European countries including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium have become renowned in recent years for their progressive environmental planning policies which have helped to create some of the world’s most attractive and livable cities. It is therefore no accident that European cities including Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva and Bern frequently dominate the top 10 in the global quality of life surveys.
These cities offer vibrant and walkable city centres combined with networks of attractive parks and greenspaces. In addition, European cities are also at frequently the forefront of transition towards a low carbon economy through modern, efficient public transport systems, energy efficient housing and innovative design.
The holistic and sustainable approach to urban planning puts green network thinking firmly at the forefront of planning policy and manages to successfully integrate a diverse range of environmental themes including sustainable transport, place-making, urban regeneration, locally sourced produce, urban trees and forestry, recreation and nature conservation. These themes are explored further with some successful examples of green city thinking from European cities;
The integration of public transport is one of the key factors behind the success of many European cities. Nowhere does this best to my mind than the city of Karlsruhe in Baden Wurtenburg where an extensive network of “tram-trains” serves the City and the surrounding countryside. The scale of what has been achieved in Karlsruhe is quite breathtaking with over 10 lines, accounting for over 400km of track, serving the whole city-region and even extending deep into adjacent the Black Forest. The tram lines in the city often take the form of green grassy corridors which provide wider environmental functions and help to reduce the urban heat island effects.
In Edinburgh, where I worked previously, the creation of the City’s tram project has been the source of bitter controversy, contractual disputes and budget overspend since the start of construction a few years ago. The scaled down Edinburgh project involving the creation of one 13km line from the airport to St Andrews Square is costing the tax payer an estimated £776 million. I am amazed as to how a relatively small city like Karlsruhe can develop such a superb integrated transport network whilst the much higher profile Edinburgh project has struggled to get off the ground amidst a plethora of organisational failures, public opposition and political recriminations; to be fair to Edinburgh though, Karlsruhe has been gradually developing its network for the past 50 years or so.
Still not satisfied with having a seemingly perfect transportation system, Karlsruhe is now going a step further and is busily digging up its main shopping street to bury the central axis of the tram system underground. Although this scheme is not without its own critics, the difference here on the Continent is the scale of ambition in terms of investing in new transport infrastructure. The result for Karlsruhe will be virtually traffic free streets in the town centre in future years, making the City an attractive place to live and invest in.
In Aachen, the City where I currently live, there has been a heated tram debate going on for the last few years. Like many other cities, Aachen scrapped its tram network many years ago and has recently been formulating proposals to construct a new “Campusbahn”. This would aim to create a new line linking the City Centre with the University, residential districts and the prestigious new research campus currently being constructed around the University Teaching Hospital to the West of the City.
The scheme won the support of the majority of local political parties in Aachen and it was envisaged the project would attract a high level of external funding (based on achieving projected passenger targets). The indicative cost of the Campusbahn was €240 million of which the City of Aachen itself would have had to fund €130 million. There were however concerns that the high cost of the project would put additional financial burdens on already overstretched City spending, as has been the case in Edinburgh. Unlike in Edinburgh however, the people of Aachen were asked to give their opinion at a referendum which was held on 10th of March. The result of this was that 60% were opposed to the scheme and the project will therefore not now go ahead.
There are however many variants on the tram theme which can represent perhaps more cost-effective solutions. One of these is trolley buses which run on conventional streets whilst getting power from overhead cables. A system like this is found in the City of Salzburg with the clear advantage that noise and pollution within the City Centre is reduced without the requirement for costly and disruptive laying of special tracks. The resultant overhead cables can perhaps be somewhat intrusive but you quickly get used to these; similar issues would occur with a tram system anyway.
Whatever the specific transport solution, however (bus, tram or trolleybus), the key point is that transport solutions in European cities are generally integrated and usually gel seamlessly between rail, bus, bike, pedestrian and air systems. This is often not the case in the UK where networks are often uncoordinated or with gaps (try getting to Scottish Airports by rail for example !). In Germany, by contrast, the rail system has been more regarded as a key part of infrastructure and therefore essential for maintaining economic systems; it has consequently been accorded a much higher degree of state investment.
