Low level of ambition for EU ‘green cities’ strategy

A new Commission strategy to make urban areas greener focuses on better implementation of existing EU environmental policies but proposes little in terms of new initiatives.

The Commission unveiled on 13 January a strategy to make European cities greener. The strategy’s stated goal is “to facilitate better implementation of EU environmental policies and legislation at the local level through exchange of experience and good practice between Europe’s local authorities”.

The strategy’s main novelty is that it allows the use of cohesion funds to support investments that improve the quality of the urban environment. 

Other than that, the Commission said it will offer guidance on urban management and urban transport plans, based on cities’ experiences, expert views and research. It proposes setting up an internet portal for local authorities on the Europa website to encourage exchange of best practices. Training will also be offered to local authorities so that they can learn from each other.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said it regrets that the Commission has not come forward with new legislative proposals. "The Commission has shied away from more far-reaching plans for EU directives," says EEB Policy Officer Kerstin Meyer. "The Strategy basically leaves it up to the member states and cities themselves to improve their environmental performance. This voluntary approach has not worked in the past. This is why most cities are still facing enormous problems with urban sprawl, congestion, air and noise pollution, derelict land and generation of waste and waste-water."  

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) praised the Commission "for giving a strong emphasis on subsidiarity in its strategy". "Each municipality knows best how to improve its own urban environment, this is why we needed this "bottom-up" approach", said CEMPR secretary general Jeremy Smith. CEMR indicated that it opposed the binding legislative measures initially foreseen under the strategy. However, it criticised the strategy for lacking a political dimension. "Without political support - in particular at local level, it could have only a limited impact," says Smith.

Mounting heaps of waste, traffic congestion, urban sprawl and poor air quality are considered the biggest environmental challenges faced by EU cities today. However, the Commission notes that these issues are already dealt with by specific EU legislation or are covered under separate EU thematic strategies on the environment. There are seven such strategies, including: 

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