The Making of Green Cities – With Residents at the Core

Lahti, the European Green Capital in 2021, developed a unique carbon-trading application for its residents. How did they manage to get locals onboard and what did they learn in the process?

11. May 2021
4 minutes
Zuzana Pison
The Making of Green Cities – With Residents at the Core

Cities can be the critical piece of the puzzle in accelerating climate action. In recent years, local governments have been discovering the benefits of a data-driven approach to sustainability. However, the success of these strategies strongly depends on residents, who should have access to shaping and participating in the cities’ green agenda.

What are some of the new approaches in driving urban sustainability? How can the locals get engaged in building cities’ green futures?

Lahti’s Green Mobility Strategy

An inspiring example of pioneering the environmental agenda through resident participation comes from the Finnish city of Lahti. The city was named the European Green Capital 2021, and one of its focus areas for years to come is green mobility. To reduce carbon emissions from transport, the local government wants to motivate more people to walk, cycle and use public transportation.

As part of an EU-funded project called CitiCap, Lahti has developed the world’s first public carbon-trading application for its residents. The app automatically identifies the mode of transport of its user and visualizes emissions from mobility. It also calculates a personal emission budget for the user based on their life situation. Those who don’t ‘spend’ all of their budget receive virtual credits. These can then be exchanged for discounted bus tickets or bicycle repair service available on the app’s marketplace.

Getting Locals Onboard

However, creating a personal carbon trading solution would be pointless if the public didn’t use the application. Lahti’s government officials were very much aware of how important it is to engage the residents in downloading and using the app.

Prior to deciding on an app, the project administrators organized several events and asked people to complete questionnaires. In one case, citizens were asked about the most effective way of allocating the carbon credits. The decision to launch the carbon trading app was based on their response.

Compiling Data

What about the results from the application so far? In the city of 120,000 inhabitants, the app was downloaded about 3,000 times, with 350 active users per week (as of March 2021).  More than one in three users (36 %) claims that the app motivated them to reduce their mobility emissions.

Based on the user survey, the main reason for a greener transport alternative was the information provided by the application and the personal challenge. Interestingly, benefits provided through the virtual marketplace mattered to a smaller proportion of respondents.

All of the collected data will be analyzed, and learnings will be used in Lahti’s strategies for sustainable transport. The results could serve as an inspiration to medium-sized cities not only in Finland but also abroad and could encourage tech companies to develop new services.

Multi-Channel Approach

If we want to make cities greener, residents need to be part of the solution. If the locals see that the city’s decisions reflect their needs, the chances are high that the solutions will have the intended effect. For example, residents’ local expertise can be a great asset in land use planning. Locals have unique knowledge of the quality of green spaces or the connection of their neighborhood to public transport.

However, resident engagement today requires a variety of channels – town hall assemblies alone won’t hit it anymore. Municipalities must find creative ways to reach residents, both online and offline. Interactive workshops, citizen surveys, and digital applications can be great tools for getting residents involved. If done well, the chance for success of cities´ green strategies is likely to go up. It is also crucial to address the needs of disadvantaged groups who might be more difficult to reach.

Success won’t happen overnight – getting the locals onboard for any project and earning their trust requires regular, clear, and transparent communication from the city ranks. After all, shaping the cities should be a joint effort, not a top-down process.