Freiburg, a city of roughly 200,000 people in southern Germany, is an example. Beginning in the mid-1980s, under a plan called SolarRegion Freiburg, this city has fostered renewable energy production, enacted tough low-energy standards for new buildings, built out bicycle lanes to all parts of the city, discouraged auto use by mandating parking in a few designated lots, and designed its mass transit patterns to enable even large families to live comfortably without motor vehicles. “Livability is the number one issue here, and the environment or sustainability is second,” says Thomas Dresel, the executive overseeing SolarRegion Freiburg. “The point is to get these things combined, to use the one for the other.”
If we look at some of today’s best examples of sustainable urban planning, we see this combined commitment to livability, sustainability, and patient planning at play, and the lessons learned should be valuable for policymakers in planning for growth in the developing world. The Swedish city of Malmö, with nearly 300,000 residents, for example, has committed itself to pursuing a sustainable urban vision.
Not long ago, it was derisively referred to as “dirty old Malmö,” but that began to change in 1994, when new leadership placed environmental sustainability — and livability — atop the city’s agenda. Today Malmö’s environmental objectives include a 40 percent reduction in energy consumption per capita by 2030 and a 40 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In addition, Malmö plans to rely exclusively on renewable energy by 2030.
Trevor Graham, head of Malmö’s Sustainable Development Unit, says that the city’s success hinged on a fundamental change in perspective. “We shifted the focus from environmental sustainability being about problems and about sacrificing things, to sustainability actually being about creating a better place to live. That became the key driver for progress, and it is very much mainstream now.”
Malmö’s success is a direct result of its strategy to rejuvenate its neighborhoods. One intensive effort turned Western Harbor, a former abandoned and contaminated industrial area, into a neighborhood that is now considered a model of sustainability. Western Harbor is run on 100 percent locally produced renewable energy, and its homes — some of which rely on passive solar energy to replace traditional energy sources — are designed with energy efficiency in mind. Electricity is generated by wind power and photovoltaic cells, and a heat pump recovers energy from seawater. Parks throughout the neighborhood support biodiversity; bikes far outnumber cars.
In Augustenborg, another of Malmö’s neighborhoods, old building facades are covered with external insulation and steel sheeting, helping to control moisture, ventilation, and temperature. Green roofs are constructed with soil and plants to minimize runoff, insulate homes, and increase biodiversity. They also give a unique aesthetic element to the neighborhood and act as added parkland.
New neighborhood schools are constructed with natural materials, and feature high levels of natural lighting, ground source heat pumps, solar thermal panels, and composting toilets. Since 2001, inhabitants have managed a carpool powered by renewable energy. Today, Malmö attracts a stream of policymakers and urban leaders who seek sustainable ideas for their own cities. “Dirty old Malmö” has reinvented itself.
The Freiburg and Malmö examples show that just as the climate change problem was not created overnight, it cannot be fixed overnight. For that reason, successful planners seeking urban sustainability take a long-term view of progress and are prepared to work for green solutions for years to come. Portland, Ore., in the northwestern U.S., also emphasizes a long-term perspective and a focus on neighborhoods in its planning.
With nearly 600,000 inhabitants, Portland has committed to lowering its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. To meet that goal, city planners built the city around neighborhoods in which inhabitants can walk and bike between their homes and essential activities within 20 minutes. Thanks to its comprehensive and cost-effective mass transit system, which integrates light-rail trains, buses, and streetcars into the urban fabric, the growth rate of car use in Portland is among the lowest in the United States.