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City smart: How Europe's cities are preparing for the future

Faced with environmental and demographic challenges, European cities are having to be more forward-thinking than ever. We look at some of the ways they're remaining cool and creative places to be

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:14 BST, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 16:00 BST
Plans for Berlin Tegel's redevelopment
Ready for take off: Berlin's beleaguered Tegel airport is set to get a facelift
Photograph by Atelier Loidl, Berlin TXL

A mountain made of sponge? 

It might sound a little strange, but it is, in fact, a proposal to combat Turin’s pollution: the giant mound of excavated earth would absorb carbon dioxide, while doubling as a public park. Suddenly it doesn’t sound so ridiculous, after all. 

Cities have always been cradles of creativity, and these days they’re having to think outside the box to tackle everything from managing record numbers of tourists to soaking up emissions. We take a look at the various ways in which Europe is leading the world in urban innovation, whether it’s by building vertical forests to greenify the cityscape or introducing a hyperlocal currency.

Words: Karl Cushing, Emma Gregg and Helen Warwick

Ready for take-off

With the German capital’s shiny new Berlin Brandenberg Airport set to
open in 2021, what does the future hold for the city’s 1970s Tegel Airport, famous for its hexagonal, concrete-and-glass terminal?

The two-square-mile site, north west of the city centre, has been earmarked for a live-work zone dubbed ‘an innovation park for urban technologies’. Half the site will be redeveloped as the Berlin TXL Urban Tech Republic, a campus housing up to 1,000 research and development institutes and start-ups focused on designing energy-efficient cities.

But it’s not all just research. A residential area called the Schumacher Quartier (SQ) will accommodate up to 10,000 people — many in affordable housing — and include schools, shops and other amenities. Meanwhile, in an inspired feat of upcycling, the University of Applied Sciences will move into that iconic terminal building.

Quality of life in Berlin TXL and the SQ will be paramount, with leisure facilities and traffic calming systems built into the plan, along with parks, green roofs and vertical gardens designed to provide crops, flowers and an urban habitat for birds, bats and insects. The entire site will be climate-neutral, thanks to locally generated renewable energy and heating, water and waste management systems.

Even the street lighting is likely to be equally avant-garde. The LED lights will be equipped with radar sensors, wi-fi and electrical charging points, so that they can detect traffic, footfall, parking patterns, vehicle speed and microparticle pollution. And in another ultramodern flourish, everyone will be encouraged to whizz around on electric bikes or on public e-mobility transport systems such as self-driving electric vehicles. Tegel’s first residents are expected to move in in 2024.  EG

Street talking

A new addition to the city’s art scene, Lasloods Street Art Museum is not only fronted by a dramatic, 78ft-high portrait of Anne Frank by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, it’s also one of the world’s biggest art museums devoted to street art. Set in a former welding hangar in the NDSM docks area, the derelict building’s reincarnation is yet another example of how the Dutch capital’s ever-evolving arts scene is spilling from conventional art galleries into abandoned architectural relics. The collection, meanwhile, from artists such as David Walker and Cranio, is mightily impressive.  HW

Getting in gear 

After successful trials on public roads in Bavaria and the Dutch town of Wageningen, zero-emission driverless buses could soon become a reality in European cities. In the quiet residential area of Kivikko, in northeast Helsinki, an automated electric minibus has recently been tested on a weekday route called the RobobusLine. The vehicle is equipped with cameras, sensors, GPS, odometry and machine learning. The Finnish capital hopes to introduce commercial self-driving buses on ‘last-mile’ routes between public transport stations and residential streets and offices by 2021  EG

LUMA Arles — a bold future for the former haunt of Van Gogh


Van Gogh arrived in Arles in 1888, and was so enamoured of the region’s beauty that he spent a year in the city, renting the ‘Yellow House’, which he was to share with Gauguin, and producing around 200 paintings.  