So whilst the UK finally plans to have high-speed rail (HS2) running as far as Leeds and Manchester by 2033, Germany will have already had its ICE network in operation since 1991. There is also a considerable programme of investment in new tracks and station infrastructure including Berlin’s prestigious new showpiece Hauptbahnhof. It’s therefore little wonder then that the UK struggles to compete in Europe with its outdated Victorian rail infrastructure and slow pace of change.
Of course the Germans do like to complain about their rail network; the difference here however is that the train may go slightly later than planned rather than perhaps not at all (though to be fair I was left standing on a station platform in the snow here the other day when no driver appeared). Not everything goes to plan however in Germany; proposals to provide new through-routes for ICE trains under the “Stuttgart 21” project have become embroiled in bitter controversy with pitch battles and ongoing protests from residents and environmentalists about the financial and environmental impacts of the proposed rail routes near the City Centre.
On Your Bike…
In Britain the phrase “on your bike…” is most typically associated with Conservative politician Norman Tebbit who during the Thatcherite 80s urged a whole generation of unemployed Northerners to head South in search of better job prospects. The Europeans however have taken the phase much more literally, with Continental cities taking huge strides toward getting people cycling through provision of a high quality infrastructure including networks of greenways.
Provision of safe off-road routes for bikes is one of the greatest incentives to encourage people to cycle as part of their daily routine. The higher numbers of people using bikes in German and Dutch cities reflects this better infrastructure provision with noticeably more children cycling to school. This starts even from kindergarten age when many parents take their kids to nursery with a bike trailer or child seat whilst pre-school kids cycle along behind under their own steam.
Stop outside any railway station in this part of the world and you’ll literally find hundreds of bikes deposited there for the day by commuters. This is particularly true of the Netherlands where bikes carry no stigma and are very much part of everyday life with even town centre supermarkets selling spare tyres and pannier bags. At main railway stations there are also often good storage facilities for bikes as well as repair outlets where you can get your machine fixed up while you head off to the office. The existence of good infrastructure and safe facilities certainly makes cycling a more inviting option here.
Certain German Cities such as Münster particularly market themselves as being bike-friendly destinations. Wherever you look in Münster, you’ll find racks of bikes and there are even special streets which are only open to cyclists. The City famously has 500,000 bikes (2 bikes for every resident) and a 460km network of cycle routes which includes a car-free ring route around the City centre following the line of the old town walls. It is perhaps no accident that Münster boasts the lowest heart attack rate in Germany indicating significant health benefits. The network of cycle routes extends far out into the surrounding countryside which is famed for its traditional villages and moated strongholds.
In recent years electro-bikes have seriously taken off in Europe and now account for a large proportion of sales. These battery-powered bikes can sprint along at an impressive 45km per hour and can cost you up to €5000. With an electro bike you only pedal when you want to making them a popular choice for the less fit or for elderly folks who find it more difficult to negotiate hills. Whilst I can see many benefits from electro bikes, I can’t help feeling that these do to some extent defeat the purpose of cycling, particularly in terms of health benefits; modern gearing systems don’t make biking such a chore these days anyway.
Green Corridors in the City:
Networks of interconnected greenspaces make European cities attractive places to live and provide multiple benefits both for nature and people within an urban setting. These include public open spaces, river and transport corridors, woodlands, conservation areas, play areas and quiet streets.
Many European cities owe their green infrastructure to fortunate geographical settings whereby settlements developed around natural features such as along river corridors as in the case of Berlin or Dusseldorf. In other cases, changing land use patterns, such as the removal of old city walls, left new corridors for recreational use, as happened in Münster or Maastricht.
These linear routes often complemented networks of more formal public open spaces including city parks and “Kurgartens” which developed in large towns and spa resorts as a result of formal planning, the acquisition of old estate lands and through the philanthropy of wealthy industrialists. In the late 20th Century, the decline of traditional heavy industries also created new opportunities for the development of urban greenspaces, for example, in the Ruhr area or in the shrinking economies of Eastern Germany such as Leipzig.
In recent years the concept of green infrastructure, which integrates these components into one harmonious network, has been gaining ground and has now become widely regarded within planning circles as a key element of urbanism. Although at one time regarded as being mainly of ecological significance, these green networks are now valued for their ability to provide multifunctional benefits to urban populations. These benefits include including green transport, health, informal recreation, environmental education and ecosystem services such as climate regulation, air quality, wildlife habitats and CO2 absorption.
