This article is part of the special report The World in 2050.
When urban planning experts imagine what European cities will be like 30 years from now, they don’t have sci-fi visions of flying cars or pneumatic tubes shooting people across town.
Instead, they dream of urban centers that are very similar to today’s but where public space is employed in a radically different way.
Structurally, streets, avenues and boulevards remain the same, but empty of most of the cars that fill them today. The place of cars is taken by pedestrians, cyclists and electric buses, while gardens, playgrounds and restaurant terraces occupy former parking spots.
Advocates of this vision of urban living say it promises a better quality of life — but even if it didn’t, it may soon become the norm in Europe if Brussels hopes to achieve its goal of bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero by 2050.
Coronavirus-related lockdowns led to a dramatic drop in air pollution levels in Europe’s cities.
There is also pressure on cities to do something about nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emitted by cars — a factor in global warming as well as the toxic smog that kills thousands every year.
“While most vehicle kilometers are racked up on motorways, air pollution is disproportionately higher in cities because you’re in stop-start traffic,” explained Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles and e-mobility at the NGO Transport & Environment. “You end up having higher per-mile consumption and emissions.”
That reality was brought into stark relief this year when coronavirus-related lockdowns led to a dramatic drop in air pollution levels in Europe’s cities.
Restrictions on private car use contributed to NO2 levels in Barcelona dropping by 55 percent in March compared with those registered a year earlier, according to the European Environment Agency. In Milan, the average concentration of NO2 fell by 24 percent within four weeks of lockdown.
“COVID-19 showed many people what it’s like to live in a city with clean air, a glimpse of what the future could be like,” said Poliscanova.
The mobility expert indicated that the challenge now — and looking forward toward the 2050 climate neutrality target — is keeping emissions low as activity returns to urban centers. In order to square that circle, policymakers may need to forget a century of spatial planning that prioritized cars and instead reserve streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Cities need to be inconvenient for cars, but convenient for emissions-free movement,” said Poliscanova.
The Groningen model
The Dutch city of Groningen pioneered that approach back in the 1970s. As cars began to clog the streets, the local government bucked the trend that led other municipalities to ram motorways through city centers and instead opted for kicking the vehicles out.
The city was divided into four sections, and while pedestrians and cyclists were allowed to move freely, cars were prohibited from crossing between zones and forced to take an exterior ring road that made motorized transit time-consuming — and annoying.
Today two-thirds of all commuting in Groningen is done by bike, and the model set by the city is an inspiration for others looking to reduce traffic and slash emissions. Similar schemes have been adopted in Utrecht, Ghent and, most recently, Brussels, where car access within the central Pentagon area has been restricted since last month.
Bart Dhondt, the Brussels municipality’s alderman for mobility, explained that 60 areas across the Brussels region have been defined as potential zones for prioritized, low-emission mobility.
“Our vision is that drivers use ring roads to go around — and not cut through — parts of the city,” said Dhondt. “The goal is to let people have good air quality and the freedom to walk, play and ride their bike at ease.”
Dhondt said that other communes within the city of Brussels are expected to enact similar systems, and that if progress remains consistent, he not only hopes the capital’s notoriously high emissions would be slashed by 2050, but that Brussels would become a “cyclist city” within 30 years.
“Some electric car transport will be necessary for those who are elderly or disabled … but my dream is that half the commutes be made by bike by that point.”
Downtown village living
In their drive to cut emissions, some European cities are banning “dirty” vehicles altogether.
As part of its Clean Air Action plan, Amsterdam will ban diesel cars that are 15 years or older from traveling the Dutch capital’s A10 ring road by year’s end. By 2030 all forms of transport in the city, including cars and motorbikes, will have to be emissions-free.
In Rome, Mayor Virginia Raggi has also announced plans to ban diesel cars from the city center by 2024, while Madrid’s zero-emissions zone already bars diesel vehicles made prior to 2006.
In other metropolitan centers, however, city leaders are addressing climate neutrality by proposing fundamental changes to how residents live.
As part of her 2020 reelection campaign, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo unveiled a ville du quart d’heure — or “15-minute city” — a plan that envisions hyper-local neighborhood life in which every resident can find everything they need within a 15-minute walking or biking radius of their home. The concept, which essentially encourages urbanites to live in their neighborhoods as if they were self-sufficient villages, was developed by Hidalgo’s adviser, smart cities specialist Carlos Moreno.
“The current rhythm of life in most cities is incompatible with achieving climate neutrality by 2050,” Moreno told POLITICO. “In order to reduce our emissions as drastically as must be done, we need to radically transform our lifestyle.”
“Low carbon mobility must be the key, but we must also question long commutes in general,” he said. “If we want people to develop a sense of solidarity and recover a sense of integration where they live, we must let their lives play out in short distances, that allow them to develop new lifestyles based on smaller carbon footprints.”
Poliscanova said that whatever the urban planning model, it’s clear that the common vision of Europe’s cities three decades from now involves “lots and lots of space for walking where cars used to be parked, bikes everywhere, public transport, and maybe some shared electric cars that could even suck up surplus renewable energy while plugged into the grid.”
“Everything we need to make cities emissions-free has already been invented. All we need are politicians with the courage to push away polluting cars and put these measures into effect,” she added.