Green City Champions: Rewarding Ambitions

Representatives of five cities to have received prestigious international sustainability awards took to the stage in Seoul this afternoon to discuss how their progress had been achieved. Morten Kabell of Copenhagen (Denmark), George Ferguson of Bristol (UK), Dejan Crnek of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Johannes van der Merwe of Cape Town (South Africa) and Dagur Eggertsson of Reykjavik (Iceland) explained why their cities had received awards and what plans they had for the future.


The Black Diamond, Copenhagen. Courtesy of jeroenpulles via Flickr.

Copenhagen (European Green Capital 2014)

Morten Kabell pointed out that Copenhagen has a long history of sustainability action – its first bike lane was built in 1912! This long tradition helped Copenhagen in its work. The slogan for Copenhagen´s year as European Green Capital was “Sharing Copenhagen”, and this was the main lesson from that year. The city realized how necessary it was to learn from others, request help where it was needed, and, in turn, to share best practice. Not all of the ideas generated by the city could be implemented alone, and recognizing this led the city to forge outstanding partnerships with the private sector and other actors.

Kabell noted that while Copenhagen´s year as Europen Green Capital had come to an end, its work towards carbon neutrality continued. A network of European green cities is of great value. Closing, Kabell stated: “Up until now, nations have been talking, but cities have acted.”

Bristol (European Green Capital 2015)

George Ferguson explained how Bristol, as a trading port, has a long history of being open to and learning from the rest of the world. It is now becoming a “global local city”. One reason Bristol was awarded the title of European Green Capital was its range of partnerships with civil society, such as the Bristol Green Capital partnership. Green initiatives had been developed by the communities themselves.

Ferguson also emphasized the need for play, a sense of fun, and unusual strategies. People cannot be engaged by serious discourse all of the time. One of Ferguson´s initiatives is the “One Tree per Child” program, in which every child under the age of 11 plants a tree in Bristol. This allows the children to connect with nature and with the concept of sustainability.

In closing, Ferguson reiterated the need for cities to steal from each other: “I shamelessly steal ideas, and I think you should all look to other cities because that is the best place to learn.”

Ljubljana (European Green Capital 2016)

Dejan Crnek explained how important it had been for Ljubljana to have a long-term vision. Ljubljana plans to become the main zero waste city in Europe. To accomplish this, the city is building an original waste management center to cover one-third of the waste of the Slovenian population. The city also has excellent water infrastructure, with natural water always available and 22 public fountains spread throughout the city.

Crnek closed by emphasising that there is enough energy available around the world. The only issue was transmitting the energy to the citizens of the cities.

Cape Town (Global Winner of Earth Hour City Challenge Award 2014)

Johannes van der Merwen highlighted a number of factors that had led to Cape Town´s award. These included the development of 11 sustainability goals and of an Energy Efficiency Forum, which had brought public and private ideas closer together. An Electricity Savings Campaign had worked with the private sector to improve efficiency, and a Smart Living Campaign had had similar success.

Cape Town is also mindful of its responsibility to adapt to climate change. It has therefore developed South Africa´s first ever integrated coastal management plan. Its progress on renewable energy is constrained by national regulations, but the city is actively lobbying for great autonomy in this regard.

Reyjkavik (Winner of Nordic Council Nature and Environment Prize 2014)

Dagur Eggertsson noted that in 1933, the skies of Reykjavik had been covered with smog. However, a century of geothermal and hydropower development had made Reyjkavik a clean and livable city. All electricity in Iceland comes from renewable sources, giving the country a huge advantage.

Transport in Reyjkavik remains an issue. The city had been planned for cars in the 1960s, and it is difficult to convince people to switch to other modes of transport.

An Action Plan has been developed to further Reyjkavik´s green policies. Much of this plan revolves around land use and densification. The aim is to move from 90% sprawl to 90% densification. Central areas have been prioritised, but not at the expense of green spaces.

In addition, the council gives small grants to students and artists to enable them to make use of previously underused spaces within the city, generating a range of innovative art and events.


In a lively Q&A session after the event, George Ferguson emphasized the need to connect with media. Morten Kabell explained how Copenhagen had engaged and empowered citizens in underserved neighborhoods, while Dejan Crnek described how the mayor of Ljubljana maintained an Open Day for one Tuesday per month in order to connect with citizens.