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The future of cities and the challenges of environmental innovation

by Edoardo Zanchini


It is not a trivial exercise to think about the environmental sustainability of Italian cities at a time when the intermingling of local problems and global challenges are increasingly more closely connected. In fact, the risk is to remain caught between the increasing emphasis given to the “urban century” on one hand and the daily chronicle of existing problems or delayed responses to them on the other. Somewhere between these alternatives, and adding to both the confusion and envy, is the story of how Valencia, Oslo, Munich or Montpellier managed to quickly become liveable and attractive by undertaking key and innovative environmental measures. To understand the challenges facing Italian cities, means starting with a rough analysis that allows identifying the risks to be confronted and how to achieve similar results. If you look at the main environmental indicators, Italian cities have been basically stalled for several years.[1] They have experienced only small variations in air pollution due to the replacement of car stocks and boilers. If you look at the structural choices that contribute to defining the liveability of a city – green areas, public transport, pedestrian areas and cycle paths, etc. – the trend is such that it would take several centuries to get a handle on environmental gaps and life quality. We really need a big leap forward in terms of policies if we want to change this reality. Simply because business as usual or incremental policies – some new buses, a programme for photovoltaic panels on school roofs or a pedestrian square – do not suffice to solve problems of this size or their health consequences. Today the postponement of measures is proving to be one of the reasons why our country continues to struggle to emerge from crisis. In fact, Italian cities can serve as a base for an economic revitalisation that centres on innovation and the redevelopment of urban spaces. Cities are capable of creating and attracting green economy enterprises as well as a tourism that’s off the beaten path for art cities. To demonstrate how practical this approach is today and how it can produce results, just take a tour of some highly frequented, historic and now beautifully restored cities such as Cagliari and Lecce. Or look at the international records set for recycling by Salerno or cities in the Veneto, the tram between Florence and Scandicci or the new trains connecting Bolzano, Brunico and Merano, which daily transport tourists and commuters who are happy to leave their cars at home. Just compare these realities with the situation ten years ago. This helps to understand how an urban innovation perspective, if applied on a national scale, can become a great opportunity. It may also be key at both the local and national level in the future.


Changing the mobility paradigm

The traffic and pollution situation in Italian cities is not a condition dictated by current realities. On the contrary, we know the causes as well as what’s needed to change the state of affairs. If you look closely at Italy, some current changes present important opportunities from which to start. The urban sprawl of the cities has stopped due to the crisis in the construction industry and registrations of new cars have also fallen. Concurrently, the number of people who take the train every day to work or school increased by 20% since 2007. Above all, there is a willingness to change given public services that work. The success of Car2go and Enjoy car sharing in some Italian cities is also a sign of cultural and lifestyle change not to be underestimated. We must start from there in order to rethink Italy’s mobility paradigm. In contrast to how it has been long argued, this paradigm does not rest on the infrastructure endowment or investments in building sites. Rather, it rests on the way in which access to the city is guaranteed or the intention to reduce travel time. Another change not to be underestimated in approaching problems is that cities are not all the same in their mobility demands. Solutions based on railways are a priority for metropolitan areas and conurbations that have grown in recent decades. In these zones, which occupy 9% of Italy, the highest human (41% of the population) and car densities are found.

If you look at European realities, it is clear that excuses and promises are no longer valid. Today it is possible to respond to problems by changing the mobility management model in urban areas. The goal is to simplify the life and sustainable travel options for citizens completely by drawing on everything from digital platforms to smartphone applications, integrated fares for all forms of mass transit and mobility sharing (bikes, electric cars). Every choice that concerns infrastructure, exchange centres, 30 km per hour areas, pedestrian paths and electric mobility should be part of a highly integrated vision. An important aspect to emphasise is that these policies produce results. You do not have to go abroad to verify it. In fact, Italian cities reflect several successful experiences[2]. For the sake of clarity, no one wants to evade the issue at the heart of the political debate for more than 20 years. That is, Italian infrastructure lags behind. It’s an undeniable fact. It is most critically evident in the metro network which extends only 232 km, putting Italy in last place in terms size (for example, the city of Madrid alone has more). Certain resources and careful national guidance are needed to make up for the lack of development in metro lines, trams and regional railways. But then it is up to the mayors to take responsibility for making our cities easier and safer to move about in by foot, bike and public transport.