This is now being taken a step further whereby green infrastructure is now becoming a prerequisite for new planned development and city growth areas. This allows both nature and people to thrive and co-exist in new urban communities. Green infrastructure functions not just at a local level but at regional, national and indeed European scale. There are currently programmes right across Europe including in Scotland where considerable progress is being made through the development of the Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN).
Walkable Historic City Centres:
Another feature which often characterises European cities and which distinguishes them from many North American counterparts is the compact nature of their centres which makes them eminently walkable. Following wartime destruction, many German cities have been faithfully restored to their former glory with attractively renovated buildings, market squares, street cafes and streetscapes which seamlessly blend old and new architecture.
European cities also benefit from extensive pedestrianisation which keeps vehicles away from town centres allowing for the development of a bustling street scene complete with buskers, “living statues”, market stalls, fountains, street art and ample opportunities for people to interact. The City of Aachen where I live is a classic example of this, with the Altstadt providing a rambling series of enclosed squares and intimate spaces linked by winding alleyways lined with colourful cafes, specialist shops, bars and eateries. Nearby, in the genteel suburb of Burtscheid, people chat by fountains in traffic free streets, play chess on a giant outdoor chessboard or enjoy a leisurely beer or a coffee on a café terrace.
Contrast this with dull, formulaic layouts of cities dominated by the automobile (e.g. Houston, Atlanta or British New Towns) where vehicle turning circles and traffic circulation patterns have dominated design and have taken precedence over community life, local colour and human interaction. As a result, pedestrians have been banished to narrow strips of tarmac and play a constant game of Russian Roulette dodging in between cars. From my perspective, cities should be lively and dynamic places which are designed for people rather than as a series of disconnected housing estates, soulless shopping malls and drive-in warehouses only be accessed by vehicle. Such mechanistic planning kills interaction, creates social isolation and erodes community life.
Urban Change and Regeneration:
Urban change and regeneration have created great opportunities for creating new open spaces within Cities. Nowhere illustrates this process better than the City of Berlin. The Cold War resulted in the division of the City between East and West through the construction of the Berlin Wall.
The Wall, which was constructed in the early 1960s, left a huge scar through the heart of Berlin and claimed the lives of some 600 people who were killed trying to escape to the West. Following ever more vocal demonstrations, the Wall was finally opened up in 1989 and was eventually destroyed a year or so later following the collapse of the Communist regime.
The demolition of the wall created huge opportunities for urban regeneration with much of the land being turned over to form new public open spaces and prestige projects including the Potsdammer Platz and the Sony Centre. Particularly poignant nearby is the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Monument, designed by Peter Eisenman, is located significantly close to the site of Hitler’s Chancellery Building and was inaugurated in 2004 at a cost of 25 million Euros. The sombre memorial is intended to reflect the orderly and systematic way in which Jewish people were dispatched by the Third Reich, in a world devoid of humanity or reason.
Not far from here and close to Berlin’s iconic Brandenburger Tör, is the City’s new Parliamentary Quarter located by the banks of the River Spree. This dynamic new area provides a good starting point for a walk along the Spree which is served by an excellent riverside walkway and cycle route. This greenway links riverside parks, greenspaces and nature conservation areas and takes people right through the heart of the City. Further along the route, towards the old Communist Party headquarters, you will also encounter lively new cultural quarters with riverside terraces offering bistros, bars and lively nightspots.
Regenerated cultural quarters are not however unique to Berlin and you will find similar bohemian enclaves in many cities including Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Cologne. Significantly, new public spaces in city centres should provide a vibrant setting in which people can meet, chat and interact informally rather than becoming overly sanitized expressions of civic pride with an accompanying list of onerous bylaws. Town centres should be open, dynamic places where people feel happy just to be themselves and where most of the entertainment is spontaneous and authentic.
Locally Produced and Seasonal Produce:
Without a doubt food on the Continent is healthier, fresher and more appetising than you’ll find in the UK. Whilst most Britains are heading down to Tesco to stock up on ready-meals to bung in the microwave, many of our Continental neighbours will be heading out to colourful markets to purchase fresh produce. It’s certainly the case that the ready-meals section in German supermarkets is very small, if completely non-existent. This is probably one of the main reasons why Germans are generally heathier than people in the UK and have a greater life expectancy. There is also considerably more interest in organic produce here with most markets stocking a large percentage of local “bio” and seasonal produce. The markets also bring colour to town centres and a chance for people to meet, chat and relax whilst going about their shopping.
