Article

Sustainable Urban Development: Espoo, Finland

The small but dynamic Finnish city is a leader in promoting development that brings together residents, businesses and other stakeholders, for the long-term benefit of all.

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Date Posted

29 Jul 2022

Issue

Issue 24, 1 Aug 2022

ESPOO’S SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT APPROACH

We need big changes in our societies, economy, daily habits, and all levels of government to tackle today’s big global challenges such as climate change. For me, sustainable development means that the policies we pursue are just, and that no one is left behind in our green transition. In my work, I have become convinced that local actors such as cities play a key role in this shift.

Sustainability is deeply embedded in our city strategy—the Espoo Story—which we have co-created together with residents, companies, and other stakeholders.1 As Manager for Sustainable Development, I work at the Mayor’s Office Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development that contributes to delivering the city’s key strategic goals, such as becoming climate-neutral by 2030 and being a forerunner in implementing the Agenda2030 at the local level.2

Espoo’s sustainable development effort is based on working with partners and citizens to create, test, and implement future-proof sustainable urban solutions. Our key priorities are further guided by the Sustainable Espoo Programme, a cross-administrative development programme that supports the implementation of the Espoo Story. Its focus areas are energy solutions, transport and mobility, circular economy and sustainable lifestyle, land use and construction, and nature and biodiversity. The work is carried out in a cross-sectoral and multi-level cooperation and aims at systemic changes.

Priorities and Goals

Espoo has seen rapid growth in population within the last 50 years—from fewer than 100,000 inhabitants in 1972 to 300,000 inhabitants in 2022. It continues to be the fastest growing city in Finland. Keeping our citizens and the environment onboard in this growth is very important in order to keep the growth sustainable.

Creativity, trust and collaboration are essential ways of how we are developing Espoo. We want to be a leading city in combining technological innovations with ambitious sustainability goals and inclusive development of city services.

Climate neutrality by 2030 is one of Espoo’s top seven strategic goals for the term 2021–2025. In April 2022, we were chosen by the European Commission as one of the cities to deliver a new EU Mission for 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030.

We are working to implement these climate goals in a way that is beneficial to people, businesses, and the planet. Espoo wants to increase the size of the urban community’s carbon handprint:3 in other words, we want to contribute to the reduction in global emissions with the help of innovations developed in Espoo. Businesses in Espoo will first pilot solutions locally and then export the best solutions globally. In this way, Espoo’s impact can exceed its physical size.


We want to contribute to the reduction in global emissions with the help of innovations developed in Espoo. In this way, Espoo’s impact can exceed its physical size.

URBAN SUSTAINABILITY IN PRACTICE IN ESPOO

Espoo has managed to find impactful ways to cut CO2 emissions at a rapid pace while building a unique innovation ecosystem for piloting emerging smart and sustainable solutions.

The climate solutions in Espoo focus on reducing the emissions from energy, transport, construction, and land use. Despite its rapid urban growth, Espoo has already managed to bend the curve downwards, beginning to cut not only the CO2 emissions per capita but also total emissions. Two years ago, Espoo’s total emissions went below 1990 levels for the first time.

Being a Nordic city in a cold climate, heating constitutes nearly half of our total emissions. Using district heating with 250,000 end users, we plan to abandon coal by 2025: the whole district heating system will be climate neutral by 2030. This involves replacing fossil fuels with smart and flexible solutions such as excess heat from wastewater, renewable electricity, heat pumps and bioenergy. To achieve this change, the city is working in close strategic cooperation with the state-owned energy provider Fortum.

Our second largest source of emissions is transport. Espoo is a network city with five city centres. The city is investing heavily in public transport: a new metro line, improved rail connections and a new light trail. We are directing city growth to be in tandem with excellent public transport routes. A city bike system will bring added co-benefits of cleaner air, health, and wellbeing.

Espoo and its adjoining areas have already reached a 50% recycling rate. Several circular projects are being implemented to promote sustainable lifestyles, job creation, and the growth of circular businesses. In addition, environmental and sustainable development education is part of curricula at all levels of education.

In 2021, the world’s leading environmental reporting organisation, CDP, ranked 95 cities worldwide on its A list.4 Despite stricter assessment requirements than before, Espoo retained its A rating for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Espoo’s Sustainability Advantages

In 2016, Espoo was named most sustainable city in Europe by an international benchmark study. Among the distinctive qualities of the city, the report highlighted Espoo’s knowledge capacity and access to nature.

Espoo has the largest innovation community in the Nordic countries. It is home to highly ranked Aalto University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and headquarters of many of the biggest companies in Finland like Nokia, Kone, Fortum and Neste. Almost 50% of the value of the Helsinki Stock Exchange comes from businesses located in Espoo.

