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| Urban sustainability and Cultural heritage

Putting sustainability into practice is one of the greatest challenges facing Europe’s policy- makers, enterprises and people. Particularly so, the search for win-win solutions in the urban environment, with its wide range of competing stakeholders. Four out of five Europeans live in cities and towns, placing a heavy burden on the built-up environment. Sustainability in this urban setting is a wide field of research made up of complex interactions in the social, economic and environmental spheres.

What’s more, the bulk of Europe’s cultural heritage – symbolised by such things as art, stately buildings and monuments – are also mainly found in cities; where they are exposed, on a daily basis, to the drawbacks of the big town environment: vibration, noise, atmospheric pollution and more.

Research is directed at several aspects of urban life: assessing and implementing sustainable transport systems; the development of technologies for the safe construction, renovation and demolition of buildings in built-up areas; city planning for sustainability and rational resource management; and, lastly, research on the protection, conservation and enhancement of cultural heritage artefacts. 

Urban management and governance

Creating and implementing strategies for urban development is an activity that mainly concerns local governments, cities and regions. This is because each region has its own particular characteristics and needs, and these require tailored policy responses that can best be designed locally.

However, cities and regions are not so diverse that they cannot benefit from good practices established elsewhere – and this is where the European dimension finds a role – in developing and disseminating the practical tools and technologies needed by local practitioners in order to create and deploy cost-effective and sustainable urban and regional strategies.

Research in this field concentrates on holistic approaches to sustainability in policy-making that combine inputs from the social, economic and environmental spheres. Modelling and simulation software, accounting frameworks and codes of practice are the essential tools that local practitioners need to select the most appropriate package of measures for their local situation while retaining the important benchmarks needed to measure progress.

Research projects cover many areas including waste management strategies, benchmarking the Local Agenda 21 implementation and air quality technologies. A wide range of indicators, models and decision-support tools have resulted which are now available to local authorities all over Europe. An important element of these outputs is their attention to the cost effectiveness and social acceptability of the measures they propose – critical factors for the effective implementation of sustainable development strategies.

Cultural heritage

Supporting the European Union’s CAFE initiative (Clean Air for Europe) directs much research to the monitoring of urban pollution levels and their detrimental effects on cultural objects situated outdoors; as well as innovative techniques to repair and conserve them. Research such as modelling museum pollution and establishing conservation thresholds is one example, while evaluating fire risk to cultural heritage and developing priorities and protection strategies are others.

This research also complements European regional innovation projects on urban settings, as well as technically oriented projects on monitoring and conservation. Research is also taking place on maintaining and developing access to heritage sites, such as archaeological digs.

Preserving these cultural treasures ensures their contribution to tourism and regional economic development is sustained over the long term, so that future generations may also benefit from them.

This work seeks to integrate cultural heritage sites into the local socio-economic framework and ensures they are considered when urban developments are proposed. (see CATS and SUIT)

Sustainable transport

European policies are strongly encouraging towns and cities to implement sustainable urban transport policies. Driving this effort are several complementary policy areas, such as meeting the agreed Kyoto emission targets and Europe’s own renewable energy targets.

Throughout Europe, cities are moving to alternative fuels, such as hydrogen (see ECTOS), for public transport and discouraging car use where appropriate. But these ‘green’ developments cannot take place in isolation – changing transport patterns have impacts on the social and economic pillars of sustainability, and these must be taken into account. Discouraging car use without integrated urban planning can lead to the isolation of individuals and the desolation of whole urban areas that lack access to schools and shops.

Under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), the sustainable land use and transport research cluster (LUTR) grouped projects that studied and developed integrated planning tools to link urban transport clearly to its impacts. The LUTR results provide urban planners with models and tools to optimise the use of buildings, land and transport infrastructure in a sustainable and balanced manner (see Scatter).

In addition, EU research has looked into new, more sustainable forms of mobility, including the use of alternative fuels, urban car-sharing infrastructure and driver-support technologies for public transport.

The built environment

For thousands of years, buildings have acted as status symbols of a society’s success, presenting a clear chronology of its people’s progress. But emphasis today has shifted from the mantra of ‘bigger is better’ and ‘cheaper is cheerier’ towards a more sustainable approach to the construction industry.

Managing Europe’s built environment requires input from various actors at different levels, including local and regional planners, individual construction firms (most of which are SMEs which invest little in R&D and practice unsustainable building methods), city councils, designers, architects and engineers, and the residents that occupy this urban space.

New technologies and approaches developed through EU research funding in consecutive Framework Programmes up to FP6 have produced a range of tools, decision-support systems and good practices to help the construction industry introduce more sustainable practices.

Today, research in this area seeks to address a number of important challenges: what to do about the urban sprawl (see the Scatter case and Urbspandens); how to redevelop industrial sites, especially the costs of reusing ‘brownfield’ sites which have been contaminated and abandoned (see Norisc); how to encourage more use of sustainable construction techniques which are quieter, less wasteful, more efficient and environmentally friendly; the need for more ‘green spaces’ in European cities, making suburbs and districts more liveable; and what to do about inner city decline and the regeneration of distressed neighbourhoods (see CRISP and Sureuro cases).

