Architecture / International

Road to the Greenest City in Europe

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Växjö is a small town in the South of Sweden. When I mentioned my trip there to my Swedish colleague Ellen, she puzzled. “Why visiting such a boring place in the middle of nowhere? There’s nothing in the area but forest.” Indeed. There’s nothing but forest. And 200 lakes. And a unique expertise in making use of them to reduce a city’s impact.

After Växjö had been discovered by the BBC, to whom it owes the title of Greenest City in Europe, its model became famous all over the world. Every year thousands of city mayors, journalists, technicians and tourists come to learn how, in a span of twenty years, the town with a population of 84,000 had reduced its annual carbon dioxide emissions from 4500 kg per capita in 1993 to about 2000 kg in 2015. For 2030, the goal is to reach a threshold of 1000 kg per capita.

The graph below, included in the Energy Plan for the City of  Växjö, shows the target for 2012 in terms of emissions reduction (click to enlarge).

The history of Växjö as a low carbon urban centre begins in the Seventies when the first global energy crisis occurred. Finding themselves in an emergency situation, administrators understood the importance of energy security. Through the years they worked on a framework and in 1996, came to a unanimous decision to make Växjö a fossil fuel free city. ‘We have the vision of a Fossil Fuel Free Växjö, where our energy consumption does not lead to any climate effect’ they say.

Low carbon real estate

Along with a strong inter-party policy on renewable energy, Växjö lowered its impact through an integrated strategy of energy efficiency in the construction sector.

In order to reach the energy efficiency targets in the municipal environmental programme, large-scale actions are carried out in existing building stock. In fact, existing building stock consumes the largest part of energy of real estate sector.

Muncipally owned companies determine the best energy efficiency level for each building. By 2015 Växjö is meant to have at least 50 per cent of energy efficient buildings, among those included in renovation projects. The city of Växjö also provides energy and climate counselling where citizens, companies, real estate owners, organisations and associations get advice and support when undertaking energy efficiency measures.

Natural resources as a tool for ecological buildings

New building projects are designed on a life cycle perspective, with special focus on energy efficiency. To build their passive buildings, which reach the highest energy standards, architects replace cement with timber, abundant in the area.

Hans Andrén, real estate projects coordinator for the City of Växjö, explains that timber is cheaper and presents a number of interesting features, such as low impact, heat insulation and flexibility. Besides, better insulation means lower energy consumption.

Eight floor tall buildings on the lake bank of Växjö are built with timber, without any cement or iron structure. This results in a landscape in which natural and urban elements are combined harmoniously. Since constructing with timber and laminated wood is quicker and cheaper, apartments are more sustainable also in terms of price.

Exportable model?

On the way back from Sweden, one question rose between inspiring memories of a low carbon city, where high ecological standards range in parallel with improved quality of life:

Can this model apply to bigger cities, with less abundant natural resources?

What you can learn in Växjö, while treating your eyes and soul to nature and examples of evolved planning, is that building resilience is purely local business. You don’t need forests or lakes, but you have to know in depth the strengths and weaknesses of your area and human activities established in it.

Sustainable planning implies positive usage of all the tools already present in a territory. Natural heritage, local economy and industries, politics and culture merge to produce a different and unique organism. Sustainable London would never appear like Växjö or any other city in the world. But it would answer the same questions about the future of humankind in front of climate change and energy poverty.

Pictures and text by Lou


One thought on “Road to the Greenest City in Europe

  1. Some good work here – you use Heading 3 subheadings, and links, and there are a lot of nice short pars (although your early ones need splitting – par 2 can be split into 3 pars). The slideshow is a lovely multimedia touch.

    Try putting place names and people’s names in bold the first time you mention them – it makes it easier to find when scanning. Add names to the tags.

    More broadly I’d like to see some direct quotes here – it will add another dimension to your own direct reporting.

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