The Finnish workforce is also the second most skilled in the world, and Espoo has the most skilled workforce in Finland. Over half of the residents over 25 years old have a university-level degree. Espoo has also been recognised for its efforts in driving lifelong learning.

As Espoo has quite a large surface area (encompassing some 528 square kilometres in size, including 312 square kilometres of land), its networked city structure helps at keeping the whole city vital but also close to nature. According to citizen surveys, the residents in Espoo place nature and sustainability high on their values.

What's Next for Espoo's Sustainability Efforts

Globally, the main challenge is to find ways to tackle climate change and to make cities enablers and regional innovation ecosystems. This is also a priority in Espoo.

In April 2022, Espoo was selected to implement EU Mission on 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030. Participating in the Mission is a way for Espoo to strengthen our role as one of the leading innovation hubs for low-carbon solutions, which are in high demand in the EU and globally.

This spring, Microsoft and Fortum announced a globally unique cooperation project, in which Microsoft will build a new data centre in Espoo and Fortum will build a connected large-scale waste heat unit for the district heat network. It is set to become the world’s largest recovery project for data centre waste heat. This will reduce our emissions from heating on a massive scale, while supporting further digitisation of businesses and the whole society and creating local jobs.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: CO-CREATION IS KEY

Sustainability in essence means using our resources in a more efficient way. No actor—be it big or small—can solve these challenges alone. In Espoo, we believe in collaboration and sharing, and learning with our community. This is something that requires more of a change of an attitude from merely seeking and applying massive resources to the problem.

Espoo’s approach to service development and sustainability is based on co-creation, building trust, and engagingthe whole community. We believe that sustainable city solutions require a close collaborative relationship between the city, companies, universities, research actors, and residents. Espoo wants to participate in that collaboration as a platform, but also as an actor that brings together different stakeholders to build effective ecosystems for solving common challenges.

For instance, the city has signed strategic agreements and collaborates closely with Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to build a sustainable future through science, technology, business, art, and design. Here, forms of collaboration include shared RDI (Research, Development and Innovation) and student projects, and developing the area as a place that attracts talent.

Citizen participation is a major cross-cutting theme in the Sustainable Espoo programme. We are testing new ways of engaging citizens in the green transition. For example, in 2022, we have launched an open invitation to residents from different backgrounds, including vulnerable groups, to come together to develop and test a new model of resident inclusion, and to resolve sustainability challenges together with the city.5

One of Espoo’s biggest ongoing city development projects is to transform the old industrial and logistics area of Kera into a sustainable residential and working area, and a home for 14,000 people. In 2021, in addition to traditional land use agreements, thecity and local landowners, builders and other developer partners signed a development commitment for the area that steers the development of the Kera area in accordance with Espoo’s climate neutrality and sustainable development goals. This commitment was prepared through multi-stakeholder collaboration and is unique in Finland. It is one example of public-private cooperation that Espoo wants to promote.


We believe that sustainable city solutions require a close collaborative relationship between the city, companies, universities, research actors, and residents.

Putting People at the Centre of Development

Urban systems are extremely complex. Developing sustainable urban centres requires improving liveability and reducing environmental impacts while maximising economic and social co-benefits. This requires building a shared vision and commitments with a multitude of actors.

These are challenges that no one can solve alone. Technology is helpful, but it is only a tool, not an end in itself. I would like to encourage all cities to engage in an open and honest dialogue with the different stakeholders and actors in their cities. Everything starts with putting the residents and their needs at the centre of development.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Helena Kyrki is Manager for Sustainable Development, City of Espoo. She works at the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development and has nine years of experience supporting the Sustainable Espoo Programme in various positions. She has nurtured collaboration between different city units, RDI actors, and businesses in topics such as climate neutrality, sustainable development goals (SDGs), urban development, sustainable lifestyle, and Fair trade. She also has experience with projects funded by Horizon Europe and European Regional Development Fund, and works with various regional, national, and international sustainability and climate networks.

 


NOTES

  1. “The Espoo Story”, https://www.espoo.fi/en/city-espoo/espoo-story.
  2. “Espoo Voluntary Local Review (VLR)”, https://www.espoo.fi/en/city-espoo/sustainable-development/sustainable-development-goals/espoo-voluntary-localreview-vlr.
  3. CLC, “Carbon Handprint Manual for Cities and Regions”, https://clc.fi/publications/.
  4. CDP, “Cities A List 2021”, https://www.cdp.net/en/cities/cities-scores.
  5. “The Future Workshop for Sustainable Development (TUPA)”, https://www.espoo.fi/en/kestava-kehitys/future-workshop-sustainable-development-tupa.

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