Germans also grow a lot of their own food for themselves with allotment gardens becoming ever more popular, particularly with young families. As you might imagine, German allotment gardens are somewhat of an institution with a whole series of elaborate rules and penalties for wrongdoers who do not keep their garden up to standard. Many allotment areas also feature small summer houses which provide the opportunity for urban dwellers to find their own little green oasis within the City. During the summer months people spend a good percentage of their time simply relaxing in their gardens and food growing is perhaps sometimes not always the no.1 priority.
In recent years there has been a growing interest in establishing community gardens on areas of derelict land in cities with particularly celebrated examples in Berlin. These community gardens function more as small cooperatives for food production; they attract a new dynamic breed of urban gardener who are more likely to be seriously interested in sustainable living rather than in keeping the management committee of the allotment club happy. This progressive trend is also reflected in Berlin’s school gardens which are increasingly becoming regarded as a model for sustainable urban agriculture in addition to educating a whole new generation about where their food comes from through active participation in community growing projects.
Trees in and Around the City:
Continental cities place a high value on urban trees and woodlands. In my native Scotland, urban trees are frequently perceived negatively by residents and Councils and are often considered to be a source of potential property damage, public liability issues or a host of other nuisances ranging from autumn leaf fall through to the harbouring of undesirable pest populations. Consequently in Scotland, street trees are often poorly managed, become subject to vandalism and assume a relatively low profile in terms of incorporation within new developments. This is despite the fact that there is a clear link between urban property values and the existence of quality trees and greenspace.
This is certainly not the case in Germany where most cities take a pride in their urban trees. This may be partly due to climatic factors, as higher summer temperatures create a demand for shade in urban centres. The City of Aachen for example, has some 20,000 street trees and a further 95,000 in parks and greenspaces. This is a pattern seen right across Germany in cities from Berlin to Frankfurt where attractive green streets are very much the established norm.
Species of street trees differ from the UK; although there are also significant numbers of pollution resistant plane trees here you will also find many exotics including Robinia and Turkish hazel. The management and maintenance standards are pretty high with extra precautions being taken to protect trees during new construction or laying of new underground cables. Interestingly here, the preservation of trees sometimes takes precidence over sight-lines at pedestrian crossings. There’s one such crossing just down the road from here, where a strategically placed Turkish Hazel completely blocks out the view of traffic for pedestrians crossing from an adjacent special needs home. This situation which would be unthinkable in the UK and I must admit I would be quite happy to take out this particular tree !
In addition to street trees, parks and greenspaces, many German cities boast extensive areas of urban woodland, known as “stadtwald” which fringe the city. Forests are very much embedded in the German psyche with urban fringe woods in particular being subject to heavy recreational use.
The Aachener Wald close to where we live is a much treasured resource for the people of Aachen with an extensive network of trails branching off in all directions. On a summer evening or weekend the woods buzz with activity including Nordic walking, rambling, jogging, mountain biking and horse riding. The Aachener Wald are also frequently used by school groups and kindergartens from an early age for “Waldtage” or “forest days” whereby groups get out and about into nature. Unlike in Scotland, urban woods are not perceived negatively in Germany as being dangerous or threatening places. Generally people feel safe and secure to use their local forests.
One area however where Scotland definitely takes the lead is in the provision of ranger and environmental education services in urban centres. Just about every Scottish city boasts its own ranger service which provides outdoor education, organised events and conservation activities. This is one area which seems sadly lacking in Germany. As far as I can see there also does not seem to be such a developed concept of conservation volunteering here in Germany as in the UK where groups such as the BTCV have been going for decades.
Perhaps this is because Germans expect local authorities or private owners to undertake such work and therefore do not see a need to get involved. I can’t help feeling though that this is one area where the Germans are missing out when the social, health and environmental benefits of “green” volunteering are clear. Management of woodlands in Germany by local community groups also appears to be relatively unknown concept here (however if anyone knows of good examples I’d be interested to hear about these).
