Sustainability in the urban realm – current challenges in the German context

by Marlehn Thieme

The factory and power plant chimneys which once belched smoke, blighting our urban landscapes, have largely disappeared. Our rivers are no longer open sewers, and quality of urban life has improved immeasurably. Where centres of heavy industry once polluted the environment, there are now eco-friendly cities – like Essen, the European Green Capital. So is it all good in Germany?

Removed from sight, pollution continues to affect the environment and human health

A closer look reveals that these positive changes often end at the city boundaries. Power plants and factories have relocated to the periphery – in Germany and across the world. Nowadays, our resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions happen elsewhere. And yet every year, tens of thousands of Europeans, most of them urban residents, die from the health effects of high levels of fine particulate matter in the air we breathe.

And while the risks to human health and the environment are less visible in Europe nowadays, they are no less devastating. They are equally severe in many developing countries and emerging economies – we need only think of the images of people scavenging on illegal dumps. Here at home, our rivers and streams have become cleaner in recent decades and many former docklands have been transformed into desirable living spaces.

But what about the drug residues and micro-particles in our wastewater which enter the seas and oceans and then return to our tables through the food chain? At present, not all of these micro-particles can be filtered out – and the new water treatment processes that this necessitates are still being developed. Our technical solutions can mitigate the negative effects, but the root causes are rarely addressed. Here in Germany, this is evident from the debate about urban bans on the use of vehicles with high particulate emissions.

Sustainable development requires willingness to change

This debate focuses on fears of restrictions on the basic freedom to individual mobility, with environmental and health aspects being secondary considerations. This is a practised reflex, with little open debate about goals and conflicts of interest. By sidestepping this debate, we convince ourselves that ‘business as usual’ is somehow compatible with sustainable development. Construction planning legislation is another example that the two are actually not compatible. The new category of the ‘urban area’ was recently introduced, where higher and denser building is permitted in order to absorb sharp population growth and support in-fill development. And yet in parallel, there are now expedited procedures for construction in the suburbs. The inherent contradictions and conflicts of interest in relation to sustainable land use are self-evident.

A similar problem arises in relation to energy-efficient housing. On the one hand, our homes are consuming less and less energy – entirely in keeping with sustainable development goals. On the other hand, the size of our homes is steadily increasing, expanding the amount of space to heat. This rebound effect cancels out progress.

There is little evidence of sustainable construction when it comes to our homes and cities. Substantial quantities of mineral resources are needed for the urgent task of constructing homes in our growing cities, and many of these resources are imported. Here in Germany, the anthropogenic stock – the resources locked into building material and consumer goods – is now estimated at 51.7 billion tonnes of material. Despite the availability of this vast resource reservoir, large amounts of ‘waste’ resources – from the demolition of buildings, for example – are not reused at all, or are treated as low-grade residual products. We still have a long way to go to reach a full circular economy in the construction sector and to effectively use the ‘grey energy’ stored in building products. And yet sustainable local solutions are available, such as the use of regenerative resources. The annual volume of new builds in Germany could be covered by one third of our annual timber harvest. Cities like Munich have launched their own subsidy schemes to support this type of building.

Mainstreaming sustainability: Policy coherence is key

Sustainable urban development goes far beyond the 2030 Agenda’s SDG 11. It must find solutions to all the challenges outlined here – challenges over which the municipalities themselves have limited influence. A city cannot become fully sustainable on its own, but it can establish an enabling environment for this purpose. That is the stated aim of the 30 mayors from all over Germany who are taking part in the ‘Sustainable City’ dialogue. As political leaders, they are working to ensure that sustainability is mainstreamed in all policy areas in their cities.

But sustainable development is also a task for the wider community, requiring more vertical integration and coordination of relevant activities. The local level must be empowered to act on its responsibilities – a point to which the mayors themselves draw attention. Many of the steps towards sustainable development in our cities are not visible, but are the result of municipal policies which are less about instant successes and more about integrating new sustainable development policies, strategies and actions into their workflows in a continuous and transparent manner.

Cities such as Freiburg and Ludwigsburg have set up sustainable development units of their own and are thus making a major contribution to make sustainability an obligatory part of municipal policy. However, in many cities, sustainable development is seen as an add-on, not an integral and mandatory part of the local government’s responsibilities. Hence, it is up to the Federal Government to take supportive action here. However, as already mentioned, the policy measures and objectives at the federal level are still conflicting. Effective and sustainable urban development needs policy coherence if it is to become the guiding principle for all decision-making. Entrenched procedures still pose an obstacle and sustainable solutions are often dismissed on the grounds that they are not economical. And yet there is an opportunity to make gains here – for all of us, at the local and global level.

The transition to sustainable urban development is still not over in Germany. The same principle applies to all forms of sustainable development: every country, wherever in the world it may be, is a country in development. Early industrialised countries such as Germany have a special responsibility to make their contribution – not only as a model for positive urban development towards sustainability, but also by providing learning spaces in a global partnership.

Marlehn Thieme

Marlehn Thieme has been a member of the Council of the Evangelical Church (EKD) in Germany since 2003. Having joined the German Council for Sustainable Development in 2004, she held the position of deputy chairwoman from 2010 to 2012 before becoming chairperson in 2012. She was reelected in 2013 and 2016. A trained lawyer, she was employed at the Deutsche Bank AG from 1986 to the end of 2013 as Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and as a member of its Supervisory Board. Marlehn Thieme chairs the Supervisory Board of the Bank für Kirche und Diakonie (KD Bank) and also the Television Council that oversees ZDF, a German public television broadcaster. Ms Thieme is a member of the High-Tech Forum which serves the German Government as a key advisory group on innovation policy. She is also a member of the National Platform Education for Sustainable Development.
Marlehn Thieme
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