Roughly 72% of the EU population live in cities or towns. During the pandemic, there was talk of remote working killing big cities, as people abandoned physical offices and favoured peri-urbanisation. However, despite the predictions, it looks like big city life is here to stay.

Given the pressures of climate change and resource scarcity, how can we re-imagine our urban environments to be more sustainable? Should they also aim to support a slower pace of life?

In 2022, Debating Europe, in partnership with Coca-Cola, organised a series of online focus groups with 100 young Europeans to try and imagine a more sustainable future. The report summarising the output of our focus group discussions was published at Friends of Europe’s high-level State of Europe roundtable event in Brussels on Thursday 27 October 2022.

You can read the report here.

Want to learn more about sustainable cities? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):

What do our readers think? Some of the most optimistic visions from the focus groups we ran involved cities of the future. We took some of these comments and ideas and put them to:

  • Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Lahti, Finland
  • Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, Professor at the Department of the Build Environment of Aalborg University in Copenhagen
  • Ângela Guimarães Pereira, Joint Research Centre of the European Commission

You can see the responses from Pekka Timonen and Kirsten Gram-Hanssen to our focus group comments in the video at the top of this post! The responses from Ângela Guimarães Pereira are printed as text below.

First up, we had a comment from focus group participant Clotilde from France, who said she was passionate about the idea that cities did not have to be destructive. “We have great examples of cities being a lot more green than we expect them to be,” she said. “I think a big very green city, not just in the colour but in the way it works and the way it evolves would be a wonderful place to exchange in a very dynamic environment.”

How would Ângela Guimarães Pereira respond?

Dear Clotilde! The question of sustainability always begs the question for whom, right? Sustainability is a very complex ambition and a political tool. If the question is, can we do more to make our cities livable without transferring our lifestyles’ debris onto others’ places and people, I believe so. But there are policy and lifestyles changes  that we as a collective will have to discuss and embrace.  And so, I believe sustainability is a task for everyone of us, and that is why to me any discussion about ‘sustainability’ needs to be a participatory one.

Next up, Daniela from Germany told us she wants cities literally to be greener, in terms of more greenspaces and more vegetation. She says “trees lower the temperature in cities.

See the video above for the responses from Pekka Timonen and Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, and here’s what Ângela Guimarães Pereira had to say:

Dear Daniela, I think trees do much more than just lowering the temperature in cities. There are studies that show how green infrastructure in city is thoroughly linked with mental health, for example. Pollinators decline and other biodiversity declines have to do with systematic destruction of the green in cities – the pandemics has highlighted this problem. At the Joint Research Centre we are just finishing a project on biodiversity in Cities, called BiodiverCities, where 10 European cities engaged citizens to co-create visions of green in the cities and also the best ways to engage citizens in ideating such green infrastructure in the city.  And the European Commission is developing policies to sustain this. A report from the European Environment Agency could also give you some information on the status quo. But if you ask me, the demand needs to be bottom-up! There are cities where community gardens or urban orchards are maintained by citizens; for example in my own town in Lisbon.

Next, Cristina from Spain told us she likes the idea of greening cities using Milan as a template. She flagged highrise building projects in the Italian city that have lush greenery installed on every balcony. “What I’m picturing is cities in which the roof has grass and the buildings themselves have more greenery.” Could other cities adopt this approach?

Here’s Ângela Guimarães Pereira‘s take:

Dear Cristina, there are many experiments to bring back the green in the cities and the cities to the green. The pandemics has showed the importance of maintaining and expanding cities’ green infrastructure and many argue that it is a key dimension to ensure the survival of our cities. In this it is essential that we as citizens pay attention and civically intervene in urban planning to demand and debate with others the changes we want to be seen implemented.

Mirjam from Estonia told us during a focus group that: “When I was in the Netherlands, I was just amazed about the infrastructure they have for bikes. It’s just so efficient and I wish cities all around the world will adapt the system like that.” Could other cities copy the Dutch approach to urban mobility?

As with the previous questions, see the video above for the responses from Pekka Timonen and Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, and here’s the written response from Ângela Guimarães Pereira:

Dear Mirjam, me too. I would love to be able to SAFELY ride my bike everywhere in the EU. Where I live in Italy, riding a bike is a dangerous affair. I appreciate it that your idea of future mobility is one more compatible with the complexity of the damage we are doing to the planet’s ecosystems.  The European Commission runs structural funds and in particular cohesion funding that can be used to build such infrastructure. If your city runs participatory budgeting activities, try with others to propose projects in this field. Beware, though, there are competing interests for mobility futures that want to maintain the status quo…

Finally, Xavier from Belgium told us he thinks we should “change our relationship with time, we have to be less keen on always getting everywhere faster.” Should cities try to be both greener and slower?

Here’s the response from Ângela Guimarães Pereira:

Dear Xavier, you are reminding me of the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, for two reasons: first, she embraced the idea of the ’15 minute’ city. A city where all services and needs are accessible to citizens in 15 minutes WALKING distance.  and the second reason, is that Anne Hidalgo approved of a permanent Citizens Assembly on Climate Change few weeks ago. These are two important moves connected to your question. In my view a slower city, means quality time, means time to notice and means time to care. Cities need their citizens to help co-creating that time and all the infrastructure that will make them sustainable. All the rest, green, blue and other colours will follow. I strongly believe in participatory forms of democracy to curate action on the ongoing ecological crises.

How can we make our cities greener and slower? Should European cities create more greenspaces and plant more vegetation? Could cities across the continent copy the Dutch approach to urban mobility and build cycle lanes? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Editorially independent content supported by: The Coca-Cola Company. See our FAQ for more details. Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Commission. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

The Coca-Cola Company

6 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU-Reform Proactive

    Oh, dear oh dear! What an unfortunate choice!

    • Despite all the politically correct aims & claims- “Coke is the leading polluter of the environment due to weak waste disposal mechanisms, higher water consumption, and increased production of non-recycled packaging tools.”

    • …..and “is considering taking active control of all aquifers in societies across the world.”

    • …is further “accused of racial discrimination, inflated earnings associated with channel stuffing, pollution and water usage, unethical water consumption, and violation of Human Rights”.

    EU/DE- are you seriously seeking acknowledgement as a green environmental warrior by hopping into bed with a.m. Company? Does money beget money and power?

    Is it about greening cities, greenwashing our minds and/or unethical (green) marketing?,to%20poor%20disposal%20of%20plastics.

    Would Coca-Cola buy up highly densified areas or slums, pay to demolish outdated & derelict buildings, rebuild and replace them with better ones and establish green & lush parks, maintained by their (poorly paid?) labour force & sprinkled by their company-owned underground aquifers- endlessly?

    Who else would be able to turn all these dreams into reality?

    Surely, a great & convenient friend to have- being an accountable & transparent political system.

  2. avatar

    I think cities have to be hubs of smaller communities in which everyone can find what they need without needing to travel great distances or go to enormous malls. For that to happen, public transports need to be at the centre of city building strategies

  3. avatar

    Yes to green spaces (also for biodiversity) and cycling lanes.

    The problem is that cars take all the space so this asks for a city design to reconcile objectives according to interests and priorities to make cities more liveable especially with regard to the dire consequences of climate change. Also gardening can be promoted by public policy as well as financial incentives.

  4. avatar

    Making changes in the legitimation!
    There are good examples right now for it in the world!
    Design space intelligently, more green than before!!

  5. avatar
    JT HK

    Over concentration of people in the city does not only serve the overall development of a country.

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