The European Green Capital Award, which was initiated in 2008, aims to reward cities for environmental performance, sustainability plans and acting as a role model for other cities. In Part II, we look at the four cities in this case study: Copenhagen, Essen, Nijmegen and Oslo


The European Green Capital Award, which was initiated in 2008, aims to reward cities for environmental performance, sustainability plans and acting as a role model for other cities. In Part I, we looked at the 12 environmental indicators as well as cities of the future.

Case studies of European green capitals

Rudden and colleagues (Rudden et al., 2015) outlined the role of civil engineers in sustainable development in the early years of the EGCA (2010–2015). Case studies were taken from Stockholm in Sweden, Hamburg in Germany, Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain, Nantes in France and Bristol in the UK.

This paper includes case studies from Copenhagen, Essen, Nijmegen and Oslo, showcasing both smart and green initiatives in winning cities.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is known for being one of the most liveable, socially inclusive cities in the world. With a population of approximately 600,000 and one of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per capita of European cities at 2·5 t per capita per annum (City of Copenhagen, 2016), the city is known for its commitment to green development, its use of clean technology and collaborative approaches to realise its transition towards a lowcarbon dioxide sustainable economy.

As winner of the 2014 cycle of the EGCA (Figure 2), Copenhagen was commended for its robust citizen engagement by the city and use of public–private partnerships to achieve green growth (Rudden and O’Neill, 2012a, 2012b).

This was evidenced by Copenhagen’s climate adaptation plan, which commits the city to achieving 20 per cent greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by 2015 (compared to 2005) and carbon dioxide neutrality by 2025 (EC, 2012).

Copenhagen’s GHG emissions were 1·45 Mt in 2015, a reduction of 38 per cent since 2005 and 11 per cent since 2014. These reductions took place during a period of 16 per cent population growth (City of Copenhagen, 2016).

The ‘Copenhagen Connecting’ initiative is centred on the intelligent use of wireless data to improve the quality of life for Copenhagen’s citizens by reducing air pollution, resource depletion, traffic congestion and carbon dioxide emissions.

It achieves this by integrating data from a variety of different sources and systems to create cross-cutting analyses which serve to meet the demands of end-users more efficiently.

Practical applications include using data-driven traffic management and satellite-positioning technology in buses to optimise mobility, and placing sensors in waste bins and sewage systems to provide real-time monitoring of pollutants and improve resource efficiency.

The project has been designed to be both scalable and replicable around the globe, making Copenhagen not only an environmental front runner but also an ambassador for clean, green growth (Figure 3).

The ‘EnergyBlock’ demonstration project is an excellent example of Copenhagen’s leadership in the field of smart, inclusive development. It is a ‘living laboratory’ that acts as a testing ground for sustainable solutions based on decentralised energy using open data and block chain technology.

The project investigates the potential for using renewable energy sources in a real urban environment by using real-time monitoring data to analyse energy and food production and consumption patterns.

EnergyBlock empowers Copenhagen’s citizens as ‘prosumers’, those who both produce and consume energy, and all data gathered through the project life cycle are published by way of Copenhagen’s open data portal.

The project will promote citizen engagement and increase dependence on renewable energy resources that are available locally in the urban environment.

Figure 3. Economic impact of green technology in Copenhagen as a percentage since 2004: (a) exports and (b) productivity.

Copenhagen demonstrated its commitment to participatory innovation and sustainability through the foundation of the European Green Capital network, a fundamental aspect of the EGCA initiative, which has grown from strength to strength since its inception.

The network is a platform for knowledge transfer among Europe’s environmental front runners. It stimulates peerto-peer exchange of best practices and delivers on Europe’s commitment to engage with cities and promote sustainable urban development under the seventh environment action programme and urban agenda for the EU.

Essen, Germany

Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany, with a population of nearly 590,000. It covers an area of 210km2 and is traversed by the rivers Emscher and Ruhr and the Rhine-Herne Canal.

It was established 1,160 years ago and for centuries was dominated by the coal and steel industry, which has had a long-lasting influence on the environment. Essen is now an example of a city that is actively transforming from ‘grey’ to ‘green’.

In particular, Essen’s surface and ground water systems were impacted by its heavily industrialised past. The Emscher, a tributary of the Rhine, was for many years used as an open sewer as closed systems were not used due to ongoing subsidence from mining activity.

It was considered biologically dead and a public health threat due to its severely polluted state. A further complication was the Emscher’s reduced drainage capacity, a result of its natural flow being altered due to this massive land subsidence, which led to increased flooding.

