Ghent, a city of 260,000 people, lies 35 miles west of Brussels, where two rivers merge and flow toward the North Sea. Ghent takes pride in being named the world’s first Commons-city, a title that reflects an awareness of things that citizens have in common ranging from shared open space and resources to shared mobility, food and renewable energy. As stated in the city’s application for the 2020 European Green Capital Award: “Rather than play its ‘smart city’ card, Ghent therefore prefers to opt for a city of ‘smart citizens’ (Ghent 2017, p2). For example, Ghent manages a crowdfunding site where citizens can propose and finance their ideas for the city, including three edible streets and an urban farm project (European Union 2016). Similarly, Ghent offers a lab where neighborhoods can experiment with green ideas, a currency that residents can earn by promoting sustainability and a digital platform where citizens suggest creative urban planning proposals (Ghent 2017).
The smart-citizen concept is the secret sauce in Ghent’s climate action plans. The city aims to be climate neutral by 2050 by combining technological solutions, including renewable energy sources, with non-technical initiatives like living streets, local food supply chains, a creative economy and the promotion of a cycling culture. Over 130 companies have taken advantage of an energy-coaching program that has doubled the renewable energy generated by solar panels since 2012. As a result, Ghent reduced total CO2 emissions over 12 percent and per capita emissions by over 18 percent between 2007 and 2015. Similarly, between 2003 and 2016, the amount of energy consumed by city buildings and lighting dropped over 20 percent (Ghent 2017).
By 2030, Ghent aims to be ‘climate robust’ meaning able to cope with climate change hazards ranging from extreme heat and long-lasting drought to cloudbursts and sea level rise. In its Climate Adaptation Strategy, Ghent focuses on familiar tools like more green space, more space for water, more infiltration, more shade and less impervious surface coverage. Specifically, Ghent proposes to double the area covered by green roofs within a seven-year period. Leading by example, the city has installed demonstration green roofs and green facades on parking structures, administrative buildings and schools. The city has also been illustrating ways to improve storm water infiltration using permeable pavements, rain gardens and water detention basins designed into the landscaping of parks.
Regulations here limit impervious surfaces, require rain barrels, mandate green roofs and encourage façade gardens on new private construction. As of 2017, the private sector had installed 2,370 façade gardens (2017).
Ghent’s plans pursue climate adaptation using green-blue climate axes that ventilate and cool the city. These axes are naturally landscaped, combined with open water wherever possible and provided with a cycling/walking path shaded by trees. In addition to addressing climate change and creating options for active transportation, these axes provide ecological corridors linking the inner city with ‘green poles’ on the city’s perimeter. The concept of these radial greenways evolved during the 1990s and were enshrined in the city’s 2003 Spatial Structure Plan and 2012 Green Structure Plan. Their original name, ‘green axes’, was recently changed to ‘green climate axes’ to reflect their expanding roles. As of 2017, Ghent had partly completed five of its eight planned green climate axes (2017).
Ghent’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan explicitly aims to reduce travel by improving proximity, one of the bedrock principles of the International Ecocity Standards. Homes, shops, schools, playgrounds, parks, sporting facilities, and homes are located close together. The wisdom of this approach is clear from the fact that more than 70 percent of trips less than five kilometers in Ghent occur on foot, by bicycle or public transport. The city recently doubled the size of the area where motor vehicles are prohibited without a special permit and never allowed to park (Ghent 2017).
Ghent plans to increase its density (and the effectiveness of eco-mobility) by growing within the areas that are already developed while also expanding green space. In addition to the green climate axes that radiate from the city center, Ghent is expanding its community gardens in response to the growing popularity of urban agriculture. The Citizen Budget Project reserves 1.35 million euros for neighborhood improvements proposed by the residents themselves. Every residents older than 14 can vote for their three favorite projects. To date, over half of the winning proposals have involved greenspace of one kind or another (Ghent 2017).
