Spanish Cities Far From Sustainable
MADRID, March 1, 2012 (IPS) - Though Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque Country, was elected the European Green Capital of 2012 – an award presented by the European Union to promote and reward efforts to mitigate climate change – Spain still has a long way to go to earn the label of ‘sustainable’ for others cities around the country.
The air that the citizens of Vitoria-Gasteiz breathe is of the highest quality, according to the score given by the European Union, thanks to campaigns to increase bicycle use around the city and the promotion of a new bus network together with tram routes and new parking regulations.
In contrast, cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla or Bilbao have been consistently exceeding standard levels of pollution as a result of a lack of environmental planning and a long drought.
"The necessary ingredients of a sustainable city are social inclusion and environmental quality in a dense, compact and diverse area with (democratic) participation in decision making," Luís Jiménez, director of the Observatory on Sustainability in Spain (OSE), told IPS.
"In the developed world, cities determine to a great extent (a country’s) consumption pattern of materials and energy as well as territory. (Urban areas) contribute 75 percent of the planet’s pollution and use 70 percent of energy consumed by mankind," he added.
Currently, cities are home to over half of the world’s population, a figure that, in Europe, increases to around 80 percent and in Spain to 70 percent of inhabitants.
As economic, cultural and social centres, cities provoke critical internal and external environmental impacts that cause serious ripple effects for other – mostly rural – systems, which, in Spain, comprise 90 percent of the land.
Ignacio Santos, an environmental expert currently working as a technical assistant for the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), points out two key factors in measuring environmental advances or degeneration in Spanish cities: firstly, residents’ quality of life (which is tied to the quality of the urban environment) and secondly, an ‘ecological footprint’.
In terms of air quality, it is worth noting that approximately 87 percent of the Spanish population breathes ‘polluted air’, as defined by the World Health Organization.
This has resulted in 16,000 premature deaths annually and led to the proliferation of various respiratory diseases.
"In Spain, the process of industrialisation and urbanisation has degraded quality, particularly in urban centers. It is crucial to reinforce the public’s capacity for action against atmospheric pollution and to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with integrated health, environmental and climate change policies," Jiménez stressed.
According to Luis González, a member of Ecologistas en Acción, the main reason behind air quality degeneration in the cities is increased traffic, which directly emits particles in suspension from precursors (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides or methane) that make up tropospheric ozone.
Sadly, "Local authorities have just denied the problem or moved the measure stations. There are no programs aimed at reducing traffic and insufficient awareness of the use of different means of transport, such as the bicycle," González told IPS.
The ‘ecological footprint’, a reliable methodology designed to measure human impact on the planet, essentially maps humans’ demand for natural resources and contrasts it against the Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate those resources. According to the Ecological Footprint Atlas (2010), a publication from the Global Footprint Network, Spain has the 19th largest eco-footprint per person in a list of 153 countries.
Spain’s ecological footprint has grown by an annual average of 0.1 global hectares per person since 1995, according to the report Global Change Spain 2020/2050. By 2005 there had been an increase of 19 percent, which meant that the necessary ecological territory to produce resources and assimilate the residue produced by each Spanish person in 2005 was 6.4 global hectares per person.
"Therefore we are living beyond our means. If we want cities with quality of life and minimum impact, we have to ensure that our ecological footprint does not exceed our available biocapacity. Technological measures to improve efficiency in the use and production of resources are not enough to achieve that. The main challenge is to achieve a great change in current consumption habits," Jiménez concluded.
Some experts believe it is necessary to rethink ‘urban metabolism’ as a means of reducing a country’s ecological footprint and improving air quality as well as other environmental aspects.
In the past few decades, territorial and urban planning based on unlimited and indiscriminate real- estate growth has been promoted.
This programme has been supported by a series of contradictory legislations: several regions’ urban regulations placed an upper limit on building densities, but in no case were these regulations enacted.
"It is important to have a clear idea of what kind of model of city we are talking about," said Santos. "Sustainable cities are not those which are built with a lot of houses nor those full of big buildings and without green spaces," he added.
"For example," Santos told IPS, "Madrid’s metropolitan area is a model of a big city developed in an uncontrolled and dispersed way. New neighborhoods without an underground transport service are still being designed while there are a large number of empty houses in the city centre."
An expansive city with a low building density and territorial dispersion in urban services needs more transport infrastructure, more energy consumption and takes up more land surface. All those factors affect the environment and increase greenhouse emissions, with a severe impact on air quality, climate change and acoustic pollution, among others – all of which affect the quality of life of citizens and other surrounding social and natural systems.
Also, a city without parks and green belts means a lack of trees to absorb pollution and reduce the impact of noise.
Dealing with all of these issues requires adapting the city to the limits of biocapacity, while aiming for sustainability.
"If we are in a relative situation of sustainability improvement, as a result of the economic crisis, this does not mean that a clear effort to change unsustainable growth (patterns) exists," Jiménez stressed.
Current development trends in Spain are intrinsically incompatible with the planet on which we live, which has finite resources that are dwindling faster than at any other time in human history.
Stressing the urgency of the situation, Santos urged "not only need political will, but also scientific knowledge. To design and implement policies, it is necessary to have planners, decision makers and citizens with the carbon cycle constantly on their minds.