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How to green cities — without the backlash

How to green cities — without the backlash

by host

This article is the product of a POLITICO Working Group presented by Holcim and is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities.

VIENNA — Greener cities with fewer cars, less pollution and more trees are better for everyone in the long run — but more immediately, the policy changes required to make them a reality can bite.

Cities account for a massive 70 percent of global CO2 emissions, putting pressure on local governments to set green targets and take ambitious steps to lower emissions. But these policies often face fierce popular backlash that put politicians in a bind: How can they push through the major changes that are required without losing the support of residents — and their voters?

A key step in slashing emissions is tackling private car use — a fraught issue that tends to strike a nerve. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s expansion of cycling infrastructure has been met with furious opposition; in Brussels, the regional Good Move plan, which aims to curb through-traffic in the Belgian capital, has led to riots and has stalled in several neighborhoods.

In Vienna, already one of Europe’s greenest cities, local authorities are treading carefully.

“Mobility is a hugely emotional topic for people,” said Stephan Auer-Stüger, a member of Vienna’s municipal council committees on climate, environment, urban planning and mobility.

“When it comes to most policy issues people accept positions adopted by the experts, but when it comes to mobility everyone feels that they are the expert. So we have to find a way to bring the people with us.”

That’s particularly true given the scale of the transformation ahead, which in many places could require virtually ridding cities of cars.

Rapid change

Jakob Dunkl, co-founder of Vienna’s award-winning Querkraft architecture studio, argued that the COVID pandemic showed people’s ability to live in ways that previously seemed unthinkable.

If people “woke up on a Monday and all cars had disappeared, from one day to the next,” they would get used the new situation within a few days, dusting off their bikes and “in very little time” adapting to new ways of moving around the city.

The urgency of the climate crisis makes it all the more important that cities push ahead with green policies, despite potential pushback, Dunkl argued. People may grumble about plans to pedestrianize a street, for example, but once the cars are gone, they very quickly embrace the change and won’t request that the measure be reversed, he said.

Jürgen Czernohorszky, Vienna’s executive city councilor for climate, environment, democracy and personnel, agreed that the city needs “to move faster and do more.” But making swift progress also means “avoiding quarrels,” he stressed.

Cities need to approach the rollout of green measures with “an open hand instead of a wagging index fingers,” he said, arguing that cities must “work on citizen involvement, democracy innovation [and] on getting people involved.”

“Casting this as a fight between right and wrong or a black-and-white issue will get you nowhere. You won’t get a big majority of people on your side if you’re telling half of them that they’re wrong.”

People are more likely to accept green policies if they can play a part in designing them, said Alicja Magdalena Herbowska, acting head of unit for New European Bauhaus at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

She pointed to Vienna’s Gleis 21 — a sustainable building designed with direct input from its eventual occupants, partly funded by Brussels’ signature scheme to promote climate-conscious urban development — as an example of a green project that is popular locally.

“We need to make it possible to bring people along, and part of that is letting them participate and making it easy for them to participate,” she said.

‘Emotional blindness’

Part of the challenge is convincing people that these changes — and the disruption they will cause in their daily lives — are urgently needed and can’t be delayed, said Masha Smirnova, campaign manager for the European Green Deal at Eurocities, a network of over 200 of Europe’s largest cities.

Many people have an “emotional blindness toward what’s seen as a long-term challenge,” she said.

City leaders need to find a way to explain how green policies serve a common purpose — such as ensuring access to clean air and recreational spaces — rather than focus on any loss of rights for residents.

Berthold Kren, CEO of Holcim Austria, also stressed the need to “start telling the right stories.”

City leaders need to set out “bold visions” and commit to making them a reality, without worrying about ruffling feathers, he argued. Vienna’s successful social housing system, he pointed out, was created “not because we asked the people, but because our leaders decided it was the right thing to do.”

“The people who are in power right now have been elected by the majority to take decisions,” he said. “They need to stop being concerned with the next election and more concerned with taking power decisions.”

Kren acknowledged that some of those decisions are also likely to force polluting industries like his own to make major changes. “We need to decarbonize basic materials and industry will have to be at the front of this revolution,” he said, stressing the importance of regulation to “influence markets and make sure they work.”

Dunkl, the architect, agreed that it is time to “stop debating and take risks, even if that means not getting reelected.”

“But let’s take those risks with stories that don’t focus on horrible scenarios with a lot of death,” he said. “Let’s move people with optimism, with the promise that these bold measures will not only leave us with streets that are more resistant to climate change, but a more beautiful city overall.”

This article is the product of a POLITICO Working Group presented by Holcim and is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. It was produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

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