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Interview with Environmental Coordinator of The city of Lahti

How the city of Lahti became a European Green Capital?

Welcome to the Urbanista blog where we discuss water management challenges of Nordic cities. From safe drinking water distribution and stormwater collection, to building sustainable urban living environments. The Urbanista blog is based on the Urbanista podcast episodes. This post is based on the interview with Jenni Rahkonen – Environmental Coordinator at The city of Lahti. We have discussed the formula of Lahti's success - How it became Environmental Green Capital of Europe? 
Listen to the full interview

How the city of Lahti became a European Green Capital?

Conversation around sustainable urban development is increasing. More and more cities want to be sustainable and want to have an environmental policy. Some even aspire to be the most sustainable city in Europe. However, there is one city that has been way ahead of everybody else, and that is the city of Lahti, Finland. It is found around 100 km north of the capital city Helsinki, and has a little over 100,000 inhabitants. It’s also the home of Uponor, where this company was founded over 100 years ago. Lahti was nominated for the Green Capital of Europe 2021, so it has been ahead of the game for a while.

Watch the full interview!

Our guest today knows a thing or two about sustainable urban development. Who are you and what do you do?

- My name is Jenni Rahkonen and I’m the Environmental Coordinator at the city of Lahti where I especially focus on the circular economy issues and sustainable development. We have an efficient team of ten experts from different fields of environmental development, such as biodiversity, climate change and planetary health.


What do we mean by Sustainable Urban Development and Circular Economy?

- You have to think about all the different aspects of sustainability. E.g., the ecological, social and economic sustainability in the city. The city is a big user of resources and space, so it needs to meet the needs of all the residents while minimising the damage to the environment. The aim of Lahti is to provide a sustainable living environment and also wellbeing for the residents.
In fact, Lahti just published its first sustainability report in the Spring, and it was prepared by experts from different fields, from our team in Environmental Development, as well as Cities and Wellbeing, and the Economy and City Management team. Our teams role considered particularly the economic aspects of climate work, promoting the circular economy, biodiversity and the water environment as well as the planetary health issues.


How are these reports prepared?

- Well, this was the first year we had done this report, but we discuss everything in depth with the different units of the city and decide what are the really important and interesting things for the citizens to learn more about the cities located in the area, but also about those who are giving funding to the cities to develop their environmental work.


Is it a collaborative effort?

- For this first report we focused especially on the aspects that the city is doing and on the social sustainability: the employment and education in the area. But a very important part was the city-owned companies that are, for example, providing the water management or waste management of the area and how these companies are also promoting sustainability in Lahti.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

- Old habits are a big issue. Changing the way that we think, especially when we think about the circular economy, how to change from the current linear model where you just make, use and throw away materials and products, to the circular model where there is no throwing away phase, instead the materials are used again and again. That’s the big challenge, how to change the minds of people and how to change the normal business models we have been using for years and years. The price is not the only thing that matters, but also the whole lifecycle cost and the environmental effects of production materials.


How important is the sustainability issue in the procurement process?

- Already in the public procurement phase the city really needs to discuss together with the companies about what kind of solutions are possible and how we can take care of the end life of the products. So much is happening that these kind of discussions are needed. The public procurement has such a big impact, and the cities are purchasing with millions of euros, so it has a really big effect when you demand in the procurement phase that some recycled materials are used in the products, and you need to discuss with the providers what is possible and what can be developed further.
I know that in Lahti, these kind of procurement processes have been developed a lot and the sustainability aspect is rising all the time, so price is not the only thing that matters in the procurement process. And all the time, we are discovering new ways to add more of these points, to raise sustainable solutions in the process. Of course, for this we also need the expertise from the companies who can tell what can be demanded, what materials are possible and how to improve the criteria so that we are able to choose those sustainable possibilities.


How did Lahti become the European Green Capital?

- It was really quite a long process, from the expertise that had started in the city already in the 1970s, especially in the environmental work that has been done in preserving the local lake, Vesijärvi. From there, a lot of environmental expertise and research started to focus especially in Lahti. After that, waste separation and sorting started in 1990 and at the moment we are utilising 99% of household waste materials and only 0,5% goes to landfill. About half is recycled and less than half is used for energy.
Another big step in the environmental growth of Lahti was when we abandoned the use of coal in 2019 for district heating. Nowadays Lahti is heated by recycled fuel as well as with certified wood. In 2017 we introduced in the Päijät Häme area of Lahti, the first regional road map towards a circular economy. And finally, we have the ambitious goal for the future to become carbon neutral by 2025 and the really big target of becoming a zero-waste city by 2050. So, we have the ambitious environmental work that has been happening for decades, as well as looking to the future and developing the environmental work all the time.


What other examples of the environmental work might be transferrable to other cities?

- There are so many different examples to take from the environmental work done in Lahti, not one huge step but many small steps in the aspect of environmental work, and the big point of encouragement for Lahti’s environmental work was preserving lake Vesijärvi, as it was in very bad condition. However, after many years of work, people can now swim there and enjoy the environment. And it was something that all the citizens could really appreciate. A big change was made and people could see that it is good to do the environmental work.


Is the water management a key starting point?

- In Lahti certainly, the water is really important. It is one of the cleanest drinking waters in the whole world. And also it’s important because the water can be seen everywhere, in the lakes all around the Lahti area. Nowadays, there is a lot of expertise in water management in the Lahti area and the city experts have a lot of knowledge of how to take care of the lake.


What’s next for Lahti? Can it really become carbon neutral by 2025?

- Well, it really is an ambitious goal and we have been following how we have been progressing. We have already reduced emissions by 70% compared to 1990 so we are on a good track. A really important and big reduction of the emissions happened when we abandoned coal for district heating. Now though, there are no more ‘big’ reductions to be made, instead we have to reduce from many, smaller streams and the most important are the heating of houses and then transport. It’s really important that we move from using our own cars to cycling, walking and using public transport and electric cars more. There are so many different things we need to do and all the citizens and companies have to participate to reach this goal.


Where would you advise urban planners begin when it comes to reducing carbon emissions?

- That’s a good question, and a big one. I think the cooperation is really important and none of the strategies or programmes to reduce emissions can be done by ourselves. So, the city planners inside the city need to collaborate with other units a lot, but also consider what the local companies in the area think. For example, the city of Lahti has received a lot of encouragement because already during the Environmental Capital year, there was a lot of interest from the companies to locate the business in the Lahti area because they had heard about the good environmental work and the possibility to use coal-free energy. So, when you get the ball rolling, the more environmental work you do, the more companies come to the area as a result and then there is more environmental business happening in the area. It’s a positive action that feeds itself.

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