Fast forward 130 years, and the iconic Dutch artist’s beloved city is set to further cement its position on the art world map with the opening of the Parc des Ateliers, an art campus in a derelict rail yard. At its centre will be an aluminium-clad tower — the Luma Arles — designed by Frank Gehry, whose signature aluminium panels and twisting shape recall the region’s craggy rocks. Once finished, the sprawling site will also include vast exhibition spaces, studios, workshops and thought-provoking ‘labs’ set in former railway workshops, where artists, innovators and creatives can collaborate, experiment and present new works. Funding the 20-acre, €100m (£90m) project is the Luma Foundation, a philanthropic collective that supports cultural projects and independent artists, set up by Swiss art collector Maja Hoffman. She hopes to create ‘an experimental cultural complex’, and to thrust Arles into the spotlight as an international arts hub. 

Shows and exhibitions have been held throughout its construction, although the opening of the Luma Arles has been pushed back to 2020. The project is sure to breathe new life into the city, but whether it will help Arles become a serious global player in the art world is yet to be seen. Still, if it was good enough for Van Gogh… HW

Green light

As winner of the European Green Capital Award for 2020, the Portuguese capital has received European Commission funding for eco-smart initiatives. The plan is to make this people-friendly city even more liveable by encouraging more journeys on foot, by public transport or by bicycle. In fact, two-thirds of the bikes available through Lisbon’s bike-share scheme are electric — handy for the city’s steep hills. Driving is discouraged, unless in an electric vehicle, and the city now has one of the world’s largest networks of streetside charging points. It’s also planning to extend its green spaces and beef up its recycling and water management policies over the next two years.  EG  

Small city, big ideas

As Slovenia’s capital strives to position itself as Europe’s blockchain capital, October saw the launch of a project in its main shopping district, BTC, that’s enabling cryptocurrency payments using a system called Elipay. Created by a local startup team, the nifty consumer scheme allows residents to purchase and transfer money at a number of locations across the city. Elsewhere in the city centre — which has long been car-free — thousands of trees have been planted and new parks laid out. There’s now said to be over 5,800sq feet of green space for every citizen.  KC

Screen queen: A sordid cinema-turned-hip hangout in Madrid

Screen queen

The previous incarnation of this multipurpose theatre space was the Cine Duque de Alba: a seedy adult film cinema in Madrid’s El Rastro neighbourhood that shut its doors in 2015. But a new, arty hub, Sala Equis, was unveiled after a facelift in late 2017 — reimagined as an entertainment space with a nod to Americana and art nouveau. The amphitheatre is cloaked in red velvet, the cocktail bar hums amid a glow of red bulbs, and the main plaza — dotted with deckchairs and hammocks — sits below a glass ceiling, meaning patrons can admire the skies as well as a film or live bands. It’s a blockbuster of a renovation that’s struck a real chord with the Madrilenians.  HW

Walking on water

There are far more millionaires lusting after a foothold in this microstate than there are properties to accommodate them. In response, the city is capitalising on one of its assets — its coastline — by reclaiming enough land to build a brand new eco-friendly quarter. Due to be finished in 2025, Portier Cove will contain a marina and glitzy apartments. Around 40% of its power will come from solar panels, and smart management of rain and sea water will provide heating, cooling and irrigation. Radically, perhaps, in a city obsessed with Formula One racing, pedestrians and bikes will take precedence over cars. Happily, however, every care is being taken to rehabilitate displaced marine wildlife.  EG

Back to square one

The pumping heart of this under-the-radar city has a new look: Skanderber Square — the centrepoint of the Albanian capital — has had a revamp, scooping the European Prize for Urban Public Space in the process. The repurposed plaza has been designed with low-key lingering in mind: a new green belt of indigenous plants now envelopes the square. Its centre, meanwhile, is dominated by a pyramid-shaped esplanade with mosaic paving made up of stones from all over Albania, where walkers can stop and ponder the new space before taking in the sights of the National History Museum, the Palace of Culture and the clock tower on the square’s fringes.  HW

