The project “Green Cities” funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the UNDP in Belarus in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection has arranged a study tour to Freiburg (Germany) and Strasbourg (France) to introduce the key project partners to the European good practices in green urban planning.
Vera Sysoyeva, the project’s consultant on green urban development and Ivan Filiutsich, consultant on energy efficiency share their impressions.
Vera: The tour
was arranged by ICLEI Europe (“Local Governments for Sustainability”), located in Freiburg. This city can be
called the informal capital of sustainable development in Europe. For many years, this city has been implementing
a number of conscious and evidence-based urban development initiatives with a focus on the environment.
The city is developing very fast in the context of no backbone enterprises operating in the city. The development is boosted by knowledge-intensive organizations, where students make up 30,000 of the total 190,000 population. This is complimented by renewable energy sources and innovative technologies. This city has a high quality of life, property prices are rising since the city has become attractive to Germans themselves wishing to come here from different regions of the country.
Ivan: When we selected cities to visit during the study tour, we wanted to focus on small and medium-sized cities that are the core of our project, and Freiburg matched this concept well. A thorough program prepared by ICLEI got us to see everything we wanted to. One should understand that when we talk about sustainable urban development, it is not only about energy saving and transport, it consists of a large bunch of different aspects of urban planning.
The main focus was on Freiburg, but we wanted the participants to get to know the experience of several cities located in different countries. In Strasbourg, the most interesting element was to get to know logistics system and handling of transport problems. Here, an interesting project has been implemented to connect Germany and France with the help of a tram-train line.
Vera: This study tour was participated by the specialists who we would like to view as the allies of the Green Cities project in Belarus, including representatives of local authorities involved in development and coordination of urban development plans, the Department for Energy Efficiency, leadership of the utilities located both in our pilot cities and other cities of the country where there is ongoing work on sustainable development.
Ivan: In addition, we also invited representatives of the business sector interested in sustainable urban development. The study tour was participated by the specialists from IT companies specializing in development of smart urban solutions. In addition, the list of participants also included the employees of Minskgrazhdanproekt and Belarusian architects involved in the design of new modern residential blocks.
Vera: We immediately noticed that there are no special institutions promoting green urban development in Europe. The existing practices of strategic planning and development simply focus on combating climate change and increasing urban resilience to environmental challenges. A comprehensive and integrated approach to design (as they call it) provides that the core element of urban development is environmental challenges.
For illustration purposes, the transport sector is accountable not for the volumes of haulage but for reductions in harmful emissions.
Ivan: Since we are talking about transport, both in Freiburg and Strasbourg, there is an explicit modality change:
today a priority is placed on three modes of transport?—?public transport (trams and buses), as well as cycling and pedestrian flows. At present in these cities, individual transport makes up no more than 20–30% of the whole traffic flow.
And this is a result of the comprehensive urban space planning, the integrated approach to urban development, where a place of residence, work, recreation, shopping, etc. have rather compact locations, in a 1–2 km walking distance.
Vera: It is quite interesting to note that only 20 years ago they had the same transport situation as we do now. But over this time of gradual movement forward they reached their today’s result.
Today, their generation of thirty-year-olds almost has no individual automobiles. They do not need them.
Ivan: Locals shared their personal stories explaining why they do not own cars. Firstly, it is quite expensive considering taxes, fuel and parking costs. Secondly, development of car-sharing leads to no need to support a car to make one or two trips a week. Using a special application, one can instantly get access to the nearest car-sharing site. And this service is affordable. Thirdly, cycling infrastructure is easily accessible.
The cost of bicycle rental is 1 euro a day! Sidewalks are absolutely everywhere supplemented with bicycle lanes.
Vera: We are shown a picture?—?it shows the square where we are now standing before its reconstruction: three one-way traffic lanes, a narrow sidewalk, noise, exhaust fumes. Today, it is a walking street with cycling lanes, tramway and fountains. And only recently there was busy and noisy traffic here and as locals say it was impossible to open a window.
Ivan: This city has a very interesting way to address living space challenges. We visited two districts, one of which is former military barracks which were completely renovated whereas the second one was built on the site of former water treatment facilities. Green areas, low-rise buildings?—?a new approach is used here to organize living space. This includes a “car-free” space where pedestrians and cyclists have an absolute priority. A new European approach is also used here leading to equality in residential environments as private houses neighbor on social buildings, there is no division into blocks for the poor or the rich.
Besides, everything is arranged in a way that wealthy people do not feel that they lose their status, but on the contrary, less well off people do not feel disadvantaged.
This urban model impacts greatly the behavior of people. This is what we call modern sharing economy. 80% of people live in rented accommodation. Most people in their thirties and under do not own their cars. People are extremely mobile?—?any moment they can take a bicycle and rent a car. A new job is found, they move immediately.
People are not bound anymore to some material anchors, such as their own house, apartment, car, but, on the contrary, try to be most mobile. And the urban environment itself leads to it.
This does not mean that this model was created deliberately and is now being promoted massively, but in the present local contexts, people themselves begin to consciously adhere to this way of life. And this is a growing pan-European and global trend.
Vera: But we must understand that the generation is changing, and we need to see the prospects, to foresee the direction development can move toward.
It was interesting to observe the participants of our tour, their evolution. We brought people with conventional views, with some skepticism, saying, “Well, what will you teach us here?”. But by the end of the tour we noticed that a certain result had been achieved. I think car adherents were convinced that a bike ride in some places will not deteriorate, but improve the quality of life (laughs).
Ivan: The main challenge to be faced by the Belarusian cities committed to this path of development certainly includes different financial constraints of municipalities. We saw an innovative multi-story apartment building the reconstruction of which cost over 10 million Euros. This equals to a budget of about one Belarusian district. Therefore, of course, in our context this transformation is quite expensive. But when the local government makes a decision to move towards this direction, get things changed in 30 years, it will not cost so expensive. Europe gives a priority to “long-run” strategies. And then it is not a too heavy burden on local budgets and taxpayers.
Not least important is that such solutions should be demanded by the population. Construction of bicycle lanes is useless when an individual is used to driving his/her 5-liter jeep to get to a bakery.
In Freiburg, we were given an interesting example of how people’s behavior changes. They built a cycling bridge and installed a board on the bridge estimating the number of cyclists passing the bridge a day. And when an individual cycles and sees that he is already the 15 thousandth, there is no need to persuade him/her anymore. Roughly speaking, this board costs about 500 US dollars. But its efficiency costs a lot.
Vera: There is such a slogan?—?“think globally, act locally”. It was useful that many of our specialists, including those from utilities, saw that there are approaches to be easily implemented even with a limited budget. For example, we saw wonderful green areas between two blocks where landscaping is done by the hands of the inhabitants. For example, ponds which are designed to collect rainwater to reduce the sewage load.
Ivan: There, people living in a particular block, in a particular block of flats are free to choose what they would like to see in their adjacent area. This is somehow similar to our associations of homeowners, but the degree of influence is completely different.
Another topic that I would like to discuss is renewable energy sources. Almost all municipal buildings have solar panels. Moreover, they are already moving away from the measures to support renewable energy which at present is almost everywhere a profit-making initiative. And the companies operating solar installations are not committed to selling energy to the grid, but to meet their own needs.
In Germany, a large number of small, medium and large installations are currently in operation, and the challenge is how to integrate these hundreds of thousands of installations into a single network that will work a reliable way.
The main priority at present is a roll-out of smart grid technology, or even micro grid technology, i.e. they want to get in the situation where almost every house, office building will be a stand alone energy system.