Greening the Future: An Argument for Sustainable Cities

New Presence 

Walking through the streets of Chrudim gives the impression that it’s like any other Czech city. With a population of about 24,000, Chrudim, 110 kilometers east of Prague, has a long, pretty square dominated by a large church. A mix of modern and baroque buildings, the requisite textile stores and herna bars – you could be in any one of a number of small towns dotted across the country. But underneath its typical appearance lies an award-winning sustainable community.

In the 2010 International Awards for Livable Communities competition, Chrudim was awarded three times: gold in its population category, bronze for a millrun revitalization project, and the Healthy Lifestyle Award. LivCom Awards, as they are nicknamed, is a competition focusing on outstanding international practices in the management of the local environment. LivCom’s objective is to develop and share these practices in order to improve citizens’ quality of life through the creation of ‘livable communities.’

“The motto we would like to follow is, act locally, think globally, or in other words, keep the future in mind,” says Šárka Trunecková, Chrudim’s coordinator for Healthy Town and Local Agenda 21. “The aim of the Healthy City of Chrudim is to increase the quality of life and promote health, while respecting the principles of sustainable development.”

Sustainable living isn’t a passing trend for Chrudim – the city joined the Healthy Cities Project (a program of the World Health Organization) in 2001. The Healthy Cities Project focuses on the principles of sustainable development and active public participation in discussions about current city plans, as well as future local and regional development. But that’s not all. Chrudim is participating in a slew of other internationally recognized programs like Local Agenda 21, Health for All in the 21st century (Health 21), EMAS (the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, a management tool for companies and other organizations to evaluate, report and improve their environmental performance), and Healthy Schools and Safe Communities.

“Chrudim is also involved in the global campaign for sustainable development,” says Trunecková. “Since 2009 we’ve complied with the Aalborg Commitments which are an international group of municipalities trying to put the principles of sustainable development into practice.”

Programs for Sustainable Development

Sustainable development isn’t just about recycling plastic bottles, minimizing driving and having a city council that supports parks. The Aalborg Commitments focus on ten development areas, ranging from public administration to responsible consumption, lifestyle choices and equality and social justice. Under Chrudim’s Healthy City plan, there are school programs that teach children how to brush their teeth properly and follow a healthy diet. Every year, the city holds a public debate on the “Top Ten Issues of Chrudim.” Additionally, there is a volunteer program which facilitates citizen help in hospitals and on landscaping projects.

One particularly successful project Chrudim recently completed was the regeneration of a “leisure point” called Pod Zbrojnicí. Set in the midst of an area of apartment blocks, the goal was to construct a relaxing place to promote intergenerational living. There’s a play area for children and a quiet spot for their parents, the elderly and disabled citizens. The project won the LivCom 2009 Bursary Award and the organization presented a 10,000 GBP check to Chrudim when it was completed in October 2010.

“The project itself was not mere ‘construction,’” Trunecková says. “We wanted to emphasize the genius loci and idea of generations meeting.”

It’s projects like these that architect Jan Šépka, owner of Šépka architekti and a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture at Czech Technical University, can relate to. His work with architecture students is focused on urban development.

“With students, it is possible to deal with visions or projects that should be dealt with in the Czech Republic, however, for some reason, unfortunately, are not addressed,” says Šépka. He does, however, foresee changes on the horizon at a more tangible level.

“In the Czech Republic, it is more a matter of details and particulars before any major design work can be done on environmental sustainability despite the fact that under the new Building Act, sustainable development should be an integral part of planning,” he says. “At least a little has changed in the approach to landscaping, for example, a standard part of the planning is for ecological stability, like landscape corridors that connect natural habitats.”

British author Philip Monaghan has recently written Sustainability in Austerity, a book which addresses how to develop cities sustainably in a cost neutral way. He believes it comes down to education.

“Education about the desirability of change is the biggest barrier, both amongst city leaders and the general public,” he said. “We need to make sure everyone is properly informed about the many ways we can make our communities more sustainable that is beneficial for all, for example, less burden on local taxes, a better local environment, etc.”

