In 2007, a TV documentary produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation judged Vaxjo, Sweden to be the greenest city in Europe. Vaxjo adopted that title as its brand and made it part of the city’s DNA, attracting international recognition and motivating successive city administrations to keep pushing the green envelope. Although Vaxjo initially gained attention for bringing its lakes back to life and making highly-ambitious commitments to renewable energy, the city now aims at multiple targets including green structure, eco-mobility, biodiversity, waste reduction, urban agriculture and high-rise wooden building construction (Andersson 2016).
Vaxjo is home to 91,000 people of which over two-thirds live within the city. Most of Vaxjo’s almost 2,000 square kilometer land area is covered in forests, farms and over 200 lakes. As described European Commission, Vaxjo offers the best of both worlds: a thriving city with an exceptional university, high tech businesses and a vibrant cultural scene surrounded by nature (European Commission 2018).
A half-century ago, some of Vaxjo’s many lakes suffered from smelly, nutrient-laden sediments deposited by sewage outfalls and sluggish water circulation. In the early 1970s, the city began dredging the lakes, improving water flow, restoring aquatic ecosystems and installing storm-water management infrastructure including retention lagoons and wetlands. Today, these lakes form the stunning centerpieces of a greenway/blueway network enjoyed by a growing number of aquatic and terrestrial species including humans (Vaxjo 2016).
When the BBC described Vaxjo as the Greenest City in Europe, local political and business leaders committed to embrace and defend that title. In 2008, the city made Greenest City in Europe its brand and key organizing principle. Realizing that “green” should mean more than clean lakes and renewable energy, Vaxjo committed to excelling in an environmental heptathlon. Like its athletic counterpart, the winner of an environmental heptathlon would be judged by overall excellence in several “events” as detailed in the paragraphs below (Andersson 2016).
All of Vaxjo’s political parties support the Greenest City in Europe strategy (Slavin 2015). When the Conservative Party replaced the Social Democrats, the goal of environmental superiority continued unchanged. Vaxjo’s extensive networking efforts with international organizations have placed the city in a good position for grant funding. Vaxjo has also been active in several learning exchanges with other cities and countries. These exchanges enhance Vaxjo’s reputation and nurture green expertise for local businesses to export. As of 2010, there were 1000 corporate members in the public-private partnership known as Expansiva Vaxjo, an organization that supports new initiatives and looks for opportunities to capitalize on the large number of international visits to the city (Andersson 2016).
Vaxjo also engages its citizens, instilling pride in the Greenest City in Europe story as well as successes on the part of individual citizens. In one project, the public followed behavioral changes made by local celebrities which cut their carbon footprint by more than 27 percent. These individual lifestyle choices are essential. As one public official put it, “…if everyone in Vaxjo made the same small changes …then we would reach our 2030 emission targets really quickly” (Andersson 2016, p1210).
Renewable energy is arguably Vaxjo’s strongest event in the environmental heptathlon. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Vaxjo committed to switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In 1980, Vaxjo became the first city in Sweden to power its district-heating system completely with biofuels, primarily wood from the forests in and around the city. In 1996, Vaxjo set a target of being completely fossil-fuel free by 2030 and it is well on its way thanks to a combined heat and power generation plant that uses these biofuels to supply all the heat and much of the electrical demand for every home in the city (Vaxjo 2016).
The switch to renewable heating and power generation mainly benefits the residential, public, commercial and industrial sectors which combined now produce roughly ten percent of Vaxjo’s total CO2 emissions. But the city is also working on eco-mobility strategies to shrink the footprint of the transportation sector. To reduce travel demand, Vaxjo takes the logical first step of building dense development, which allows residents to reach their jobs, shopping, schools and other everyday destinations by walking, bicycling or public transportation. Highly-restricted vehicle access attracts pedestrians and bicyclists to the outdoor cafes and beer gardens occupying streets in the city center. Vaxjo also has 180 kilometers of bike lanes and adds more cycling infrastructure every year. As an added incentive to bike, many of Vaxjo’s bike paths are on lake shores and though wooded areas where cyclists can travel in natural surroundings. Bus stops are located within 300 meters of an estimated 95 percent of Vaxjo citizens. The city introduced biofuel buses in 2013 and the renewable energy portion of the city bus fleet continues to grow (Vaxjo 2016).