The only way is up

Don’t have a forest? Then plant one. Stefano Boeri’s groundbreaking new social housing project for the Dutch city of Eindhoven, Trudo Vertical Forest, is set to transform its skyline. Inspired by his similar project in Milan, Boeri’s latest masterpiece will feature affordable accommodation and balconies bursting with a calming cornucopia of trees and plants that not only brighten up the skyline, but also absorb CO2 and pump out oxygen, creating new urban ecosystems and promoting biodiversity at the same time. And why build a house when you can run one off your printer? Elsewhere in Eindhoven, Project Milestone will see a community of 3D-printed concrete dwellings rise up on the outskirts from 2019 onwards.  KC


Grid-locked: Barcelona's famed latticed network of streets have thrown up unique problems, but what's the solution?
Photograph by Alamy

Streets ahead

As a city that receives around 30 million visitors a year, Barcelona has had to think outside the box when it comes to managing its tourist hordes. To help, the Strategic Tourism Plan 2020 aims to deliver an ‘urban balance’ to avoid the creation of ‘tourist ghettoes’ — namely around La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter. Part of the plan is to better manage Barcelona’s crowds by strategically promoting attractions outside of the main hotspots to help disperse visitors over a wider area. And there’s a focus on citizens as well as tourists, as they’ll be the ones benefitting from the more widely distributed revenue generated by the tourist tax introduced in 2017.

Another over-arching, citizen-focused initiative is the city’s plan to decongest its famously broad, straight streets. Encouraging locals to forego their cars is never easy, but the city is rolling out a more logical, ‘orthogonal’ bus network to incentivise the locals to leave the car at home. By following right angles, the network will not only be more ‘readable’, but it will also offer more equal city coverage, plus improved connectivity with the metro. And to complement the new bus network, cruciform ‘superblocks’ are being built. Mostly packed into the grid-like Eixample district, traffic in these zones is being kept to a minimum, creating oases of calm.

Other initiatives in Spain’s second city have included the trialling of sensors on Avinguda Josep Tarradellas that turn up the brightness as pedestrians approach. It’s a logical step, given Barcelona’s penchant for sensors — it was one of the first cities to adopt ‘smart’ sensors and meters to monitor everything from air quality and parking space availability to water usage in parks.  KC


The world's first 'smog vacuum cleaner' in Rotterdam

Airs & graces

This shining beacon from Studio Roosegaarde is, in essence, the world’s first smog vacuum cleaner, designed to purify the surrounding air using no more energy than a boiler. At 23ft tall and 11.5ft wide, the revolutionary beehive-like tower is thought to cleanse 30,000 cubic metres of air per hour, capturing fine particles, sucking them inside, and, fascinatingly, compressing them to convert into jewellery. After a crowd-funding campaign, the tower was created in 2015, and has moved around the world, between destinations as far-flung as Beijing and Krakow, before landing at its current address in Rotterdam as a sensory installation that also provides a compelling solution to the blight of air pollution in cities.  HW

Parks & people

From planting trees to renovating streets and investing in cycle lanes, mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s mission to revitalise the Russian capital has been taking shape. In fact, he’s so keen on ensuring the city’s usability and liveability that locals have been able to have their say via the city council’s Active Citizen app since 2015. But on the ground, work is well underway to reshape the old town into a pedestrian-friendly zone of pathways and spruced-up green spaces. There’s Zaryadye, with its ‘floating bridge’ hanging over the Moskva River, and the reimagined Gorky Park which was transformed from moribund Soviet era hangout to cultural beacon.  KC

Animal magic: Nantes' former shipbuilding district has become an animatronic wonderland

In shipshape condition

When the French city’s shipbuilding industry collapsed in 1987, a huge expanse of derelict shipyards and industrial infrastructure remained on an island in the Loire. Since 2000, Nantes has been transforming it into a sustainable living and working environment that retains the area’s distinctive character. Work is set to continue until 2030, with new apartment buildings, footpaths and bridges already having popped up and a cultural and creative arts district taking shape, connected to the city centre by a bicycle boulevard and bus route.  EG 

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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