Europe’s green heart
Brussels is entering the last stretch of the race to become Green Capital of Europe in 2015. Analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit international research bureau highlights the capital’s ecological improvements since 2009, but the study has also drawn criticism. During an event on the Kunstberg in the city centre, Brussels residents had the chance to present their vision of the future of the capital at the “ideas tree”. Brussels also had a visit from the airship Aéroflorale II (pictured), the symbol of Green Capital of Europe 2013 Nantes.
Ecological improvements and citizens’ ideas should make Brussels the Green Capital of Europe
Brussels is already the political capital of Europe, but it’s also one of four finalists hoping to win the title of European Green Capital 2015, as awarded by the European Commission. The annual award promotes and rewards the efforts of city governments as they battle ecological challenges. At the end of May, the Brussels team will try to convince a jury of members from various European institutions that it should win, and on 14 June, Brussels will know whether it has prevailed over its rivals: Bristol (England), Glasgow (Scotland) and Ljubljana (Slovenia). Last year, the Brussels-Capital Region also participated, but finished in fifth place.
Brussels’ progress towards sustainability is emphasised by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s study, sponsored by technology multinational Siemens. The research bureau updated Brussels’ results from its 2009 European Green City Index, which rated the environmental performance of 30 major cities in 30 European countries. Brussels is now in third place, behind Copenhagen and Stockholm, in the index of 2013, compared with ninth in the original 2009 rating. However, Brussels was the only city whose performance was reassessed; the competitor cities are judged according to their prior performance.
The study notes that Brussels’ largest gains were in transport, especially through the expansion of its cycle path network. However, the senior editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Brian Gardner, added that “Brussels still has some way to go to reach the level of Copenhagen and Amsterdam.”
The government also received good marks in the environmental governance category, thanks, for example, to its plan for durable regional development, the framework for implementing many of Brussels’ environmental commitments. Equally positive are the measures that caused a significant reduction of inhabitants’ water consumption.
Although the city’s consumption of energy also declined, Brussels actually scored better in 2009 in terms of the energy consumption of residential buildings. Evelyne Huytebroeck, Brussels minister for energy and environment, pointed out that the government was tackling this problem through various initiatives including the Exemplary Buildings programme. This programme stimulates eco-friendly construction or renovation of buildings through financial help, technical assistance and public visibility for the buildings and their designers.
With a subsidy programme, the government furthermore encourages the conversion of buildings to the low-energy passive standard. Huytebroeck emphasised that new or renovated public buildings have had to comply with this energy-efficient standard since 2010 and that passive-energy construction will become mandatory for private buildings in 2015.
The conclusions of the Green City Index were criticised by the socialist party SP.A, which is an opposition party in the Brussels-Capital Region. Brussels MP Jef Van Damme feels that Siemens is “greenwashing” Brussels, referring to deceptive green marketing practices. He also questions the neutrality of Siemens, because it is involved in the installation of traffic-light technology in Brussels, and the validity of a study that does not include the evolution in other countries.
Van Damme especially disputes the progress on the issue of mobility. “The government has announced new cycling plans and networks, but the creation of cycling paths has stagnated since 2009,” he says in a statement. He adds that Brussels every year exceeds the fine dust standards and that road congestion in Brussels is among the worst in Europe.
Tree of ideas
To involve the general public in its bid for Green European Capital, the Brussels government placed an “ideas tree” on the Albertinaplein across from the Kunstberg, close to Central station. Brusselaars were encouraged to share their wishes, remarks, dreams, ideals and visions on a green capital. The ideas were collected beforehand via social networks and printed on large ribbons hanging from trees. You could also listen to testimonies via headphones. The results of this brainstorming process will be a source of inspiration for future political action.
Huytebroeck has announced that, if Brussels wins the competition, citizens’ ideas will similarly be collected in other European cities. During a large closing ceremony, the ideas would form the basis of a citizens’ debate directed towards European policy-makers. Another attraction was the Aéroflorale II, an artistic airship inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines. The fantastic structure represents a mobile garden on a botanical expedition across the world – collecting plant life to develop sustainable sources of energy. It is the symbol of the current Green Capital of Europe, the French city of Nantes.