Regenerating Post Industrial Landscapes:
The Germans do however have a great track record when it comes to the regeneration and greening of former industrial areas. The Emscher Landschaft Park in the Ruhrgebiet is perhaps the best known example. The Ruhr is a fascinating place and for a brief period in history was the powerhouse of Europe before the decline of traditional heavy manufacturing industries. Unlike in the UK however, the Ruhr retained many pieces of its old industrial infrastructure including steel plants, foundries and pithead winding gear. These features were left in situ to become open air museums or otherwise were adapted to new functions including concert venues or futuristic art galleries. Meanwhile the surrounding degraded landscapes were often left to renaturalize resulting in the so-called “industriewald” a unique type of woodland found in parts of the Ruhr today where natural regeneration of woodland has occurred without human intervention.
The combination of decaying industrial infrastructure and regenerating forests creates a surreal, almost postapocalyptic landscape reminiscent of abandoned cities close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. This effect is further enhanced at night when theatrical and futuristic lighting of the old industrial complexes creates a dramatic, if somewhat haunting and unsettling scene; it seems that all that’s missing is the music of Jean Michelle Jarre.
On a much smaller scale to the Ruhr, regeneration of the old brown coalfields north of Aachen is taking place under a series of initiatives which include the “Grünmetropole”, a cross border initiative taking in former mining areas of adjoining parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Through this project, colliery sites are being turned into museums, old coal bings are being re-landscaped as view points and new recreation areas and nature conservation sites are being created.
As an example, near the old mining town of Alsdorf an innovative project has resulted in the development of a new country park with a series of dramatic walkways and platforms leading to the top of a re-natured bing providing views out across the evolving post industrial landscape. Nowadays renewable power generation projects in the form of wind turbines, are replacing mine workings as the dominant feature in the landscape. This project is part of a larger economic vision for the Euregio Region which aims to make this cross-border area, a dynamic and competitive location within the heart of Europe.
Sustainable Housing and Communities:
The drive toward a low-carbon economy is also having a major influence on urban design and construction in Germany. The Europeans have really been leading the game as far as developing eco-towns is concerned with some of the most established and successful models being found on the Continent.
One of the best known examples of Eco-city development is Freiburg in South West Germany and its well-known suburb of Vauban with its traffic-free living areas and eco-friendly apartments. This colourful residential area makes use of every conceivable form of renewable energy including passive solar, photovoltaics, ground source heat pumps and biomass boilers. Energy efficiency standards are very high which is particularly pertinent given Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy entirely and move more toward renewables following the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
In addition to providing low energy housing, Vauban perceives itself to be an eco-utopia where owning a car is frowned upon (cars must be kept in peripheral car parks outside the residential zone) and where houses are surrounded by a series of attractive green spaces dominated by play areas, public parks, community allotments and meeting areas. Whilst Vauban is very much the stomping ground of the hardcore eco-purists, it does provide a model of sustainable development which has been copied and replicated in many other eco-town developments internationally. There are great ideas here, backed up by dedication and innovation. Would I actually like to live there myself ? On reflection perhaps not; whilst it might be an interesting experiment to try out, I think I’ve grown up in too much of an individualistic society to cope with being part of such a perfectionist community. An eco-house in the countryside with a bit of space around it; now that might suit me better..
Putting Together the Parts of the Jigsaw:
In terms of providing models for sustainability, there are certainly fantastic examples of urban planning coming out of Europe which are having a significant influence on rapidly developing global economies such as in Asia and Latin America. Despite this, Europe still has a long way to go; in Germany particularly (the country with one of the densest road networks in the World) there is a huge paradox between the German’s determination to invest in a green economy and their continued addiction to car culture where owning a gas-guzzling Mercedes or BMW is still regarded as being the number one symbol of success. Traditional German industry needs to catch up with this fact and to start truly promoting the benefits of a green economy through turning their obvious design innovation and quality standards to the production of new low-carbon products. This is certainly happening in the thriving German renewables sector but needs to become standard, mainstream practice.
Alternatively, perhaps we just have to simply redefine what we mean by development and to start looking at so-called less developed countries like Bhutan where Gross National Happiness is being branded as the new alternative to GDP, an idea starting to catch on with governments around the world. In terms of sustainable development, the parts of the jigsaw are all there and can be drawn from diverse societies around the Globe, including in Europe; we just need to learn now how to put these pieces together more effectively into one coherient package and whilst we still have the time to do so…