the issue of whether to build a new terminal at Heathrow, which is currently under debate).

The impressive methodological work done in calculating the ecological footprint of city residents, or the environmental space consumed by them, f u rther complicates the dilemma of high consumption and re s o u rc use. As these methods effectively show, there are many "hidden" costs associated with high consumption, in that the environmental impacts and depletion implications are felt many miles away. As Folke et al. (1997, p. 171) correctly observe: "One cannot talk about sustainable cities if the ecological re s o u rc base on which they depend is excluded from analysis and policy." Reductions in re s o u rce demands and waste generation are one needed response, but also raised is the possibility of making "unhidden" these cross-boundary connections and impacts. European cities could begin to exercise greater control over, and interest in, the methods and practices used to provide their re s o u rceneeds (for example, London imports some 1.2 million tonnes of timber; arrangements could be bro k e red to encourage or require the provision of these inputs from sustainably harvested forests; Sustainable London Trust, 1997).

Despite these serious challenges and dilemmas, the accomplishments of the very best of these green-urban, or sustainable, European cities are undeniable and impressive. It is hard to find (or imagine) examples that come closer to the ideals expounded in contemporary planning and environmental circles. The fact that even these most exemplary cities may not be truly or fully sustainable—or meet the green-urban conditions outlined in the beginning of this book—should not diminish the value of their experiences. The lessons are considerable. These cities have substantially and seriously reduced their ecological footprints and have shown without a doubt that cities are as much a necessary part of the solution to our environmental predicament as a cause of it. And, despite the obstacles faced along the way, these cities offer tremendous insights and inspiration. Cities such as Leicester, Albertslund, and Freiburg demonstrate that through comprehensive, forward-looking policies and investments, it is possible to create highly livable places, places where community is strengthened, places where land and resources are used sparingly, and places where long-term benefits more than outweigh the short-term costs of programs, policies, and actions. Perhaps most importantly, these cities illustrate the power and potential of re-conceptualizing cities as places of nature, connected to nature (in both direct and indirect ways), where the natural environment becomes more than an afterthought. It becomes, rather, a central organizing theme.

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