Helping Europe’s cities save resources through better urban planning

Monday, 20 January, 2014

According to the European Union (EU)-funded research project SUME (Sustainable Urban Metabolism for Europe) as much as three-fourths of the European population lives in cities, but the rapid expansion of urban space is being driven more by market forces than by urban planning.

That means that land, fuel and public money is being wasted, a situation that presents a new challenge to town planners – how to curb so-called “urban sprawl” by saving space and resources. The answer? Help city authorities find smart solutions to mesh urban planning, and housing and transportation policies into their future development.

SUME is tackling the problem of efficiency by taking a radical new approach – applying the principles of urban metabolism to the physical expansion of cities.

This means that the flows of resources and energy are explored and analysed in a holistic way – in essence, it is a bio-physical analysis of how a city interacts with its environment. The aim is simple: to reduce the consumption of a city as it expands by encouraging authorities to make smarter decisions.

But what this requires – the close cooperation of various local government departments – can create an administrative headache for town officials.

“The difficulty is in combining energy policy, public transport, urban planning and housing,” said SUME project coordinator Christof Schremmer. “Often these sectors are separated in municipal authorities. We need to do a lot of work across various political departments.”

SUME’s initial three-year analysis culminated in a report published at the end of October 2011, which included case studies of four very different European cities: Newcastle (UK), Oporto (Portugal), Stockholm (Sweden) and Vienna (Austria), where Schremmer is based. The report provided long-term urban development scenarios for the year 2050 to estimate the potential for future efficiency.

The report allowed Schremmer's team to develop ways to turn Europe's urban sprawl into "smart cities," where urban planning decisions are made with a conscious view to improving efficiency. This can often be done via state aid for new construction projects.

“There is a lot of public funding available in Vienna to build new buildings, but this should be coupled with locating the buildings,” he said. “Very often, the authorities don’t care where these buildings are put up. We have looked. There is enough space to do that in places that maximise efficiency.”

But each European city has unique circumstances – some are compact, boast good infrastructure, and an efficient public transport network, while others are fragmented and spread over a large area. And their economic circumstances are equally contrasting, with public budgets made all the more insecure by Europe’s current economic conditions. “It’s important to make a distinction between expanding and shrinking cities,” Schremmer said. “Where cities are shrinking, it is much more difficult to create sustainable urban planning."

As a result of poor urban planning during the boom years, the Portuguese city of Oporto was left without a well-integrated public transport network, and became reliant on three rings of motorways. “It will be very difficult for that city to develop in a sustainable way in the future,” says Schremmer. “Particularly with the country’s economic difficulties.”

Similar situations have arisen in many other European cities – SUME’s mission is to develop tools that help authorities avoid such mistakes in the future. Coordinated by the Austrian Institute for Regional Studies and Spatial Planning (ÖIR), SUME is comprised of 10 partners from nine countries in Europe and Asia. As Schremmer explains, its three-year budget of €3.6 million was supported by €2.9 million from the EU.

Sustainable urban metabolism for Europe
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