Umeå, a green beacon in Northern Europe

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In the interwar period, the town of Umeå, located 600 kilometers north of Stockholm, numbered around 10,000 citizens. A century later, its clear commitment to green policies with a gender perspective has made it a European benchmark. The main municipality in the northern half of Sweden aims to exceed 200,000 inhabitants by 2050, and for much earlier – in 2030 – it hopes to have reached carbon neutrality (emit the same volume of carbon dioxide as that withdrawn from the atmosphere).

The inhabitants of small Umeå (90,000 inhabitants) – there are almost 500 most populous cities in the EU, although, of these, only Oulu, Finland is more northern – boast the cleanest air on the entire continent. A study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, which analyzed almost 1,000 European cities, indicates that the town on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia, in the Baltic Sea, is the one with the lowest mortality associated with pollution.

“It takes many decades of work to get to this point,” says Philip Näslund, municipal manager for Strategic Urban Development. “But there is still a lot of work to be done,” he adds, smiling, as he points to a car that descends the entrance ramp to a large parking lot in the heart of the city. “I hope that in a few years we will have converted this parking into something more useful, ”says Näslund, one of the more than 10,000 employees of the Umeå City Council, whose municipality covers an area similar to that of Cantabria, with a score of more than 40,000 inhabitants.

The exponential growth in recent years is due, in part, to the arrival of foreigners – there are inhabitants of more than 100 different nationalities – but mainly to the thousands of Swedes who have moved from the south attracted by the multiple job offers green and more affordable rents. One of them is Lisa Redin, who came from Karlstad more than a decade ago and is today Ruggedised coordinator at Umeå, an EU initiative to implement strategies that can be replicated by other localities in their transformation to smart cities (smart cities).

Most of the projects carried out in Umeå take place around the University, which is, with more than 30,000 students, another of the key factors in urban expansion. Redin explains, during a trip financed by the European Parliament, that “the objective is to optimize the energy used as much as possible”. In the last five years, hundreds of sensors have been installed in classrooms, offices and study rooms to monitor and regulate in detail occupancy times, temperature and carbon dioxide levels. In addition, dozens of solar panels have been installed and insulation, heating and ventilation systems have been improved. In some buildings, energy consumption has been reduced by up to 85%.

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In the basement of the university district there is a renewable energy storage plant, one of the 30 largest in the world, which accumulates photovoltaic energy during the hot months and distributes what each property needs when demand spikes, especially when the temperature plummets several days a year below -15 degrees centigrade.

The sensors are not something exclusive to the university area, they are all over the city, the first in Europe to have 5G coverage. A clear example is the Ålidhem neighborhood, where a fire that started in a kitchen destroyed more than 70 apartments in 2008 and left 200 citizens homeless in this urbanized area in the 1960s and inhabited mainly by students and immigrants. The drama became an opportunity. The City Council wanted to convert the neighborhood, of about 6,000 inhabitants and three kilometers from the center, into the ideal of energy efficiency.

The MEP of the Dutch party GroenLinks (Green Left), one of the most prominent figures of environmentalists in Brussels, argues on the phone that the energy poverty of many Europeans is due “to a great extent” precisely to the inefficient consumption that these households require, both in summer and winter. This is not the case with Umeå. “The coronavirus funds [el plan de recuperación económica de la UE, dotado con 750.000 millones de euros] they offer us a unique opportunity; If a significant part is allocated to renovating buildings, it will be possible to improve the quality of life in underprivileged sectors, while generating employment and combating climate change ”, he argues.

After the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the houses – insulating windows, ventilation systems with heat recovery and the installation of tools for detailed control of consumption in each home – the energy used annually in Ålidhem has been reduced to less than half, and , as in most of the city, it is totally renewable – hydro, solar, wind and biomass.

The neighborhood is also a clear example of the alternative production and consumption model that flourishes throughout Umeå. There are restaurants that serve only dishes made with local products and a public space where residents can deposit the sports equipment they no longer use (skis, tents, rackets …) so that others can use it for free for two weeks. Last August, the City Council added one more position to its organization chart: responsible for Circular Economy. It is occupied by Liv Öberg, who in recent months has focused on food and the reuse of household appliances and furniture, and whose first objective is “that half of the food consumed is regionally produced”. Öberg emphasizes the public support offered to the dozens of private initiatives that join the drive for sustainable development every year.

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Another of Umeå City Council’s obsessions is transforming mobility. According to their calculations, commuting causes half (48%) of the annual CO₂ emissions of its inhabitants, and statistics show that the car is used much more than in some Dutch or Danish cities. The initiatives to banish cars – especially if they are not electric – are countless. The carbon neutrality that Umeå aspires to by the end of this decade is not an achievable goal for the vast majority of European cities; much less for cities like Madrid, Rome or Athens, in which decades of urban planning with the private car as a key element weigh too much. Bas Eickhout, vice-president of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, believes that, in addition to “greening cities, especially Mediterranean ones”, there are two axes on which the transformation of large cities should be based: sustainable mobility and rehabilitation of old houses.

To mitigate the environmental impact of the car in this Swedish region, a bridge is even being built over one of the access roads to the city with the sole purpose of facilitating the round trip that thousands of reindeer make each year between the mountains of Lapland and the abundant lichens of the Ume river delta.

Näslund, municipal manager for Strategic Urban Development, rides his bike for twelve months. He doesn’t think the sub-arctic climate is an impediment. “We are very efficient at clearing the snow from the lanes and almost all the journeys are less than five kilometers,” he clarifies next to a station of the brand new shared electric bike system. Unlike those that abound in Europe, this one does not have a single model of velocipede, but more than a dozen, in which above all the cargo accessories vary. “To drop the children off at school before going to work, to go shopping for the week. There are fewer and fewer excuses, ”says Näslund. Enclosed parking lots for bicycles and stalls with basic repair tools have also been set up.

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The municipal bus fleet has recently been expanded and modernized; there are none left that is not electric. The goal now is to make its use attractive to young people. Through a App, residents can claim free tickets if they meet the targets for water and electricity consumption in their homes. At the end of 2019, a stop was inaugurated with some semi-cylindrical wooden boards hanging from the ceiling designed for users to protect themselves from the wind while leaning on them. Colored lights on the ceiling warn of the arrival of the bus and its respective line.

A study by the Technical University of Vienna places the population of Umeå as “the most environmentally conscious” in all of Europe. Johanna Cory, communication manager of the public water and urban waste treatment company, details that citizen collaboration is essential for the proper functioning of incineration plants, which burn the waste that is essential for the district heating network. Cory, who gives lectures on recycling to elementary school students, describes: “Sometimes they already know so much that I have practically nothing to teach them.” Recently, several positions have been set up where more delicate products, such as metals, paints, batteries or light bulbs, can be deposited at any time.

Adrien Fournier, a French computer scientist who has lived in Umeå for four years and is expecting his first child, is clear that for now he will continue to endure the harsh winter days with 20-hour nights and thermometers that touch -30º Celsius. “Unlike many parts of Europe, children here grow up learning to care for and love nature,” he stresses.

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