EU - UN-HABITAT partnership

Steps to create sustainable cities must be underpinned by high-quality research. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research are contributing to organising this research. UN-HABITAT’s work focuses on the Millennium Development Goals which are part of the UN Millennium Declaration adopted in 2000. Through its environment research programme, the European Commission aims to stimulate the take-up of new approaches and technologies to implement sustainable development practices. In so doing, it is also contributing to achieving the Thematic Strategy on the urban environment.

Latest News on Urban sustainability and Cultural heritage


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Urban Sustainability and Cultural Heritage Cases
The following are some examples of research projects and support actions funded by the European Union that aim to improve scientific understanding of urban sustainability and cultural heritage.

The Lasala project developed a self-assessment tool for local authorities that are implementing the Local Agenda 21 initiative for sustainable development at local level. In a subsequent project, Lasala-online, the partners put the self-assessment tool onto the web such that it is available to local authorities all over Europe and abroad. The tool, based on questionnaires for policy-makers and other local stakeholders, allows local authorities to benchmark their performance.

The AWAST partners developed methodologies and software to evaluate and improve solid waste management. As well as technical, economic and energy aspects of solid waste collection and disposal, the project also considered the social and environmental issues. The software was validated on three European cities.

In the past, redevelopment of urban areas has often proceeded without regard to the impact on urban heritage sites. The SUIT project devised assessment procedures for strategic and environmental impact analyses of redevelopments at a variety of scales. These allow local authorities to gauge the impact of redevelopment on local cultural heritage and to ensure the consequences are actively integrated into urban planning goals.

The LUTR project Scatter monitored urban sprawl in several major European cities, looking into the links between nature and public transport systems. For example, a new light railway may reduce car use but, at the same time, encourage building developments in the green belt around the city as people move out. Scatter made concrete recommendations on using integrated approaches and developed an ‘urban sprawl monitoring tool’.

Ecological City Transport System (ECTOS) was a demonstration project on hydrogen-fuelled vehicles in everyday use. Much EU research is dedicated to developing alternatives to fossil fuels, and hydrogen fuel cells are the dream candidate for the future because of their environmental credentials. DaimlerChrysler of Germany supplied three hydrogen-powered buses to the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, while the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell built a prototype hydrogen filling station for hydrogen produced from geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources. Today, the buses form part of the cities regular public transport network and carry hundreds of passengers every day.

The Wambuco project (European waste manual for building construction) oversaw construction projects in five European countries for two years. The project produced a manual for small and medium-sized enterprises in the building trade on low-waste techniques and recycling possibilities. Qualitative and quantitative figures for the amounts of waste generated, depending on the process and the characteristics of the building under construction, were established and ‘waste saving potentials’ calculated for predictive purposes.

The CRISP network members developed sustainability indicators for a wide range of urban developments, from individual buildings to large-scale urban and suburban developments. These indicators covered issues related to the preservation of natural resources, air quality and noise, economic competitiveness, employment and a wide range of other factors. The 24 skilled teams that made up CRISP provided an authoritative consensus on sustainability indicators, with their related methodologies, for use by urban planners, developers and local authorities throughout Europe.

The Norisc consortium of European researcher centres and actors has made it much easier develop contaminated ‘brownfields’ sites by creating a piece of software which guides the user through the complex decontamination process; from investigation to remediation, looking at biological, chemical, geophysical and hydrological aspects. Designed for use by regulators, consultants and developers the system helps with site evaluation, risk assessment and remediation choices, reducing the time taken for assessment by up to 80% and the cost of redevelopment by half.

Despite efforts to clean up harmful industrial emissions, such as sulphur dioxide, Europe’s architectural heritage is still under threat from a cocktail of complex pollutants, including nitrogen derivatives (dioxide and nitric acid) and ozone, which attack the surface of materials in different ways depending on their exposure to sunlight, humidity levels, PH, etc. Diagnosis and prevention call for more sophisticated analyses. The 14-country EU project Multi-Assess (Model for multi-pollutant impact and assessment of threshold levels for cultural heritage) will help identify and sample toxic components in various urban settings to create a new ‘dose-response’ model to tackle corrosion and soiling of different materials by combinations of pollutants and atmospheric factors.

About 80,000 residential areas and 56 million flats have been built in Europe since 1950, housing some 170 million people. Today, many of these post-war homes across the Union are sorely in need of refurbishment. But there is no integrated strategy to sustainably renovate these housing stocks. The EU Sureuro project has developed models and systems which provide housing organisations, interested parties, local authorities, town planners, construction companies, etc. with the ability to carry out timely and cost-effective refurbishments. The models and systems developed offer users considerable environmental improvements and energy savings.