Sustainable Cities


Cities occupy approximately 3% of the Earth’s surface area but account for 60-80% percent of energy consumption and at least 70% of carbon emissions. Creating safe, resilient and sustainable cities is one of the top priorities of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 11 defines sustainable cities as those that are dedicated to achieving green sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability. They enable opportunities for all through inclusive design and maintaining sustainable economic growth. Successful sustainable cities also minimise inputs of energy, water, and food, and reduce outputs of waste, heat, air pollution, and water pollution. Sustainable cities are the cities of the future – where did the concept of sustainable cities originate, what are some examples of sustainable cities and how can we incorporate some of these principles into our own towns and cities here in Ireland? What will it take to make a city like Monaghan more sustainable? Candice Moen takes a closer look.


In 1994, in Aalborg, Denmark, a few cities signed the ‘Charter of European Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability’ (also known as the Aalborg Charter). This charter “affirms that cities are the largest unit capable of initially addressing the architectural, social, economic, political, natural resource, and environmental imbalances damaging the modern world and the smallest scale at which problems can be meaningfully resolved in an integrated, holistic, and sustainable fashion. Cities have recognized that sustainability is neither a vision nor an unchanging state, but rather a creative, local, balance-seeking process extending into all areas of local decision-making. This means that the sustainability assessment should continually evolve following the paths of the city modifications.” []

The Aalborg Charter was inspired by the Rio Earth Summit’s Local Agenda 21 plan (a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment) and was developed to contribute to the European Union’s Environmental Action Programme, ‘Towards Sustainability’.

The Charter is based on the consensus of individuals, municipalities, NGOs, national and international organisations, and scientific bodies. More than 3,000 local authorities from more than 40 countries have signed the Charter. This has resulted in the largest European movement of its type and started the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign. After over 20 years, the spirit of the Aalborg Charter remains. It prepared the ground for a variety of schemes and movements for local sustainability, such as the Aalborg Commitments, the Sustainable Cities Platform, and the Basque Declaration. []


The Aalborg Commitments were established in 2004, 10 years after the Aalborg Charter. The Commitments were endorsed at the 4th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns, again held in Aalborg. Those who sign it are committing to progress the following objectives:

GOVERNANCE: They will increase participatory democracy in decision-making processes.

LOCAL MANAGEMENT TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY: They will implement effective management cycles, from formulation through implementation to evaluation.

NATURAL COMMON GOODS: They will take full responsibility for protecting, preserving, and ensuring continued equal access to ‘natural common goods’ by reducing fossil fuel consumption, increasing renewable energies, improving water quality and use, protecting biodiversity and giving nature space, promoting sustainable agriculture and forestry, and improving air quality.

RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION AND LIFESTYLE CHOICES: They will adopt and facilitate the prudent and efficient use of resources and encouraging sustainable consumption and production.

PLANNING AND DESIGN: They will ensure a strategic role for urban planning and design in addressing environmental, social, economic, health and cultural issues for the benefit of all by (amongst other things) ensuring appropriate conservation, renovation and use/re-use of our urban cultural heritage.

BETTER MOBILITY, LESS TRAFFIC: They will recognise the interdependence of transport, health and environment and a commitment to strongly promote sustainable mobility choices by (among other things) increasing the share of journeys made by public transport, on foot and by bicycle, and developing an integrated and sustainable urban mobility plan.

LOCAL ACTION FOR HEALTH: They will protect and promote the health and wellbeing of citizens by (among other things) mobilising urban planners to integrate health considerations in their planning strategies and initiatives.

VIBRANT AND SUSTAINABLE LOCAL ECONOMY: They will support the development of a vibrant local economy that gives access to employment without damaging the environment.

SOCIAL EQUITY AND JUSTICE: They will secure inclusive and supportive communities.

LOCAL TO GLOBAL: They will assume global responsibility for peace, justice, equity, sustainable development and climate protection by working towards a sustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions; mainstreaming climate protection policy into policies in the areas of energy, transport, procurement, waste, agriculture, and forestry; raising awareness of the causes and probable impacts of climate change, and integrating preventative actions into climate change policy; reducing impact and promoting the principle of environmental justice; and strengthening international cooperation and developing local responses to global problems. [sustainable]


The Basque Declaration was adopted in 2016 at the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns, and it is a key continuation of the Aalborg Charter and the Aalborg Commitments. The Declaration highlights the need for “ambitious local leaders to think outside the box and find innovative ways to engage with civil society in order to meet economic,  environmental and social challenges”, and at the same time highlights the importance of “finding sustainable solutions that increase economic value for the benefit of the local population” and “the need for transformation in order to decarbonise energy systems, create sustainable urban mobility patterns, protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services, reduce the use of greenfield land and natural space, protect water resources and air quality, adapt to climate change, improve public space, provide adequate housing, guarantee social inclusion, and strengthen local economies”. [Basque Declaration]


