This article is the product of a POLITICO Working Group presented by Holcim and part of it of Politico Global Policy Lab: Living Cities.
VIENNA – Green cities with fewer cars, less pollution and more trees are good for everyone in the long run – but more immediately, the policy changes needed to make them a reality can bite.
Cities account for 70 percent of global CO2 emissions, putting pressure on local governments to set green targets and take ambitious steps to reduce emissions. But these policies often face strong popular backlash that binds politicians: How can they push through the big changes needed without losing the support of residents and their voters?
A key step in reducing emissions is tackling private car use – a fraught problem that strikes a nerve. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s expansion of cycling infrastructure has met with fierce opposition; In Brussels, the regional Good Move plan, which aims to curb traffic in the Belgian capital, has led to riots and brought several neighborhoods to a standstill.
In Vienna, already one of Europe’s greenest cities, local authorities are treading carefully.
“Mobility is a very emotional topic for people,” said Stefan Auer-Stüger, member of Vienna’s municipal council committee on climate, environment, urban planning and mobility.
“When it comes to most policy issues people tend to take the positions taken by the experts, but when it comes to mobility everyone feels they are the experts. So we have to find ways to bring the public along.”
This is especially true given the scale of the transformation ahead, which may require virtually car cities in many places.
Jakob Dunkl, co-founder of Vienna’s award-winning Kuerkraft architecture studio, argued that the Covid pandemic has shown people’s ability to live in ways previously unimaginable.
If people “woke up on a Monday and all the cars disappeared from one day to the next,” they would get used to the new situation within a few days, dust off their bikes and adapt to the new way “in a very short time.” Roam around the city.
The urgency of the climate crisis makes it even more important that cities move forward with green policies despite potential pushback, Dunkle argued. For example, people may grumble about a plan to pedestrianize a street, but once the cars are gone, they embrace the change very quickly and won’t request that the measure be reversed, he said.
Jürgen Czernohorski, Vienna’s executive city councilor for climate, environment, democracy and workers, agreed that the city “needs to move faster and do more.” But making quick progress means “avoiding strife,” he stressed.
Cities need to approach the rollout of green systems “with an open hand instead of citizen fingers,” he argued, arguing that cities “need to work on citizen engagement, the innovation of democracy.” [and] It’s about engaging people.”
“Casting this as a fight between right and wrong or a black-and-white issue will get you nowhere. If you’re telling half of them they’re wrong, you’re not going to get a large majority on your side.”
People are more likely to adopt green policies if they can play a role in their design, says Alicja Magdalena Harboska, acting head of the New European Bauhaus unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
He pointed to Vienna’s Gleis 21 – a sustainable building designed with direct input from its ultimate occupants, partly funded by Brussels’ signature project to promote climate-conscious urban development – as an example of a green project that is locally popular
“We have to make it possible to bring people along, and part of that is letting them participate and making it easy for them to participate,” he said.
Part of the challenge is to convince people that these changes — and the disruption they will cause to their daily lives — are urgently needed and cannot be delayed, said Masha Smirnova, campaign manager for Eurocities, a network of the European Green Deal. 200 of Europe’s largest cities.
Many people “have an emotional blindness to what they see as long-term challenges,” he said.
City leaders must find a way to explain how green policies can serve a common purpose — such as ensuring access to clean air and recreational spaces — without focusing on harming residents’ rights.
Holcim Austria CEO Berthold Krein also emphasized the need to “start telling the right story”.
City leaders need to set “bold visions” and commit to making them a reality, he argued. Vienna’s successful social housing system, he noted, “was not because we asked the people, but because our leaders decided it was the right thing to do.”
“Those who are in power at the moment are elected by majority vote to make decisions,” he said. “They need to stop worrying about the next election and worry more about deciding power.”
Crane acknowledged that some of these decisions could force polluting industries like his own to make big changes. “We need to decarbonize basic materials and industry needs to be at the forefront of this revolution,” he said, “emphasizing the importance of regulation to influence markets and ensure they work.”
Dunkle, the architect, agreed that “it’s time to stop arguing and take risks, even if it doesn’t mean re-election.”
“But let’s talk about risks that don’t focus on dire situations with lots of deaths,” he said. “Let’s move people forward with optimism, promising that these bold steps will leave us with not only climate change-resistant streets, but more beautiful cities overall.”
This article is the product of a POLITICO Working Group presented by Holcim and part of it of Politico Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. It was produced by Politico reporters and editors with complete editorial freedom. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.