Closing the waste cycle in urban areas

Waste is the green economy sector where the biggest changes are taking place today at the local level. Results unimaginable just a few years ago are being achieved. It’s not the usual European cities but Italian municipalities, according to the data at hand, which have proven to be leaders at the European level[3]. In Treviso, where 88% of waste is recycled, or in Milan, we have nothing to envy. If anything, the opportunity exists to become a leader and an example of a circular economy that turns a problem into a resource. Not all the problems have been solved and some differences remain. For example, the South is struggling to recover from setbacks in recycling and plant engineering issues. However, it has now been shown that it no longer makes sense to continue with a model that aims to put as much distance as possible between urban areas and their waste disposal sites. Now we have a different standard for the future which puts waste reduction at the centre as well as building an efficient supply chain for different recycling and energy and matter recovery processes. The goal of city governments changes. This is because every context offers the opportunity to create businesses and jobs around the selection and recycling of glass, plastic, paper, aluminium and compost as well centres for household appliance and special materials recovery. Italian cities also face the challenge of reducing disposal costs (Rome and Naples spend incredible amounts to dispose of their waste abroad). In this scenario, the paradigm change concerns the location of waste disposal plants relative to the city. This may involve moving from a model of separation to one of integration which makes it necessary to operate different supply chains based on proximity criterion. This, in turn, will help collection and transfer to recovery centres. Some of the waste disposal plants and areas necessary for the collection and recovery of materials can in fact “be integrated” with other urban uses and activities. For example, this may encompass composting plants in the agricultural areas closest to cities and centres for the disposal of recycled materials compatible with artisan or service areas.


A revolution in the distribution of generated energy in cities

The change brought by renewable sources within the energy system represents an innovative frontier in cities today. The incredible development of installations and plants around the world, with China in the lead, parallels advances in the efficiency of different technologies and reduced costs which have produced historic changes. Today production is increasingly distributed with 800,000 plants spread throughout every Italian municipality[4], currently guaranteeing about 40% of electricity needs. But what happens when these plants, instead of putting energy into the national network, use it directly or distribute it through local networks connected to other utilities and accumulation systems? It is not a utopia, but what is being done around the world today, including in Italy, calls into question the models used to date. It also looks forward to a future of clean energy. Today we look to cities to apply a distributed energy model centring on self-production and local distribution of energy produced from renewable sources. This envisions buildings, businesses, neighbourhoods and entire areas that gradually manage to become autonomous by using clean thermal and electrical systems as well as the innovative management of distribution networks with integrated storage systems. From this perspective, cities move from being a focus of distributed consumption to being a component in a system in which prosumers (i.e. people who are both producers and consumers of electric energy) play a key role. The advantages are enormous for cities in terms of reducing pollution as well as for Italy in terms of reducing consumption, imports of fossil fuels and climate emissions[5]. But there is a problem because this perspective is limited by the anachronistic rules in our country. It may seem incredible but, in a condominium, neighbourhood, large shopping centre or production district in Italy it is forbidden to produce and distribute energy from renewable sources between utilities. Yet, with a view to the energy redevelopment of our buildings, one could really aim for structures and neighbourhoods with zero emissions and pollution. Here it’s the mayors who have to make themselves heard in order to change currently senseless rules which are stopping innovations that are actually in the general interest.


A new struggle for the home

As in the 1960s, homes are again at the centre of an emergency in big cities and a test for social and economic policies. The types of problems are somewhat different, but also highly relevant and underestimated since they affect families and the revitalisation of the economy. There are two issues with clear environmental implications to be carefully looked at in Italian cities and responded to with new policies. The first is an obvious paradox. In Italy, hundreds of thousands of families are looking for a home at affordable prices. Some have been evicted or have problems paying mortgages or rent. At the same time, there are 140 thousand new unsold homes in Italy. Supply and demand have not been matched in recent years. They may never do so because the answer for families in difficulty will only come through affordable housing in which the public sector must play a role. The second big issue is that the most important share of the Italian building stock in which millions of families live was built between the Second World War and the 1970s. This stock now appears more and more inadequate compared to the needs of families. It is also insecure and very inefficient from an energy point of view mainly because it was built before any relevant legislation existed. Between these two facets of the problem rests the challenge of regenerating Italian cities. This challenge involves redeveloping the building stock and creating affordable housing within cities. We certainly need innovative measures and to stop responding to the demand for housing with land consumption, new settlements and homes which remain inaccessible to those who need them or which are found increasingly further away from services and urban areas. We also need the courage to carry out regeneration and higher density measures focusing on rail-based mobility as has been done for decades in other European cities. There is also the need to have the foresight to set ambitious energy targets within these measures. This includes having new homes with zero energy consumption[6] and requalification of existing building assets to halve energy consumption as well as adapt and modernise. Today there is no technical or economic reason to postpone an approach that addresses a fundamental need such as having a home. It should also allow reducing spending on heating a home which can exceed 1,500 euros on average per year. We are talking about environmental innovation that creates more work and more skills which are necessary to redevelop public and private buildings and achieve well-defined energy sources and performance security. What’s the political challenge? To give certainty to an energy requalification scenario for the existing building stock while having a clear national direction. Finally, also involved is making the retrofitting and replacement of the existing building stock from the post-war period simple and cost-effective from an economic point of view. Today it will take a leap forward to refit hundreds of thousands of apartments every year[7]. The suburbs are a locus of action for these policies. This will also allow getting our hands back on public spaces and buildings to restore identity and security. We know that without having a sense of national direction that guarantees resources, quality control and simpler rules, these interventions, which have produced significant results in France, will remain a dream in Italy.


