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Urban centres have been battling with the issue of emissions for years, and the debate over the negative impact of human activity on the environment has gained momentum with the advent of the pandemic. In light of the many challenges facing today’s urban centres, Knight Frank has conducted a global study of 286 of the world’s largest cities. The Active Capital report presents an analysis and assessment of factors in four categories (i.e. green, climate risk, brown, urbanisation pressures), resulting in a ranking of the largest cities in terms of sustainable development and, in particular, their attractiveness to investors.

The research carried out for this report considers, first of all, the position of the largest Polish cities compared to other selected European agglomerations. It takes into account key aspects such as: reduction in pollution emissions, the urbanisation process, and factors determining the extent to which the cities may be described as „green”. Polish cities are characterised by similar values of the factors determining resilience to climate change risks as other European cities. Our analysis, therefore, takes into account results for selected centres in two categories – emission reduction level and environmental performance.

The diagnosis analysed such aspects as the development of public transport infrastructure, the proportion of green areas, urban air quality, the number of certified green buildings, temperature changes, the rate of urbanisation, and measures aimed at reducing CO2 emissions.

Warsaw in top 20 cities in terms of sustainable development

The analysis covered 118 European cities. London and Paris lead the way with high scores both in the category of environmental friendliness and reduction in pollutant emissions. Among Polish centres, Warsaw received the highest ranking with a position of 20th . The remaining Polish cities in the study, however, were somewhat lower in the ranking – Kraków was in 65th position, with Wrocław, Łódź, Poznań and Gdańsk ranked respectively 89th , 97th , 98th and 105th . The lowly positions were attributable mainly to the poor air quality in the cities in question, however these centres also have a lot to do in other aspects related to reducing the negative effects of urbanisation and improving the quality of life of city dwellers, which are presented below.

Increase in urban temperatures

In 2016, as a result of the agreement of nearly 200 countries, the Paris Agreement was signed. It resulted in the creation of numerous initiatives and projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions in most industries. One of the assumptions of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global temperature increase in the current century below 2°C. Studies show that in most European countries, including Poland, the regional warming recorded since 1960 was over 2°C. Polish cities recorded an average temperature rise of 2.75°C during this period, putting them in the middle of the distribution compared to other European cities analysed.

Air pollution well above who standards

One of the most serious problems of contemporary European cities is air pollution. Air quality analyses examine the presence of two types of particulate matter, distinguished by the size of the particles that form and circulate in the air: PM2.5 (up to 2.5 μm in diameter) and PM10 (up to 10 μm in diameter). Their origin can be both natural and due to human activity – the latter being the main cause of air pollution in cities. The main sources of atmospheric particulate matter are manufacturing and fuel combustion processes.

Particulate matter suspended in the atmosphere is one of the elements of smog, which is mainly observed in Poland during the colder months when heating is in use – although another form of it, photochemical smog, is noticeable in the summer. The formation of smog is the effect of a very high concentration of pollutants, with a key role being played by favourable atmospheric conditions: windless weather and low temperatures. The harmfulness of smog is emphasized by the fact that according to the World Health Organization it is the cause of premature death in 7 million people every year, and air pollution is, next to climate change, seen as one of the biggest threats to human life. Moreover, in 2013 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had already classified air pollution and particulate matter as carcinogenic substances. At the same time, it is worth noting that in 2019, according to the WHO, more than 90% of the world’s population lived in areas where PM2.5 concentrations exceeded the permissible levels set by the World Health Organization in 2005. The key in the fight against polluted air is rapid action aimed at minimizing harmful emissions and paying heed to air quality. To this end, the WHO in September 2021, after conducting numerous studies, updated the permissible levels of pollutants. Concentration standards have been tightened and currently stand at:

  • for PM2.5 – 15 μg/m³ per day and 5 μg/m³ per year,
  • for PM10 – 45 μg/m³ per day and 15 μg/m³ per year.

Polish cities at the top of the infamous ranking

For Poland, which is among the most polluted countries in Europe, the WHO’s new findings are tantamount to a call to speed up the

introduction of an effective anti-smog policy. In many Polish cities, current concentrations of particulate matter exceed standards many times over, and Poland is already subject to infringement proceedings for failure to comply with the EU’s air quality directive

According to data published in the Global Carbon Atlas report in 2019, Poland was fourth among the 27 European Union countries in terms of CO 2 emissions, with only France, Italy and Germany ahead of it. In the WHO report on air quality in Europe published in 2016, out of the 50 most polluted cities, 33 were located in Poland, with 7 of them making the top 10. Two years later, 36 Polish cities sat among the 50 most polluted European cities, indicating that the air quality problem was getting worse. According to analysis carried out in 2021 by members of the Sonar Europe project, the facility emitting the most greenhouse gases in Europe is the coal-fired power plant in Bełchatów. It produces 33 million tons of CO 2 per year, exceeding the annual CO2 emissions of Denmark.