Different Programs Around the Region

Šépka says that many architects, developers and planners, take their cues from Germany, where the subject of sustainable development is already established and more widely known. For example, city planners in Munich discovered industrial areas in the city area can be transformed into vibrant neighborhoods. Theresienhöhe used to be the city’s trade fair site. As these activities moved elsewhere, the city seized the opportunity to revitalize the area in a sustainable way. They turned some of the old buildings into museums and focused on combining business and residential space to create a lively atmosphere. The residents were also highly involved in the process, which led to greater acceptance of the planned projects. In researching his book, Mr. Monaghan found some interesting examples in sustainability from Central and Eastern Europe.

“A key insight is that there are many examples of good practice in Central and Eastern Europe from which the rest of the world can learn, as opposed to Central and Eastern Europe importing lessons from the rest of the world” he says.

Two projects Monaghan discovered in his research are a “festival of recycling” in Krakow, Poland and “walking weekends” in Craiova, Romania. “These are both innovative ways to bring communities together to minimize pollution from waste and road transport respectively,” he says. Chrudim believes that involving its residents in these kinds of projects is ideal.

“We want to have active citizen involvement in the city’s development activities to create a sense of belonging to the place where they live, work and spend their leisure time,” echoes Trunecková.

Concerns and Suggestions

The global economic crisis and continuous budget cuts put town halls in a tough position. When police and school budgets must be cut – how can they justify solar panels and a new park? Trunečková says this is not a factor for Chrudim.

“Money is not our first concern,” she says. “Our plans are long-term and we have as our main goal to set the direction for the introduction of environmentally friendly behavior and thinking. This will lead to savings of both renewable and nonrenewable resources.” She adds that the city has received grants in various forms for its work associated with Local Agenda 21, as well as for investment projects.

The current economic situation is why Monaghan wrote his book.

“I was inspired to write the book as a response to the global financial crisis and the expectation that local councils would have to manage with much reduced budgets at the very same time as environmental problems like climate change were at their most problematic,” he says.

Trunecková says city councils that are looking to go this route need to commit.

“Very important is political support throughout the process and the promotion of innovative ideas; for these innovations you must find someone who is willing to devote extra time,” she says. “You also need plenty of patience, since the results don’t appear for some time.”

Monaghan has some suggestions as well.

“City planners need to factor in environmental criteria to how they design and redevelop communities, for example ensuring new buildings are water or energy efficient. Concerned citizens can do their bit too by ensuring they monitor and manage the way they consume energy and water in their home or travel by car for work and leisure, for example spending less time in the shower or walking to work.”

What the Future May Hold
Trunecková says Chrudim is committed to daily operational activities that will alleviate pressure on the environment and human health. She cites their Integrated Development Plan as one ongoing initiative.

“The focus is based on a strategic development of documents and tools for the coordination and implementation of selected activities leading to sustainable urban development,” she explains. “This plan contains a set of time related projects that are implemented in a selected area of the city and aim to achieve the common vision and goals of the city.” The plan is notable in that it is drawn from the town’s strategic and development plans. Chrudim uses it as a tool to coordinate and implement a variety of projects, ranging from their municipal plan to the town plan to the health and quality of life plan. The hope is that by putting together a broad overview the town will be able to better capitalize and mobilize public and private resources. To properly manage costs and oversight, a database is used to reflect who is responsible for what and how it links back into the municipal budget.

Chrudim took the initiative many years ago to focus on a sustainable quality of life for its residents. They’ve proven that big changes can happen if the political will and involvement of the residents is there – and councils are willing to stick it out for the long haul. Chrudim isn’t the only city out there quietly doing what it thinks is right for a greener and more sustainable future. The changes they and other forward thinking cities have made though are often at the policy level – and not particularly newsworthy. Raising the collective conscience of citizens everywhere to the possibilities of a greener future is greatly needed.

For his part, Monaghan sees two options for communities of the future.

“If the human race is clever, nations will have already begun to decarbonize national economies, by switching to super-insulated buildings, renewable forms of heating and power, using electric vehicles and consuming locally produced food. Smart grids will be the norm here, whereby super computers ensure we are as efficient as possible with the use of limited resources, at home or at work. Further to this, more and more people will be asked to live in our ‘mega cities,’ in recognition of the eco-efficiency benefits,” he says. “If the human race is stupid, then the sustainable city landscape will be in ruins as over population/consumption will already be out of control and climate change will be irreversible.”