Figure 4. Drainage in Essen, the 2017 European Green
Capital, showing (a) the former open sewer arrangement and (b) the separated sewer and river system following the €4·5bn River Emscher conversion project in 2020 (source:

Essen is now considered a model of structural change and is implementing one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, the Emscher conversion (Figure 4). This aims to separate the flow into two systems, a new wastewater interception tunnel at a lower level and rejuvenated river at a higher level for clean stream water. The overall investment is €4·5 billion over 20 years, with completion scheduled for 2020.

Phase 1 was to treat wastewater in the region instead of outside. This included the installation of four large biological wastewater treatment plants to handle the household and industrial wastewater of the Emscher region, with a treatment capacity of approximately 4·8 million population equivalent.

Membrane filter technology is also being piloted for advanced treatment and reuse potential of wastewater (EGLV, 2018a). Phase 2 of the project includes construction of 400km of underground sewers along the waterways. More than 220km is already in place, mainly along the Emscher, at depths of up to 40m (EGLV, 2018b).

A number of interesting innovations have been developed. These include an automated system for inspection and cleaning of the sewers, replacing the conventional manned inspection process (EC, 2015a, 2015b).

In addition, multi-functional green areas that help to absorb rainwater, pre-empt floods and replenish groundwater reserves have been created to reach the target of 15 per cent rainwater decoupling by 2020. Adaptations to prepare the system for the consequences of climate change are also planned.

A total of 22 dedicated flood-retention basins have been introduced to counter the potentially damaging impacts of flooding. These have the added benefit of encouraging naturalisation (EGLV, 2018c).

Flora and fauna have also started to return to habitats in the ecologically improved river sections. The revived waterways, which have been planned with walkways and cycle paths, are open and accessible to the public to enjoy the new environments.

Nijmegen, the Netherlands

Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands, a historic city established in Roman times more than 2000 years ago in approximately 98 ce. It has undergone many changes and adapted to the world through these times.

The city has a population of 174,000, which includes 20,000 students, and covers a surface area of 57·6km2. Currently, Nijmegen has positioned itself as a green leader in European sustainability.

There was a history of flooding in the city because of a bottleneck in the River Waal, which flows through it. This was solved by moving the dyke at the north bank of the river some 350m inland and creating an auxiliary channel to make ‘room for the river’ in high flow conditions (Figure 5).

The new island in the middle of the river is a unique urban river park with possibilities for recreation, culture, water and nature.

In 2016 Nijmegen was voted the best cycling city in the Netherlands by the Dutch Cyclists Union. The Netherlands has a strong tradition of cycling and the city has developed strong policies, plans and initiatives to support the long-term sustainable transport option of cycling.

Mobility is a key pillar within Nijmegen’s sustainability agenda and the city has a smart transport network in place, in which cycling is the highest priority.

To support and encourage the uptake of cycling, the right type of infrastructure needs to be designed and implemented. The main considerations are routes that are safe and bicycle friendly, including separate cycleways, free-flow intersections, bicycle wheel channels along the length of bridges, car barriers such as automated bollards and bicycle parking facilities. In combination, these will allow increased connectivity between starting and destination points.

Figure 5. An unrivalled commitment to cycling plus the creation of a new island in the River Waal led to Nijmegen becoming the European Green Capital in 2018.

In numbers, the city has 250,000 bicycles, which is 1·4 bicycles per citizen. It has 5,800 secure bicycle parking spaces. It has separate cycling paths along its 70km of municipal roads with bike tunnels, bridges and flyover junctions to separate cyclists from cars at dense traffic points.

Nijmegen has approximately 0·7m of cycle path per capita (this criterion was a prespecified parameter of the EGCA independent ‘public mobility’ expert panellist). Cyclists also have right of way on safely designed junctions and roundabouts.

In Nijmegen more than 65 per cent of journeys to the city centre and the university are by bicycle and 37 per cent of ‘short’ journeys (up to 7·5km) are by bicycle, which is a high percentage of the modal split (EC, 2015c, 2016c, 2016d).

To grow cycling for journeys of greater distances, Nijmegen has started construction of a network of cycle superhighways. These connect strategic locations of greater distance and are designed and built to give the highest priority to commuter needs, with fast, comfortable and safe routes.

The introduction of electric bicycles in recent years has now made what would previously have been an exhaustively long journey into a viable possibility for the average commuter. To date 60km of cycle superhighways have already been built and a further 20km are planned by 2020. Financially, it can be 40-50 times cheaper to create 1km of cycle superhighway in comparison to a motorway (Bicycle Dutch, 2015).

The most direct benefits of cycling are manifold, including improved air quality and human health, and reduced noise, congestion and GHG emissions. However, the indirect impacts are observed over a wider range of integrated environmental indicators such as eco-innovation on new cycling infrastructure.

