Cities and Urbanization

How Europe can reshape its cities to boost vibrancy, resilience and climate action

a canal in the dutch city of Utrecht

The Dutch city of Utrecht is a fine example of how a city can use its space efficiently. Image: Unsplash/Martin Woortman

Janez Potocnik
Co-Chair, International Resource Panel
Julia Okatz
Director Natural Resources, SYSTEMIQ
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Cities and Urbanization

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  • Europe's cities need urgent action to remain productive and enjoyable spaces, while also becoming more climate and resource resilient.
  • While much of the region's built environment is already in place, there is an opportunity to reshape urban areas to meet social and climate goals.
  • Through efficient and balanced space use, Europe's cities can revive their vibrancy, connectivity and diversity, while also improving their resilience.

Most people hold two assumptions about European cities. First, they naturally represent a vibrant way of life, world-renowned for their culture and relative safety. Second, they are quite literally set in stone, with most of Europe’s buildings already having been built.

So, compared to rapid urbanization potential in Africa or South Asia, it is believed that improving the fundamental material and energy use of urban Europe is a matter of tinkering around the edges.

There is some truth in both assumptions, but less than one might think. In fact, Europe’s urban areas need urgent action. With it, they can become much more productive and enjoyable places, and significantly transform their effect on climate and resource resilience.

European cities risk losing their vibrant identity

Trends in urban areas present a threat to Europe’s “urban DNA” of vibrancy and service access. For one, low-density areas are expanding and becoming more land-inefficient, often in the form of poorly connected suburbs or rural settlements.

These require up to 10 times more road building than well-designed neighbourhoods and lock European urban areas into a costly and vulnerable dependency on cars – considering Europe’s scarcity in materials needed for the batteries.

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In contrast, many large city centres are becoming even denser, often at the cost of green space or community connectedness. In many countries, inequality in living space is more staggering than ever. Secondly, larger cities, especially in northern Europe, often face housing crises, while other areas are under-occupied.

Europe is losing the balance, both between and within cities, and urgently needs regional co-operation to avoid the threats to wellbeing that come with extreme inequities and imbalances in the use of precious urban space.

And this in both meanings of “regional”: among large cities and towns in the same area, as well as between European regions of strong influx and those with shrinking cities.

Negative impacts of wasting urban space through inefficiencies and imbalances.
The negative impacts of wasting urban space through inefficiencies and imbalances. Image: SYSTEMIQ

Yes, most of Europe's built environment is already in place. But the form of this infrastructure is continuously reshaping – and while this presents challenges, it also represents a massive opportunity for Europe’s social and climate goals.

Southern cities are seeing a steep population decline, while many northern centres are struggling to respond to a rapid population influx. People coming from outside Europe mostly come to cities, too. All these patterns are predicted to accelerate with climate change and a perceived concentration of economic and cultural opportunities.

Demands within cities are changing. Aspiring to more green spaces is not just about outdoor play and dog walking, but also about mitigating heatwaves. Close access to services is not only about convenience, but also local productivity.

Far from being a technocratic idea, ‘balanced space use’ is about meeting human needs such as more community spaces, space for local business and culture to flourish, equitable access to services and active and shared transport links.

Efficient space use enables 15-minute cities

Improving urban forms is one of Europe’s most powerful levers to mitigate the climate crisis. Europe has committed to reaching unprecedented goals including a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and its leadership-by-example is more urgent than ever after yet another climate conference with weak agreements.

The construction of buildings and related infrastructure in Europe emits around 91 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, mostly due to hard-to-decarbonize materials. That’s the equivalent of the total emissions of the Czech Republic, or almost double Austria’s emissions.

Europe can easily save half of those emissions through efficient and balanced space use: Blocks of buildings and their infrastructure should seal as little land as possible, while forming neighbourhoods with spaces for mixed services and vibrancy minimising commuting needs.

Spaces within buildings should be used efficiently, avoiding unused rooms, for example, while offering spacious living and access to multi-functional and community spaces.

Estimation of CO2 savings per year thanks to efficient space-use
Estimation of CO2 emissions savings per year thanks to efficient use of space. Image: SYSTEMIQ

But the benefits do not stop at construction emissions. Efficient and balanced spatial designs enable shorter commutes and the use of active transport, significantly reducing the 23% of Europe’s emissions caused by urban mobility.

The reduced dependency on parking and roads also frees up land for green spaces which can alleviate extreme summer temperature by between 2.5ºC and 6ºC, reducing heat island effects of dark and sealed surfaces common in unbalanced cities. This will literally save lives.

Urban moves to smarter space use are mostly low-tech

Ten physical transitions are crucial to efficient and balanced space use. These transitions are safe, proven and mostly low-tech, meaning they can be applied today.

Urban areas across Europe are starting from different levels and face differing trends, but all can improve, whether large or small, growing or shrinking.

Inspiration can be found in urban models such as Freiburg, Zurich, Barcelona, Aachen, Grenoble, Utrecht, Hamburg, Győr, Rotterdam, Cambridge and many others.

10 physical transitions to more efficient and balanced space-use for vibrant neighbourhoods
10 physical transitions to more efficient and balanced space-use for vibrant neighbourhoods. Image: SYSTEMIQ

Cities are at the heart of Europe's prosperity

Europe’s cohesion funds and European Investment Bank finance have shown successful support to urban transformations at scale. Initiatives like the New European Bauhaus demonstrate that vision and ambition can be reinvigorated, and programmes like the NetZeroCities initiative and the Circular Cities and Regions Initiative are supporting innovative pilots.

Coalitions like the Covenant of Mayors, ICLEI or Eurocities build visionary leadership. However, all these initiatives overlook the massive potential of transitions to better space use – as do the European Commission’s energy efficiency and circular economy strategies.

It is high time to bolster the toolbox of policymakers, urban initiatives and real estate developers with this powerful lever.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to promote sustainable urban development?

Europe’s cities are at the heart of its prosperity, and space use is the core of climate progress and resilience. It’s time to revive Europe’s urban DNA of vibrancy, connectivity and diversity across larger and smaller cities – a central agenda for investors, planners and fiscal policy alike.

While not a complete solution on its own, these and other solutions are outlined in a new white paper by SYSTEMIQ's Efficient and balanced space use – Shaping vibrant neighbourhoods and boosting climate progress in Europe report.

This aims to offer “valuable insights to policymakers and investors, [challenging] them to think of innovative and efficient planning and design of the built environment to enable sustainable cities to thrive in the future”, as well put by Werner Hoyer, President of the European Investment Bank.

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