Does development through cities really work?

The risk of rhetoric that sees urban areas as the engine of development is that it will lose sight of problems and differences. Above all, it may shift attention from the choices that have determined and will determine the health of a city. The gaps between Detroit and Taranto, San Francisco and Hamburg, and Mexico City and Bogotá are enormous in terms of the conditions that their citizens live under as well as their hopes for the future. The trajectory of development in urban areas is not obvious. It depends on the context, intelligence, courage and foresight of public policies as well as the choices of its citizens. Surely today the environmental component weighs heavily in these decisions. It influences the possibility of revitalisation and creating opportunities for local development. It’s like that everywhere because all cities in the world have to deal with increasing urbanisation and the complicated connections between the production of goods, their exchange and their disposal. This is even more so today since climate change has made cities one of the most sensitive and challenging areas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, on the one hand, and the consequences of extreme weather events (rain and heat) on the other. These can be determining factors for communities and public spaces. It is particularly true in Italy because cities represent both a cultural and social heritage while still playing a role in attracting tourism and its related exchanges. What other places in the world could compete with Italian cities if they were made easier to live in and move around? Their attractiveness and competitiveness are only further enhanced if we consider their famous landscapes and gastronomy. Here lies the challenge of innovation in Italian cities. It’s to produce physical and social changes in the suburbs of urban areas which reduce fear and make these areas more welcoming, safe and pleasant to live in as well as more sustainable. This is a process that creates possibilities for a university student or for those who earn 1,000 euros a month. It means being able to do without a car to get around and finding affordable accommodation with a lower heating cost as in any European city[8]. In order to make this possible, it is necessary to understand that the challenges of mobility, energy, housing and waste are not local issues to be left to the municipalities. In other European countries, it is the government in metropolitan areas that is entrusted with these choices. It’s a Ministry of Urban Areas that guides these processes and guarantees resources. Going back to betting on cities is a key choice for our country. It is not a matter of taking refuge in the local, but rather addressing the central and universal questions of our time. Zygmunt Bauman[9] wrote that cities have become “dumps” for the problems caused by globalisation including immigration, renewed poverty and environmental degradation. It is to these challenges and fears that we need to respond to in a new way in our cities.


[1] See the annual report of Legambiente, Ecosistema Urbano/The Urban Ecosystem and of Ispra, Qualità dell’ambiente urbano/The quality of the urban environment, 2015

[2] See the line between Bari and Palese or the trams in the Bergamo valleys within the Legambiente 2015 Commuting Report/Rapporto Pendolaria

[3] There are 1,520 municipalities in Italy that exceed a 65% waste recycling level (see the 2016 Legambiente Report on Recycling Communities/Comuni Ricicloni)

[4] See Legambiente’s Annual Report on Renewable Municipalities/Comuni Rinnovabili.

[5] From this perspective, innovations can be created which have advantages that go beyond increasing production from renewable sources. This is because they make the innovative management of plants and networks possible. This, in turn, allows reducing consumption for building heating and cooling because of the move towards elective sources based on renewable energy. Similarly, fuel consumption for transport may be reduced through a push towards electric technologies also produced by renewables.

[6] The binding objective foreseen by EU Directive 2010/31/EU for all public construction since 2019 and for private construction since 2021 with Near Zero Energy performance.

[7] See the Dutch case with the Energiesprong industrialization programme and measures.

[8] See R. Della Seta, E. Zanchini, La sinistra e la città, Donzelli, Rome 2013

[9] Z. Bauman, Fiducia e paura nella città’, Bruno Mondadori, Milan 2005

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