As of 2017, 514 acres of brownfields in Ghent were undergoing redevelopment. One of these projects transforms an abandoned metal fabrication plant into a mixed use zone with housing, offices and light industry with a large park that forms a hub in one of the city’s green climate axes. As another example, the city and its partners are revitalizing the Gint-Sint-Pieters rail station and its surroundings to a huge mixed use project where people can live, work and shop. The station itself is being revamped to expedite transfers between cars, trams, buses, trains and bicycles. People will be motivated to cycle here by tree shaded bike lanes and 10,000 bike sheds within the station (Riebbels 2018).
Pedestrians account for over a quarter of the shorter trips in Ghent. The city’s smart citizens can apply to create living streets where roadways are temporarily transformed into play grounds, open space and pedestrian zones, changes that the Gint-Sint-Pieters rail station and its surroundings to a huge mixed use project where people can live, work and shop. The station itself is being revamped to expedite transfers between the Gint-Sint-Pieters rail station and its surroundings to a huge mixed use project where people can live, work and shop. The station itself is being revamped to expedite transfers between motivate increased travel on foot. To further improve conditions for walking, a program called ‘Ghent Delivers’ reduces the number of truck deliveries in the city center by creating assembly points in the outskirts where goods are transferred to environment-friendly vehicles, including cargo bikes, for transport to their final destinations (Ghent 2017).
Natural areas with biological value account for 19 percent of Ghent’s total land area. Citizens are encouraged to participate in the planning, design and revegetation of parks and greenspaces. As a result of this community engagement process, neighbors often volunteer to maintain their nearby green spaces. Ghent offers small grants to schools that transform their asphalt schoolyards into green adventure playgrounds. To date, this incentive has prompted 39 schools to create greenspace where kids can learn about nature while having fun (Ghent 2017).
As mentioned above, Ghent plans to connect four green poles at the outskirts of the city to the city center with green climate axes. For example, the Benedeschelde green climate axis uses a bike path to link downtown Ghent with several parks as well as the almost 600-acre Gentsbrugse Meersen green pole. This green pole itself was enlarged in 2017 with the addition of a 230-acre wetland. Ghent is also planting trees in these green poles under a plan to more than double the forested area of the four green poles by 2030 (Ghent 2017).
Over 40 percent of shorter trips here are by bicycle, which is not surprising for a city with 75,000 students. To serve demand, Ghent significantly increased its bike lane network and more than doubled the number of its bike bridges and tunnels between 2006 and 2016. Ghent was the first city in Belgium to build ‘bicycle streets,’ roadways with a speed limit of 19 miles per hour where cyclists have absolute priority. The city’s Cycling Embassy program rents 8,000 bikes to students by annual subscription, operates several bike parking stations and even operates a mobile bike repair service (Ghent 2017).
Over three quarters of the population live within 300 meters of public transportation providing service once every hour or less. Buses and trams account for 8.6 million kilometers of travel. More than one third of all longer trips (greater than 40 kilometers) occur by train using Ghent’s three train stations, including the Gint-Sint-Pieters station, the busiest station in Flanders and now undergoing redesign to facilitate transfers between travel modes. The excellence of pedestrian, cycle and public transportation options likely explains why car ownership in Ghent has declined while growing in the rest of Belgium (Ghent 2017).
Ghent addresses air pollution largely with its Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan. At 128 acres, the city already has one of the largest car free zones in Europe and air pollution is further reduced by recently implemented restrictions on through traffic in the city center. In 2020, Ghent plans to transform its center into a low emission zone (LEZ) where polluting vehicles will be restricted or prohibited entirely. To address current pollution emitted by its heavy industries, Ghent is exploring solutions that also promote circular economy goals including the Hydrogen Port where non-polluting hydrogen fuel would be produced by renewable energy and the oxygen resulting from this process captured for the production of steel in adjacent factories (Ghent 2017).
Ghent reduces food waste by offering classes on environment-friendly gardening. Using ‘restorestje’ boxes, leftovers can be taken home from over 100 participating restaurants. A program called Foodsavers Ghent annually collects 200 tons of surplus food from grocery stores for redistribution to social organizations. To discourage all forms of household waste, Ghent was the first municipality in Flanders to adopt Pay As You Throw, a fee system that has steadily reduced per capita household waste since its inception in 1998. For the waste that is not reduced, reused or recycled, the city has a waste-to-energy plant that generates electricity and steam that heats a nearby hospital (Ghent 2017).