For Polish urban centres, one of the main problems influencing air pollution is the widespread use of outdated heating stoves to heat houses and flats. City authorities run and promote programmes under which their replacement is subsidised, but according to the Polish Smog Alert the rate of replacement has decreased in the last two years. It is worth, however, drawing attention to the effectiveness of the actions of some city authorities aimed at limiting the formation of smog. For many years, Kraków ranked high among the most polluted cities in Poland but, as of 2019, it no longer appears in such rankings. This is the result of a total ban on the burning of coal and wood in households, which has resulted in a decrease in harmful particulate matter emissions in the city.

The depopulation of Polish cities

Another problem facing Polish cities is the spatial overspill of the largest centres into the suburbs, resulting in a steady, gradual decrease in the number of city inhabitants. Poor air quality in cities, internal and external migration, and negative natural population growth have a key impact on these demographic changes. In the period from 1990 to 2015 all Polish cities examined by Knight Frank (Warsaw, population (by 9% on average), whereas many European urban centres experienced population growth. Among Polish cities, the smallest decrease in population was recorded in the capital city – by 0.68%, while the largest number of people left Łódź (a population decrease of 23.5%). Among the largest European cities, only Riga is ahead of Łódź in this respect.

City dwellers are also exposed to another factor that has a negative impact on their quality of life: excessive noise, coming mainly from transport. According to a report by the European Environment Agency in 2020, one in five EU citizens lives in an area where the level of noise generated is considered by the World Health Organisation to have a harmful impact on health. It should, however, be borne in mind that this problem affects most European cities, where more than half of the inhabitants of urban areas are affected by road noise levels of 55 dB or more 24 hours a day.

A sharp increase in the amount of built-up space

The rapid urbanization observed in recent decades has resulted not only in increased noise levels, but also in an increase in the share of built-up area in the total area of cities, most often at the expense of green areas. In the Knight Frank study, however, Kraków stands out among European cities. Despite a large increase in its built-up area (65%) it managed to record one of the highest increases in greenery ratio in built-up areas among all the analysed cities. For comparison, the same result was noted in Lisbon, and only three European cities can boast a higher indicator: Rennes, Lyon and Geneva. At the same time, between 1975 and 2015, Warsaw registered a 70% increase in its built-up area, placing it 3rd among the analysed European cities. In this respect, Warsaw is topped only by Madrid (a growth of 83%) and Kiev (86%). In contrast, the group of cities that recorded the smallest increase in built-up area in the analysed period included London (10%), Zurich and Barcelona (12% each), Milan (13%), Munich and Manchester (14% each) and Berlin (15%).

Knight Frank’s analysis of the growth of high density urbanised area and built-up area in selected cities between 1975 and 2015 clearly shows that during that period the cities of Central and Eastern Europe (including Prague, Kiev and the analysed Polish cities) underwent the process of urban sprawl. In contrast, many European centres, especially in Scandinavia, were densifying their centres in line with the principles of new urbanism and the idea of sustainable development, as can now be seen in such cities as Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Zurich and Munich.

How „green” are Polish cities?

The presence of greenery is a key factor influencing the quality of city life, making it a frequent subject for research. According to the HUGSI 2020 Index assessing the level of greenness of urban areas and covering 155 urban centres worldwide, Kraków ranked 3rd among European cities and 5th in the world. The analysis was conducted using satellite imagery and focused on the actual percentage share of green spaces in the metropolises. For European cities, the capital of Małopolska region was ahead of Stuttgart, Zurich, Hamburg and Prague, and was behind only Dortmund and Vilnius. The other Polish cities in the analysis – Wrocław and Warsaw – were ranked 16th and 17th respectively in Europe, and 22nd and 23rd in the world. Green areas make up 54% of the area of the capital of Lower Silesia, while in Warsaw and Kraków – respectively – the figures are 51% and 57%. German cities, with 20 out of the top 100, dominated the ranking

The importance of the presence of green areas in the surroundings of human beings is emphasized by a study conducted by Danish scientists from the University of Aarhus. Involving almost one million people born between 1985 and 2003, it showed that access to green areas during adolescence can contribute to a reduction in the incidence of mental illness by as much as 55%.

Eco-mobility versus car growth

The high levels of pollution in Polish cities are closely related to a steadily increasing number of cars. In 2019, Kraków had 685 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, while Vienna and Berlin had 372 and 324 respectively. Other Polish cities recorded figures even higher than Kraków. In 2020, in Warsaw there were 833 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, in Katowice – 854, in Poznań – 850, and in Wrocław – 690. It is worth noting that Poland, compared to other EU countries, is very motorised, and the number of cars in Western Europe is systematically falling. Rail transport, both metro and suburban railway, plays an important role in European cities. In terms of the length of suburban railways and underground lines in Europe, cities such as London, Moscow, Paris and Madrid stand out. Although Warsaw has one of the longest networks of suburban railways, it remains one of the most „car-dependent” capitals in Europe. In recent years, many European centres, looking for an alternative or addition to public transport and cycling infrastructure, have set about developing city bicycle networks. In the capital of Poland there are 3.25 urban bicycles per 1,000 inhabitants. By way of comparison, Paris has 11.18/1,000 inhabitants, Barcelona – 5.16, while Vienna and Moscow only 0.51.

More information you can find the “A city in good shape. Trends that are changing cities” report.