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Brussels, 13 January 2006

Questions and Answers on the Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment

What is the issue?

There are increasing concerns about the quality of Europe’s urban environment. The environmental challenges facing cities have significant consequences for human health, the quality of life of urban citizens and the economic performance of the cities themselves. Achieving compliance with EU environmental laws is a particular challenge in many urban areas, for instance with air quality.

Cities are where many environmental problems are concentrated, but they are also the economic drivers, the places where business and investment are done. Four out of five European citizens live in urban areas, and their quality of life is directly influenced by the state of the urban environment. The attractiveness of European cities will enhance their potential for growth and job creation, and cities are therefore of key importance to the implementation of the Lisbon Agenda, one of whose objectives is to “make Europe a more attractive place to work and invest.”

What environmental challenges do urban areas face?

Most cities face a common core set of environmental problems such as poor air quality, high levels of traffic, congestion and noise, a poor-quality built environment, greenhouse gas emissions, urban sprawl and the generation of waste and waste water.

Many of these issues are covered by legislation. Obligations imposed at local, regional, national or European level (e.g. on land-use, noise, air quality) can be more effectively implemented at the local level when integrated into a local strategic management framework.

The environmental problems in cities are particularly complex as their causes are inter-related. Local initiatives to resolve one problem can lead to new problems elsewhere and can conflict with policies at national or regional level. For example, policies to improve air quality through the purchase of clean buses can be undermined by private transport growth brought about by land-use decisions (e.g. the construction of city-centre car parks).

The causes of the problems include changes in lifestyle (growing dependence on the private car, increase in individual households, increasing resource use per capita) and demographic changes. Challenges that will grow in the future, for instance the impacts of climate change (e.g. increased flooding), also need to be addressed.

Why is a strategy on the urban environment needed?

The 6th Environmental Action Programme (6EAP), which runs from 2002 to 2012, calls for the development of a Thematic Strategy on the urban environment with the objective of contributing “to a better quality of life through an integrated approach concentrating on urban areas” and “to a high level of quality of life and social well-being for citizens by providing an environment where the level of pollution does not give rise to harmful effects on human health and the environment and by encouraging sustainable urban development.”

It is clear that local authorities play a decisive role in improving the environmental performance of Europe’s urban areas. They are the actors closest to the problems at the local level and can play an important role in raising public awareness and encouraging changes in behaviour. Implementing environmental legislation (e.g. air quality standards) is a particular challenge for many urban areas. To do so effectively, new ways of working that go beyond the legal minimum requirements are recognised as beneficial and necessary. In particular, the best performing cities adopt strategic approaches to managing the urban environment where links and synergies between different policies are explored and exploited.

However, the urban environment also needs action at all levels: national and regional authorities and the EU also have an important role to play.

The EU can support Member States and local authorities in progressively adopting these approaches by promoting Europe’s best practices and facilitating their widespread use throughout Europe. Many solutions and approaches have been developed by EU cities but knowledge of these is not sufficiently disseminated or implemented.

Member States must also help this process by exploiting the different opportunities offered at EU level. The success of many of the actions outlined in the Thematic Strategy will ultimately depend on the extent to which Member States and local authorities exploit the opportunities offered. For instance, the Commission’s proposals for the future Cohesion Policy include many opportunities for support for investments that can improve the quality of the urban environment. To exploit these, Member States should include an appropriate urban focus in their national strategic reference frameworks.

Member States can also go further and support the general aims of the Thematic Strategy, for instance by promoting close cooperation and coordination between all the relevant administrative bodies. Environmental problems often require cooperation across administrative boundaries to achieve a successful solution.

What does the Thematic Strategy aim to achieve?

The measures foreseen under the Strategy aim to contribute to better implementation of EU environment policies and legislation at the local level. This will be done by supporting and encouraging local authorities to adopt a more integrated approach to urban management and by inviting Member States to support this process by exploiting all funding opportunities offered at EU level, including under the Commission’s proposals for the Cohesion Policy.
If implemented at all administrative levels, the Strategy will ultimately contribute to improving the quality of the urban environment, making cities more attractive and healthier places to live, work and invest in, and reducing the adverse environmental impact of cities on the wider environment, for instance as regards climate change.

What is the EU already doing about the urban environment?
Many existing EU environmental laws and other initiatives are relevant to the quality of the urban environment. For instance, EU legislation on air quality establishes targets and limit values for different pollutants. Due the high concentration of sources of pollution in cities, air quality is often a significant urban concern. EU legislation on noise requires action plans to reduce citizens’ exposure to noise and to protect quiet areas. Legislation on waste management and urban waste water treatment has helped reduce the impact that cities have on the wider environment.

However, it is important to consider the linkages between the various EU obligations and other obligations at the national, regional and local level. If local authorities are not supported in linking different policies, the measures and initiatives proposed could work against one another or achieve less than expected. It is widely recognised that the most successful local authorities use integrated approaches to manage the urban environment by adopting a long-term and strategic action plans, in which links between different policies and obligations, including at different administrative levels, are analysed in detail. The strategy seeks to support the widespread adoption of integrated approaches to managing the urban environment.

What concrete actions are foreseen under the Strategy?
Action is planned in several areas:

  • Technical guidance to local authorities

The Commission will provide technical guidance in 2006 to help local authorities adopt an integrated approach to managing the urban environment and also in developing sustainable urban transport plans. This guidance will be developed in consultation with the Member States and draw on the experience of successful cities, experts and the results of European demonstration projects such as those under the LIFE programme[1] and the CIVITAS initiative.[2] The guidance will provide advice on the links with relevant EU environmental laws, for instance on air quality, noise, water, waste and energy efficiency, in order to promote their better implementation at local level.

