8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns (上)

The hope to better organize, to reflect upon and to share what I have learn from these events was one of the things that drove me to start this website in the first place. So, here it is, my first try of writing a conference journal. The whole event has been truly inspiring to me so here is my attempt to capture some of the moments…

Day 1. April 26th, 2016

Received a bag of goodies at registration. I really loved the fact that our conference badge can serve as a pass for the city tram during these 3 days and 2 additional metro tickets were provided.  But as for the rest of the content of the “goodies bag” (cloth bag, water bottle, umbrella…), I felt a bit uneasy for as much as I appreciated the effort, I doubt that giving out 800+ of these nice but not necessary stuff was sustainable. A few speakers also addressed this uncomfortable life style topic and my mind has been lingering upon the topic of sustainable event hosting, so I wrote about it in a separate post. 

On the bright side, I was impressed by host’s effort to give this international conference some essence of the local culture. The event kicked off with traditional basque music and dance, as well as a message from its Youth urging politicians to take actions. Many talks were given in Spanish, which surprised me at first. But as one of my favorite delegates later pointed out, it should be appreciated as an embodiment of “think global, act local”. Indeed, good work after all was often done by the local people and authorities, and they should be able to share their stories comfortably with their own languages.

The speakers started on quite a high note with many big people giving speeches with nice words of hope to the point where I honestly felt a bit drained in all the optimism. I personal was just eager to find out where all the actions are and how I could be part of that. But it did get a lot more interesting…

I’m highlighting a few speakers who really impressed me:

  • Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director, European Environment Agency

His perspective was so scientific that it reminded me of many of my courses. But it was overall very informative.

“…the language is there but the problem is how to match actions…”

    • There is a 7th environmental action program coming out that envisions a systemic transition to circular, low carbon economy where natural capitals are protected, instead of being degraded by our current fundamentally unsustainable system…

    • There are three main areas of challenges in urban systems (detailed EEA reports are available on these topics)
      • Ecosystem: land use, ecosystem integration in the city, local climate regulation, carbon sequestration, flood regulations, ecosystem services’ recreational and aesthetic values
      • Social systems: growth, aging, diversifying, equality, values, behavior, lifestyle, culture, political, economic system, knowledge, engagement, participation…
      • Grey urban system (infrastructures and spatial planning) has impact on carbon, resource use and land use. This one is quite crucial for infrastructures like public transportation systems last for centuries hence cities get “locked-in” to be sustainable or unsustainable. This insight is quite relevant to my thesis topic which should explore how to take advantage of the urban form for resource efficiency.

    • However there are limits to efficiency and technological gains: for example, electrical vehicles is not a solution for unsustainable mobility schemes because the roads will still be congested. Instead, we need to rethink the whole system and to develop new business models of better public transportation.
    • There are good opportunities for city to act: mitigate, avoid, restore and adapt.


  • Arab Hoballah, Chief of Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

I liked his talk a lot mostly because he brought people back to earth, and to face some uncomfortable topics with a sense of urgency.

“…we are in deep problems and are far from reaching our (sustainability) goals…”

He directed out attention to no further but our own behavior and life style by pointing out that in such a conference, cheap umbrellas made in China were distributed to everyone. The point is that there is still a lot of challenges for the concept of sustainability to reach the mass population and everyday life.

Life style is not a “sexy” topic and reflecting upon how we consume resources  in everyday modern life makes people uncomfortable. But this is a topic that needs to be addressed for there will be 2-3 billion new middle class consumers by 2040 and if they all behave like Europeans (not even like Americans), we are all going to hell!

Therefore decoupling is a must if we want any chance of achieving the SDGs. Cities need to go from being the problem to being the solution for there is no sustainability unless systems innovation happens at the city level.

I also found an interview of him on CitiesToday, where he talked about how changes can happen through the younger generation, practicalities of “selling the positive” to really implement change, and how to be convincing when proposing a “slightly more expensive but great for the long term” sustainability business case to mayors of European and developing cities with different approaches. He has really great insights and considerations for different economic and social contexts, as well as realistic pessimism and optimism, which made him one of my professional inspiration figures.

The topic of lifestyle kept coming up and reminded me of a PhD defense on low carbon lifestyle that I attended not long ago.

As well as this fridge magnet worthy quote:

Every time you buy something, you are casting a vote for the world you want to live in.

Breakout Session: Circular Cities

I attended this session for its relevance to my thesis and great speakers, especially Simone Houtman, from the Dutch ministry who talked about the Dutch program on circular economy. From what I know, the Netherlands is no doubt the “Circular Economy Hotspot” so it was nice hearing from her introduction of what had been going on in the NL national level. Seeing her orange slides for King’s Day made me slightly nostalgic.

Then Philippe Micheaux Naudet (Project Manager, ACR+, Belgium) gave a talk that was a nice surprise to me. I had never heard of the company ACR+ and had no idea that great work on circular economy was being done in Belgium. Now I should really start following their work (here is their website). Philippe gave a comprehensive overview of the 4 fields of action for circular economy and the related EU projects:

  • public procurement
  • waste selective collection
  • awareness rising
  • changing business models


As well as an overview of EU CE networks.

Food and construction waste was said to be the most promising streams to become more circular on the urban level for it makes the most sense to treat them locally. It was great to hear that since my thesis work just got the the point where I should pick out 2 streams of product to analyze and I also narrowed down my choice to materials in the food and construction sectors.

Another new topic for me is “public procurement” as a powerful instrument for the public sector to lead transition to sustainability in their own purchasing (a massive amount). Somehow I had never came across this concept before, but  it just made so much sense to me once I heard about it. Will be looking more into it…

A Basque Declaration was also signed by numerous mayors as a sign of making a commitment to aid transition to more sustainable cities. I’m not a politician so this ceremony didn’t really intrigue me. What was more interesting was to get a sense of what are the “hot” topics from following the #basque2016 twitter feed and Q&A sessions.

The local Youth Forum representatives was definitely getting a lot of attention. They were invited to the panel where they spoke about their demand for a more sustainable future and their frustration with politicians spending all their time talking about frameworks and visions. I saw that it resonated with many audiences and later some EU and UN staff had to come out and defend the importance of having these frameworks, for they provide long term, profound guidance and directives with international consideration. It also takes years to come up with these frameworks.

I can only observe this conflict of perspectives as an outsider. It is easy for someone who know almost nothing about the world to be critical about people in charge. It is also hopefully refreshing for people at the high power to hear about the true feelings of their innocent, inexperienced and slightly naive citizens to get a better sense of urgency.

Cocktail reception at Guggenheim Museum

Probably the coolest location for the best networking experience I have ever had. But was feeling quite a heavy information overdose by the end of the day. Day 2 and Day 3 to be continued with 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns (下)

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