A few decades ago, Ghent’s canals and rivers supported almost no water life. Today there is still room for improvement. But water quality here has come a long way as measured by the return of macroinvertebrates and other aquatic species. Using a strategy called Water in the City, Ghent is rediscovering the ability of its waterways to improve quality of life for its residents. The city plans to liberate the Scheldt and Leie rivers at their confluence, an effort with historic as well as environmental significance since the name ‘Ghent’ derives from the Celtic word for confluence. As an example, the city will daylight portions of the Lower Scheldt River which was covered by parking decks for years. These rivers are important to Ghent’s hospitality industry as seen by the boatloads of tourists cruising past the castles, cathedrals and other centuries-old monuments in the medieval city center (Ghent 2017).
The Ghent economy is thriving because of, not in spite of, its emphasis on sustainability. Cleantech Cluster Ghent Region is a public-private partnership aimed at making this city a leader in energy, materials, water and mobility. Ghent’s Old Dockyards are being redeveloped in keeping with a ‘circular living’ concept in which buildings are heated by energy captured from water, wastewater and waste heat from nearby companies. As another example, a paper company built a mile-long pipe to transfer waste heat to the Ghent Volvo factory, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. Ghent’s smart city farm won the 2016 short food supply chain contest by building closed-loop systems for farming herbs, vegetables and fish within sea freight containers. The city and its partners, including Ghent University and the Ghent Port Authority, have developed the Ghent Bio-Energy Valley, Europe’s largest cluster of bio-fuel production and the generator of over 500 jobs (Eurocities 2017; Ghent 2017).
Leading by example, Ghent has joined a Flanders compact called Green Deal for Circular Procurement which strengthens Ghent’s preexisting policy on sustainable city’s purchases. In its own buildings, Ghent has reduced energy consumption by 15 percent since 2013 largely through heating system upgrades, insulation and switching to LED lighting. The city has committed to building passive, low-energy and renewable-energy buildings. Its new De Krook library, for example, is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. There are 43 wind turbines generating electricity in Ghent’s harbor area and before long that number will grow to 64 turbines (Ghent 2017).
This remarkable progress has not gone unnoticed. Ghent was a finalist for the European Green Capital Award for 2019 and 2020. In its evaluation, the expert panel ranked Ghent number one in the areas of climate action (both mitigation and adaptation), waste management and energy performance while giving Ghent the top overall score of the 17 cities that applied for the 2020 European Green Capitals Award (European Commission 2018). Even though Lisbon, Portugal was ultimately crowned the 2020 European Green Capital, the jury praised Ghent for its eco-innovations, sustainable infrastructure, circular economy initiatives and, especially, its “…high levels of public participation and mobilization” (RPS 2018, p2). The jury essentially concurred with Ghent’s decision to nurture smart citizens as a key ingredient for a sustainable future, a conclusion that echoes the Ecocity Builders’ mantra: ecocities need eco-citizens.
Eurocities. 2017. A new circular life in Ghent’s Old Dockyards. Accessed on Novenber 24, 2018 from http://eurocities2017.eu/files/uploads/files/Ghent_Circular%20economy%20case%20study(1).pdf.
European Commission. 2018. Expert Panel Technical Assessment Synopsis Report – European Green Capital Award 2020. Accessed on November 21, 2018 from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/EGCA_2020_Technical_Assessment_Synopsis_Report.pdf.
European Union. 2016. Ghent crowdfunding platform realizing climate change adaptation through urban greening (2016). Accessed on November 21, 2018 from
Ghent. 2017. Application Form for the European Green Capital Award 2020. Ghent, Belgium.
Riebbels, Greet. 2018. Gent: redevelopment train station & surroundings. Accessed on November 23, 2018 from https://www.polisnetwork.eu/uploads/Modules/PublicDocuments/redeveloping_train_station___surroundings_in_gent.pdf.
RPS. 2018. Jury Report 2020: European Green Capital. Accessed on November 21, 2018 from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/EGCA_2020_Jury_Report.pdf. .