  • Support for EU-wide exchange of best practices

The Commission intends to consider establishing a European framework programme for exchanging experience on urban development under the proposed Cohesion Policy for the period 2007-2013 in close cooperation with the Member States. This could be based on a pilot network of ‘focal points’ on urban issues currently under way known as the ‘European Knowledge Platform’[3]. A group of 15 Member States are involved in this pilot phase. The focal points in each country are intended to provide a source of advice on urban issues. They are connected and share information so that the experiences of a local authority in one country can be shared with others elsewhere.

The Commission will also provide support for demonstration projects on urban environment issues and EU-wide exchanges of best practice between local and regional authorities through the new LIFE+ Regulation, Cohesion Policy and the Research Framework Programme. Member States and local authorities should exploit these opportunities to improve the quality of the urban environment.
Local authorities are encouraged to establish plans or programmes to promote best practice in sustainable construction methods and techniques in their cities. They can undertake a wide range of initiatives such as specifying environmental performance criteria through green public procurement or designing voluntary standards for developers to follow.

  • Training and capacity-building

The Commission will use the new LIFE+ Regulation and other instruments to support training and capacity-building for local and regional authorities on urban management issues and to deal with the environmental challenges that cities face.

  • Better access to information for local authorities

The Commission will assess the feasibility of establishing a thematic portal for local authorities on the Europa website. Its aim would be to provide links to all relevant information for local authorities, regardless of which part of the Commission produced the information. At present such information is spread over many different websites, making it difficult to find. The thematic portal will help improve the flow of information between the European institutions and local authorities.

  • Monitoring progress

Up to date and accessible data on the urban environment is needed by all relevant partners to monitor the effectiveness of the Strategy. The opportunities offered by the Strategy should stimulate active cooperation by different public authorities. High quality data on improvements in environmental performance will facilitate this cooperation. With the help of the European Environment Agency and in close cooperation with member states, the Commission will work to improve such data, but without increasing the burden for national, regional or local authorities. This will be done through the INSPIRE (Infrastructure for spatial information in Europe) initiative.

Which sectors does the strategy focus on, and how will they benefit?

Supporting and facilitating initiatives by public administrations, at national, regional and local level, are the main means of the Thematic Strategy. It offers them technical guidance, financial support through several EU funding mechanisms and support for exchanges of skills and knowledge.

Why is the Commission not proposing any new legislation under the strategy?

During its preparation of the strategy the Commission examined various options, including the possibility of legislating to ensure that integrated environmental management and sustainable urban transport plans are developed by all capital cities and those with more than 100,000 inhabitants. However, given the diversity of urban areas, the existing national, regional and local obligations, and the difficulties involved in establishing common standards for urban environment issues as a whole, it was decided that legislation would not be the best way to achieve the strategy’s objectives. Most member states and local authorities supported this approach. The Commission will therefore provide guidance in these areas.

How will Europe’s citizens feel the impact of the urban environment strategy?

The strategy will support and assist in the implementation of a number of environmental laws that will bring about improvements in the quality of the urban environment. To the extent that the opportunities in the strategy are exploited by Member States, citizens will experience improvements in their quality of life in the cities where they live. Improvements to the quality of the urban environment will also reduce health impacts from pollution for instance.

More attractive and liveable cities that attract skilled workers are likely to draw greater investment from business, creating increased economic activity and higher employment.

The public consultation carried out through the internet as part of the preparation of the strategy showed that respondents considered that the quality of the urban environment in the city where they lived was generally poor, particularly as regards noise and urban transport. Some environmental concerns were felt to be improving (quality of water, attractiveness of the urban area, quality of green spaces, nature and energy efficiency) whilst others were considered to be worsening (air quality, levels of noise and road traffic, volumes of waste generated and greenhouse gas emissions).
How much will it cost to implement the strategy?

The strategy imposes no costs on business or on local, regional or national authorities. Costs will arise for local authorities that voluntarily adopt the administrative approaches recommended in the guidance. These costs are a small percentage of the total cost of the budget they are designed to manage (e.g. around 0.7% of the 5 year budget for transport in a city).

Will there be a cost if no action is taken?
Local authorities will incur costs from poor quality urban environments and environmental performance. For instance, 370,000 premature deaths, mostly in urban areas, are attributed each year to air pollution from particulates and ground-level ozone. Inefficient transport systems impose costs on urban areas through congestion and greater dependence on private transport, which uses more resources than public transport.

How will the strategy affect EU competitiveness?

The strategy will help to improve Europe’s competitiveness since efficient, well managed and attractive cities are an essential element of a competitive European economy. A poor-quality urban environment can increase a city’s costs (e.g. through congestion) and make it unattractive to skilled workers and business.

Has the Commission consulted widely on the strategy?

Yes. The Commission has been preparing the strategy since late 2001 through an extensive consultation process. This included all Member States, stakeholders such as local and regional authorities, NGOs, academic institutions, city networks and the general public. A major stakeholder consultation event was held in June 2003 and two public consultation exercises, in February 2004 and July 2005, provided significant input to the development of the strategy. A total of seven working groups comprising expert stakeholders provided reports and recommendations to the Commission on different aspects of the strategy. The contributions are all available online at

Will the strategy contribute to the Better Regulation initiative?

Like the other thematic strategies being adopted by the Commission,[4] the urban environment strategy represents the next generation of environment policy, taking a global and medium-term perspective, setting clear environmental objectives and seeking to identify the most appropriate instruments to achieve these objectives.

It is based on extensive research and consultation with stakeholders and addresses the issue in a holistic way, taking into account links with other problems and policy areas.
Full details of the Strategy are available at

See also IP/06/34




[4] The six other thematic strategies address air pollution, the marine environment, sustainable use of resources, prevention and recycling of waste, soils and pesticides.

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