Melbourne: In 2003, Melbourne set an ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2020 – it was one of the first cities in the world to do so. It made huge progress towards achieving this target by investing in renewable energy, urban forests, green buildings, waste innovation and better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. It has now realigned with the Paris Climate Agreement to achieve zero emissions by 2050. One of Melbourne’s first sustainability initiatives was the 1200 Buildings programme, which supported building owners and managers to retrofit two-thirds of the city’s 1,800 existing commercial buildings with state-of-the-art energy and water technology by 2020. Its efforts won the city a global sustainability award. Another major sustainability project is the city’s green infrastructure plan, which began in 2017. This includes a Growing Green Guide, Rooftop Project, Canopy Green Roof and Green  Laneways Project to make the city greener by increasing the number of trees and reducing carbon emissions. Melbourne is also “a city that moves’. With an estimated population of 1.4m people by 2036, the council is encouraging residents to walk, cycle and use public transport instead of driving to work by improving pedestrian infrastructure in the city centre. [Sabine Brix,]

Freiburg: Cities need space to grow and people need to access the city. But spatial and transport planning are tied together with a range of other vital choices for ecological footprints and nature conservation. How much land will be used, and how much left for nature and agriculture? How much energy will be needed and what energy sources will be used? What kinds of emissions into air, water and soils will result? The interconnectedness of accessibility and mobility with other issues is demonstrated by a city that started much earlier than most (in the 1970s) with a decision to save energy. Citizens in Freiburg, a German university city, decided not to accept a planned nuclear power station and this decision led to the development of Freiburg as a global model of sustainable urban design. Freiburg has a strong pedestrian emphasis on walking, bicycling, and public transport, with car-free areas and high levels of accessibility for people of all ages and abilities.

Freiburg’s development of sustainable transport involves restricting the use of cars in the city, providing effective transport alternatives to the car, regulating land-use and maintaining strict urban design guidelines. Two-thirds of Freiburg’s land area is devoted to green uses, 32% is used for urban development, including all transportation, forests 42%, and 27% is used for agriculture, recreation, and water protection. Freiburg’s success is credited to its democratic strength, with direct citizen participation, dynamic planning, and consensus. Active democracy was the first step when citizens worked together to oppose the planned nuclear power plant; citizens are now directly involved in land-use planning, the city budget, technical expertise committees, developing public information on sustainability, and as shareholders in local renewable energy. [Aaron Thomas,]

Glasgow: Glasgow, host of last year’s COP26 conference, won the ‘Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements Award’ in 2020 and has pledged to adopt the twin goals of climate justice and social equity in its climate roadmap. Glasgow Council declared an ecological and climate emergency in 2019 and the city is a member of ‘Local Governments for Sustainability’, the world’s leading network of local and regional governments committed to sustainable development through partnerships between civil society, business leaders and government. Glasgow is a signatory of The Aalborg Commitments and it has joined ‘Race to Zero’, which means it must reach net zero emissions in the 2040s or sooner, in line with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Glasgow is ambitious in its goals and “wants to shed its industrial past which has allowed derelict and contaminated land, congestion, poor planning decisions and high levels of social deprivation”. In 2021, it is seeking to convert these tracts of land into affordable housing, green spaces, woodland, nature havens and urban food production centres.

In 2017, Glasgow was awarded €4.1 million to develop a smart street district in the city, including district heating, EV charging, a solar PV canopy, power storage, ducted wind turbines, and smart grid controls. In 2020, the Programme for Government included a major commitment to invest £1.6 billion over 5 years into heat and energy efficiency in homes and buildings. To significantly expand cycling and walking infrastructure across the city (see Sauchiehall Avenue pictured below), the Scottish Government programme announced £50m to be invested in active travel as well as £275m to support investment in communities including ’20 minute neighbourhoods’. [Gwenyth Wren & Thomas Christensen,]


Where do the cities/towns in County Monaghan stand on the spectrum of sustainability? What are we doing to ensure that we don’t get left behind on the race to zero? How do we measure up against the Aalborg Commitments and the Basque Declaration? While there are fantastic projects happening and under the new Council Horticulturalist there has definitely been a shift towards maintaining our green spaces with less impact and more space for nature, the overall picture is still concerning. We are at a crossroads and the development decisions we take now will have a huge impact on our quality of life in the future.

Projects such as the redevelopment of Dublin Street and the Vision for Lough Muckno, that have been strongly opposed by the community, are not the way forward and if our leaders, in this moment in time, cannot recognise this, then we are stepping onto the wrong path to the future. We will be left behind. Although climate change and biodiversity loss are escalating, we are living in a buffer zone where we are not feeling the true effects of it yet and it is still possible to be lulled into a false sense of security. But the buffer zone won’t last for ever and now is the time to be building infrastructure for a different future.

We need an inner city focus on renewable energy sources, we need heat and energy efficiency in our city/town buildings and homes, we need to expand cycling and walking infrastructure, protect biodiversity, and reduce air & water pollution. In order to achieve this, we need a County Council that is willing to take a leap onto the pathway towards a more sustainable future. We need ambitious local leaders that are thinking outside the box and finding innovative ways to embrace and navigate change.

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