Oslo, Norway

The city of Oslo is the capital of Norway and the country’s largest city, with approximately 660,000 inhabitants. The city is surrounded by the nationally protected Marka Forest and is shaped by its urban waterways, which have defined Oslo’s development throughout history.

Ten main rivers, equating to 354km of waterways, traverse the built environment and connect the forest to the fjord. These rivers and streams provide vital ecosystem services and serve as important flooding control.

Historically, Oslo’s waterways were enclosed in pipes and culverts to protect them from contamination from the sewage system and heavy pollution from industrial leaks, emissions and spills. In recent years, climate change has resulted in increased rainfall, storm surges and an increased risk of flooding in the city.

As a result, the enclosed waterways have been put under pressure above their designed capacity and, during peak loading, the increased pressure on the water infrastructure has resulted in flooding events (EC, 2017).

To tackle the challenge and adapt to the impacts of climate change, Oslo has developed a programme to reopen its waterways. Over the past decade 2810m of waterways have been reopened and the city plans to reopen a further 30 more stretches in the future.

This project benefits the health and wellbeing of the city’s inhabitants by providing new amenities, improving water quality and offering reliable flood mitigation. It has also improved the local biosphere by creating and reinstating habitats for native flora and fauna.

At present, 30 per cent of Oslo’s traffic emissions come from the construction sector. Under an innovative procurement strategy, the city of Oslo has established zero emissions criteria for construction sites in all of its public tenders.

Fossil-fuel-free construction sites will contribute to achieving the city’s goal to reduce GHG emissions by 95 per cent and to eliminate the use of fossil fuels from the current level of one-third of the energy mix (Figure 6) by 2030. This is an ambitious target, which has the potential to benefit air quality, mitigate climate change and drive innovation in the construction sector.

Oslo demonstrates an integrated approach to improve the quality of life of its citizens through forward thinking initiatives such as its ambitious, multilevel climate-financing scheme and its extensive project to reopen waterways.

These will benefit inhabitants, facilitate habitat development and reduce the likelihood and severity of flood events. Green governance results in green city life for Oslo’s citizens, opening access to clean air, clean water and sustainable urban living.


Integration in a ‘whole city’ approach, with collaboration between the city and its citizens and other stakeholders, is the key to creating a sustainable urban environment.

The first tranche of cities that won the EGCA set a remarkable standard of environmentally sustainable and smart city living, ensuring the project’s success over the past 10 years.

This has been acknowledged internationally, especially in the USA (Beatley, 2012) and in parts of Asia, where green city conferences have been held in Taiwan and Japan with EGCA participation.

Figure 6. Voted European Green Capital for 2019, Oslo plans to
cut fossil fuels in its energy mix from the 2014 level of 33% to
0% by 2030 (Statistics Norway, The Climate and Energy Strategy
(11D3), District heating provider Hafslund (11D40))

The more recent winners have built on the standard in different ways, combining technology and green growth. Sustainability is not an abstract aim for the future: it is a current and planned investment in cleaner air and water, greater ease of human mobility around cities and a more circular economy.

It provides opportunities for green growth in waste management and the ‘bioeconomy’. There is a robustly consistent approach in measuring the performance of different cities through the use of independent experts, peer review and conflict-of-interest provisions.

Eco-innovation is also a powerful driver to growth enterprise and makes for healthier living. This is clearly shown by the EGCA catchphrase, ‘green cities – fit for life’, leading to year-on-year growth. All of the cities featured in this paper show a commitment to bring their citizens with them on this journey.

The achievement of climate change action is only possible by making concrete investments as in the River Waal in Nijmegen, in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the construction industry in Oslo, in building a smarter economy in Copenhagen or in purifying the River Emscher in Essen.

In nearly all cases, civil engineering has played a key role in the initiatives. Communication through the recently established European Green Capital network ensures inter-urban collaboration and dissemination of best practice to all cities, not only in Europe but globally.

Authors: Louise Connolly BSc, MSc, MCIWM senior associate, RPS; Louise Campion BSc, ME, PGCert, MIEI project engineer, RPS; Patrick Rudden BE, CEng, FIEI, FICE, FIAE, FCIWM, FIGEM, MCIWEM, FConEI director, RPS, Dublin. Part I can be seen here.

This article was published with the kind permission from ICE Proceedings where the article was published in September 2018 special edition on ‘Cities of the Future’ to mark the bicentenary of the founding of ICE in 1818.


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The European Green Capital Award, which was initiated in 2008, aims to reward cities for environmental performance, sustainability plans and acting as a role model for other cities. In Part I, we looked at the 12 environmental indicators as well as cities of the future. Case studies of European green...