Vaxjo’s emission reductions do not come at the expense of economic development. Between 1993 and 2016, per capita carbon dioxide emissions plunged by 58 percent, from 4.5 to 1.9 tonnes, while gross domestic product increased by 32 percent. On an annual basis, the economy rose by 1.33 percent per year in this 20-year period while emissions declined by 3.7 percent. In targeting the elimination of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels by 2030, Vaxjo is well ahead of the schedule established by the Paris climate agreement (Doyle 2018).
Vaxjo’s also excels at green structure. Roughly 20 percent of the city’s land area is in parks and natural areas. Over 90 percent of all residents live within 300 meters of a park or natural area larger than one hectare. Vaxjo is home to 27 Natura 2000 sites and 160 plant and animal species on Europe’s red list (Vaxjo 2016). Threatened species may be of particular interest here since Vaxjo was the early home of Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century biologist who formalized modern taxonomy, the system of classifying organisms used to this day.
Vaxjo’s greenway network features wildlife corridors, with several green wedges radiating from the urban area. One of these green wedges begins at Vaxjo’s 11th century cathedral in the heart of downtown and extends southeast incorporating two lakes, a nature preserve and the Teleborg Castle, one of many cultural heritage sites found within the green wedges. Heading southwest from the city center, Vaxjo restored a former military training ground into Bokhultet, a 760-hectare nature preserve which provides habitat for over 200 bird species (Vaxjo 2016; Vaxjo 2017).
Vaxjo also excels at urban agriculture. Within a short walk of the city center, residents can grow their own fruit, vegetables and flowers in community gardens. These gardens supply food for homes and local restaurants while also providing a form of recreation and a way for recent immigrants to assimilate into their new surroundings (Vaxjo 2016).
Vaxjo has pioneered the design and construction of high-rise wooden buildings. The first prototype was Limnologen, a development consisting of four eight-story wooden residential structures on the shores of Lake Trummen. Wooden buildings produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than concrete buildings. In general, Vaxjo’s new buildings exceed energy-efficiency requirements with many approaching passive house performance levels (Vaxjo 2016).
Vaxjo is also demonstrating leadership in several other events such as air quality, noise abatement, and waste reduction/management, featuring a circular economy pilot project called the “reusing village” (Vaxjo 2016). The environmental heptathlon strategy continues to be successful judging from the many sustainability awards that Vaxjo has won from the United Nations, ICLEI, Earth Council and the European Commission, including the 2018 European Green Leaf Award given to cities with populations under 100,000. Branding itself as the greenest city in Europe made Vaxjo internationally famous and, more importantly, spurred the city and its citizens to continually live up to that recognition.
Andersson, Ida. 2016. Green cities going greener? Local government policy-making and place branding in the Greenest City in Europe” European Planning Studies. Volume 24, 2016, Issue 6.
Doyle, Alister. 2018. Imitate Vaxjo? As heat rises, Swedish city goes green – and thrives. Reuters. Accessed on September 30, 2018 from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climatechange-economy-insight/imitate-vaxjo-as-heat-rises-swedish-city-goes-green-and-thrives-idUSKCN1L8192.
European Commission. 2018. European Green Leaf Winner 2018 – Vaxjo. Accessed on September 12, 2018 from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/EGLA_2018_Winner_Vaxjo_EN.pdf.
Slavin, Terry. 2015. What can the world learn from Vaxjo, Europe’s self-styled greenest city? Guardian. Accessed on October 2 from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/nov/25/what-can-the-world-learn-from-vaxjo-europes-self-styled-greenest-city.
Vaxjo. 2016. Application Form for the European Green Leaf 2018 Award. Accessed on September 8, 2018 from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Vaxjo_EGL-2018-Application-Form.pdf.
Vaxjo. 2017. Nature Preserve Bokhultet. Accessed on October 2, 2018 from https://vaxjo.se/download/18.1b70ef9115d3ac376458e920/1501062046835/Bokhultet%20folder%20ENG%202017%20webversion.pdf.