Green Cities Fit for Life

Image by C. Spahrbier

Policy & Background

Urban areas are the source of many of today’s environmental challenges – not surprisingly, since two out of three Europeans live in towns and cities. Local governments and authorities can provide the commitment and innovation needed to tackle and resolve many of these problems.

One of the policy tools the European Commission is using to address these challenges is the European Green Capital Award (EGCA), which recognises and rewards local efforts to improve the environment, the economy and the quality of life in cities. The EGCA is given each year to a city, which is leading the way in environmentally friendly urban living and which can thus act as a role-model to inspire other cities. Cities differ enormously and sharing concrete examples of what a European Green Capital can look like is essential if further progress is to be made.

In addition to the EGCA there are a range of European  Environmental Action Plans and Policy Instruments in place across Europe which support European cities and communities in becoming more sustainable. This includes:

7th Environment Action Programme (EAP)

The European Commission launched a new environmental programme in 2013, the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), which sets out a strategic agenda for environmental policy-making with 9 priority objectives to be achieved by 2020. It helps to establish a common understanding of the main environmental challenges Europe faces and what needs to be done to tackle them effectively. This programme underpins the European Green Capital Award in relation to policies for sustainable urban planning and design.

Protecting and enhancing natural capital, encouraging more resource efficiency and accelerating the transition to the low-carbon economy are key features of the programme, which also seeks to tackle new and emerging environmental risks and to help safe guard health and welfare of EU citizens. The outputs should help foster sustainable growth and crjob creation to set the European Union on a path to becoming a better and healthier place to live.

Cities play a crucial role as engines of the economy, as places of connectivity, creativity and innovation, and as centres of services for their surrounding areas. Due to their density, cities offer a huge potential for energy savings and a move towards a carbon-neutral economy.

Most cities face a common core set of environmental problems and risks, including poor air quality, high levels of noise, GHG emissions, water scarcity, contaminated sites, brownfields and waste. At the same time, EU cities are standard setters in terms of urban sustainability and pioneer innovative solutions to environmental challenges. An ever-growing number of European cities are putting environmental sustainability at the core of their urban development strategies.

Thus, in order to enhance the sustainability of EU cities, the 7th EAP set the target that by 2020 a majority of cities in the EU will be implementing policies for sustainable urban planning and design.

For further information on the 7th EAP, please visit the DG Environment website here.

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Reference Framework for Sustainable European Cities (RFSC)

Sustainable development is a fundamental principle shared by the European Union, member states and local authorities. It promotes the continuous improvement in the quality of life and wellbeing of present and future generations. Promoting sustainable urban development is a key element of the European Cohesion Policy and a continuous process.

In 2007 the European Ministers responsible for urban development signed the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities. With this charter, the 28 member states have, for the first time, outlined an ideal model for the European Sustainable City and laid the foundations for an integrated urban policy.

In 2008 in Marseille (France) the Ministers decided to have a tool created to translate into practice the common sustainability goals and the Leipzig Charter objectives. This tool is the Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities (RFSC).

The RFSC will support European cities and municipalities in their work on integrated and sustainable urban development. The RFSC aims to provide a common framework for sustainable urban development, promoting the benefits of integrated urban development policy approaches. The tool will allow for communication within and between cities on the basis of a common format that can also be adapted to the cities’ individual needs. It also encourages the dialogue and exchange within and beyond the cities of Europe on sustainable urban development policies and best practices.

Signed-up cities can use the RFSC to develop and improve current strategies and projects and to learn from other European cities. The tool can be used by politicians, planners, project managers, stakeholders as well as citizens.

It is built around the four key pillars of sustainability ‘Economy, Social, Environment and Governance’ and covers a wide-range of topics including housing, green space, transport to youth unemployment. To make the most of the benefits offered by the RFSC, cities and municipalities can also apply for the RFSC City or Ambassador City status.

For more information on the RFSC please visit their website.

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Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe

The European Commission has set out a roadmap aimed at transforming Europe’s economy into a sustainable one by 2050 and help achieve a resource-efficient Europe which is essential for our future wellbeing and prosperity. It proposes ways to
increase resource productivity and decouple economic growth from resource use
and its environmental impact. More information on the Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe can be found through the Commission website here.

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Thematic Strategy on Urban Environment

Recognising this important role of cities, the Commission has committed itself to act in this area through the Sixth Environmental Action Programme issued in 2002. Later followed the Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment which aims to promote a more integrated approach to urban management and support cities in their efforts to this end. A dedicated area on the Commission’s website provides more guidance and information about integrated environmental management.

