Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities

Confronted with tumultuous weather patterns, global warming, and the end of oil looming in the not so distant future, the United States’ interest in sustainable urban design has begun to take hold. Dr. Timothy Beatley, a professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at University of Virginia, has been emphasizing the importance of creating greener communities for nearly two decades. His book, Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities researched the enormous strides many European countries have made toward the formation of more environmentally conscious urban development.

Now, thirteen years later, Beatley has edited another book (Green Cities of Europe) praising the innovation and astounding successes of the environmental movement in most European cities during the past few decades. This book is a compilation of case studies written by planners and local experts in some of Europe’s most innovative cities. Beatley hopes that politicians, planners, architects and activists in the United States will draw inspiration from the progress Europe has made to create a more environmentally just world.

In Beatley’s introduction, he objectively defines the question, “Why study European Cities?” He outlines six key components of sustainable design that has launched Europe years ahead of the rest of the world. Beatley believes the most important step is a shift in mindset. Times of economic hardship have lead many Americans to question the so-called ideal of “The American Dream”, defined by economic growth, personal wealth and complete independence. These traits have led to plundering the earth for resources and a complete disregard for future generations. Beatley believes a shift in mentality toward the new “European Dream” that emphasizes quality of life, sustainability and interdependence as the first key steps toward green urbanism. European cities take pride in the implementation of sustainable design practices, and cities that achieve high environmental standards are recognized and awards are given. (For example, Freiburg, Germany received the IMCL City of Vision Award in 1993 for their commitment to principles of livability and sustainability in all planning and urban design issues.)

European innovations in sustainable mobility, walkability and bicycle infrastructure have been remarkable in the past few decades. High-speed rail systems, and comprehensive public transit systems are prominent and well utilized. The number of bike paths has multiplied ten fold in the past few years, and many streets in city centers have become pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares. Cities such as Freiburg, Vienna, and Copenhagen have placed strong limitations on automotive traffic within the cities, at certain times restricting access all together.

Along with transit infrastructure, Beatley discusses the importance European cities place on easy access to green spaces and nature as an integral part of not only sustainable design, but also the emotional well being of many residents. In Stockholm alone, there are estimated to be over 1,000 urban parks and three large nature reserves, occupying nearly 40% of the land within the city.

Finally, Beatley reviews energy policy ideals that have become a necessary component in all European development policies. Switching to renewables has been at the forefront of all recent political campaigns and master plans for European cities. Policy makers are all aware of the need to move rapidly toward the development of a more sustainable energy source before the end of oil, and before global warming has catastrophic effects on the globe.

Green Cities of Europe contains case studies of exemplary models of sustainability in urban design. Each chapter is written by an expert from that city and contains unique insights into that city’s challenges and how they have addressed the problem. For example, in the case of Venice, Italy (written by Marta Moretti, deputy director of the International Center Cities on Water) Venice faces complicated issues of balancing historic preservation, new sustainable design, and destruction of existing structures due to periodic flooding. Planners have faced these issues head on, creating a “Strategic Plan” that encompasses all facets of what a truly sustainable city should be, and the city is well on their way to meeting these challenges.

Freiburg, Germany faced different challenges than Venice, but has been transformed into a truly sustainable city. Wulf Daseking, Freiburg’s Head of Urban Planning and Dale Medearis, Sr. Environmental Planner with the N. Virginia Regional Commission recount how, during World War 2, Freiburg was heavily bombed, destroying much of the medieval city. Reconstruction afforded incredible opportunities: rather than opting for “modern city planning”, Freiburg chose to maintain the old city’s human scale and mix of uses, and emphasized its walkability by making the whole historic city a pedestrian zone. To accommodate a vast increase in population, Freiburg rejected “suburbanization” and chose instead to focus on in-fill development and compact growth in new complete, mixed-use urban neighborhoods. Freiburg’s commitment to sustainable transport has created one of the best multi-modal transit systems in the world.

Readers may discover that some of these cities have faced ecological challenges more destructive than those faced by their own city, and have sometimes had to take extreme measures to overcome them. By making a conscious decision to achieve a livable, sustainable city, they have supported innovative solutions for solving the problems. This is essential reading for all those concerned with urban sustainability.