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EU Sustainable Development Strategy

Urban areas play an important role in delivering the objectives of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. The renewed EU SDS sets out a single, coherent strategy on how the EU will more effectively live up to its long-standing commitment of tackling the challenges of sustainable development. It reaffirms the need for global solidarity and recognises the importance of strengthening our work with partners outside the EU, including those rapidly developing countries which will have a significant impact on global sustainable development. Updated information about the strategy is available on European portal on sustainable development including citizens guides, progress reports and examples of action taken by others, etc.

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Green thinking and Best Practice Guides and Reports

Providing information and examples of existing solutions to municipalities and local authorities is essential, since it allows them to learn from each other and develop plans adapted to their specific situation.

Click here to view and download examples of technical assessment documents, best practice reports and further European Green Capital Award publications.

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Europe 2020 Strategy (Resource efficiency)

The resource-efficient Europe flagship initiative is part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the EU’s growth strategy for a smart, inclusive and sustainable economy. It supports the shift towards sustainable growth via a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy.

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Funding for Green Initiatives

The European Green Capital scheme does not include any pool of funds to support initiatives of participating cities. But it may be relevant for local authorities to explore other funding opportunities at the EU level. For details see the overview of funding opportunities on the Commission’s website.

In the new EU budget 2014-2020, at least 5% of the European Regional Development Fund will have to be used for sustainable urban development. For details see the overview of funding opportunities on the Commission’s website.

Cities can take advantage of the Structural Funds, for example, by forming a thematic urban network under URBACT II or by making use of the European Urban Knowledge Network. Some noteworthy funding programmes are as follows; please check the Commission website to ensure the most up to date information is used.




Horizon 2020

Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership

EU Cities Adapt

LIFE+ – Funding for sustainable cities in the next phase of LIFE+ – DG ENV

LIFE+ is the European Union’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the Union and in some candidate and neighbouring countries.

Since 1992 LIFE has co-financed some 2,750 projects for a total of €1.35 billion. DG Environment proposes to fund up to 15 large-scale projects (€10 million) each involving two or more cities in the next phase (2014 to 2020) of the environmental financing programme, LIFE+.

The LIFE (the Financial Instrument for the Environment) Regulation, which was published on 20 December 2013, sets a budget for the next funding period, 2014–2020, of €3.4 billion in current prices. The LIFE 2014 call for proposals has yet to be published. More information can be found here.


URBACT is a European exchange and learning programme promoting sustainable urban development.

URBACT aims to enable cities to work together to develop solutions to major urban challenges, reaffirming the key role they play in facing increasingly complex societal changes.

The programme helps cites to develop pragmatic solutions that are innovative and sustainable, and that integrate economic, social and environmental dimensions.

URBACT was initially established in 2002 and is currently in its second stage (URBACT II) which will end in 2013.

It is proposed that URBACT III (2014 – 2020) will act as a European exchange and learning programme promoting sustainable urban development. It will enable European cities to work together to develop solutions to urban challenges and share good practices, lessons learnt and potential solutions, with all stakeholders involved in urban policy throughout Europe.

The programme will cover all of the 28 Member States of the European Union as well as the two partner countries of Norway and Switzerland. It is expected the first call for projects will be in February 2015.

For more information please visit the website here.


INTERREG IVC – provides funding for interregional cooperation across Europe.

It is implemented under the European Community’s territorial co-operation objective and financed through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The Operational Programme was approved in September 2007 and the period for INTERREG IVC will last from 2007-2013.

This programme follows on from the INTERREG IIIC programme which ran from 2002-2006 and the INTERREG IVC programme ran from 2007 until 2013. Interregional cooperation will continue in the 2014 to 2020 period under the name INTERREG EUROPE. The draft of the INTERREG EUROPE cooperation programme was finalised on 20 December 2013.

It is expected the first call for projects will be in February 2015

More information can be found here.

Horizon 2020

Horizon 2020 Commission proposal for an 80 billion euro research and innovation funding programme (2014 – 2020).

Horizon 2020 is part of proposals for next EU budget, complementing Structural Funds, education, etc.

It will be a core part of Europe 2020, Innovation Union & European Research Area:

  • Responding to the economic crisis to invest in future jobs and growth
  • Addressing peoples’ concerns about their livelihoods, safety and environment.
  • Strengthening the EU’s global position in research, innovation and technology

Please check the Horizon 2020 website for up to date information on the programme here.

Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership

The Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership was launched by the Commission in July 2012 (DG ENER, CONNECT & MOVE).

The partnership proposes to pool resources to support the demonstration of energy, transport and information and communication technologies (ICT) in urban areas.

This will enable innovative, integrated and efficient technologies to roll out and enter the market more easily, while placing cities at the centre of innovation.

The funding will be awarded through yearly calls for proposals: €365 million for 2013. Funding is foreseen mainly from FP7 and the future Horizon 2020.