New East Digital Archive

Green cities: the 10 most eco-friendly capitals of the New East

24 January 2017

Whether it’s the transformation of Ljubljana into a pedestrian oasis, an e-transportation system that’s cleaning up Tallinn’s streets or Warsaw’s brand new sewage system providing fertilisers to farmers, cities across the New East are charting a course towards more sustainable futures.

That’s not to say that environmental issues don’t still blight much of eastern Europe. In many countries across the region, increased prosperity since the collapse of the Soviet Union has precipitated a swell in the number of cars being purchased. Throw in the legacy of large-scale industrial pollution and the still-extant concrete slab housing blocks notorious for poor insulation, and it’s clear that the path to a greener future isn’t easy.

Nevertheless, a growing number of New East capitals are committed to creating a more eco-friendly city environment, rolling out new initiatives and schemes to help leave their smoggy pasts behind them. Here’s our list of ten of the greenest cities of the New East.


Bucharest is the beating heart of the country’s national economy and is heavy with the presence of industry, but it is an impressive example of a city that’s trying hard to shake off its poor sustainability ratings. In 2008, Bucharest became the first southeastern country to launch a Green Building Council dedicated to promoting green building and best practices. The council has successfully propelled the city towards a more sustainable present, and was followed a year later by the first Romanian building — AIG/Lincoln’s Lakeview office building — to be awarded for its design excellence from the widely respected environmental building assessment standards BREEAM. The city government is tackling its problem of traffic congestion by devoting resources to cleaning up its transport fleets. Moreover, an impressive 76% of Bucharestians either walk or cycle to work (compared with 44% in Rome who do the same).

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Belgrade might conjure images of concrete tower blocks and smoky factories, but the Serbian capital is fast becoming one of the Balkans’ most environmentally conscious city. Having weathered a tricky economic situation in the aftermath of the war, Belgradians have ensured that renewable energy remains high on their green agenda; city inhabitants consume a below-average amount of energy while using a relatively high level of renewable energy. One of Belgrade’s most important green initiatives, the renewal and gasification of Belgrade’s district heating system, is set to significantly improve energy efficiency and air quality by making fuels already in use more efficient.

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With its wide roads and traffic, Budapest hasn’t always been a city where cyclists have felt safe. Much has changed in recent years, however. An impressive campaign to promote cycling led by the Budapest City Government has seen bike and car traffic separated and the popularity of cycling swiftly rise. At home, to counter the effects of Budapest’s charming, but crumbling, original windowpanes dating back over a century, the city and national governments have joined financial forces to retrofit buildings, which, for all their imperial grandeur, lose an incredible amount of heat.

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As the best example of a capital that has deftly transformed itself into a hyper-green metropolis, Ljubljana rightfully won the title of European Green Capital 2016. In the space of a decade, the government has turned its traffic-heavy city centre into a green oasis, limiting car use and remaking the space into a place for cyclists and pedestrians. The push to introduce environmentally friendly cars (the City of Ljubljana’s public companies and services already use more than 120 natural gas vehicles) means the air is cleaner than other capitals in the region. The city is one of Europe’s few where natural drinking water hasn’t received prior treatment, while forests, botanical gardens and parks abound, and the city’s first public orchard, which opened in 2015, attracts residents who are welcome to come and pick apples at their leisure. Even public lighting is energy-efficient; in the Old Town, energy-draining incandescent light bulbs were replaced with energy-saving LEDs, while the original design of the fixtures was left intact.

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Its reputation for superlative cleanliness has long been Minsk’s best known feature, but its impressive dedication to sustainability also bears a mention. Plans are underway to redevelop the 320 hectares of the now-defunct Minsk-1 Airport into the Minsk Forest City, a new eco-minded district in the Belarusian capital. Drawn up by design company Sasaki, the plans envisage neighbourhoods in the new district to be built into the existing nature to ensure the maximum amount of green space, with the concrete runway to be punched with holes to allow plants to grow. On a civic level, Minsk has a strong network of NGOs dedicated to protecting the environment, and groups including the Belarus Wildlife Protection often successfully lobby the government when initiatives that endanger ecology around the city threaten to emerge. Plans for a waste recycling plant capable of recycling 250,000 tonnes a year of solid municipal waste have also been unveiled.

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Not yet the priority of the Czech government, green policies in Prague have been slow on the uptake. Nevertheless, some state initiatives alongside private ones mean that the Czech capital is creeping forward towards a greener future. Fossil fuels are being replaced with cleaner, more renewable sources now that Prague has gradually increased its spending on sustainability. Recycling is poised to become a mainstay, with legislation likely to be implemented soon that would see recycling in the home mandatory, while fees for dumping waste are expected to increase. Pioneering green businesses are setting up shop in Prague, too, ranging from eco-clothing and paperless advertising agencies to an eco-cleaning company and creative spaces where guests can create, refurbish, repair and upcycle.

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Riga might be the largest capital city in the Baltics, but this hasn’t prevented the city from launching (and sticking to) an impressive sustainability agenda. The city government has shunned petrol-powered car in favour of electro-mobility as part of its aim to reduce CO2 emissions (the government ambitiously hopes to reduce it by 55% by 2020). Its decision to buy eight electric cars to drive around raising awareness about green transport must have paid off; CO2 emissions in the city were annually reduced by 25.5 tons in 2014. Pilot projects for building energy-efficient housing have also been developed and technical plans for the homes have now been completed. Riga received the Food Waste Prize in 2016 for its remarkable success in converting food waste to healthy food by sorting organic waste and intercepting it before it goes to landfill. This waste is then converted into biogas, which is used to heat city greenhouses producing off-season vegetables.

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It was the birthplace of Skype and the first country in the world to offer e-residency, so it was only a matter of time before Tallinn began applying e-innovation to its transport system. The local city council is intent on boosting the number of inhabitants who cycle or walk around the city (currently around 61%) and reverse the trend of buying private cars by reducing traffic and journey time. Buses are being fitted with signalling equipment that will inform traffic lights of their approach and facilitate quick passage through junctions. Cleaner drinking water might also be on the horizon: Tallinn’s water company is “bio-manipulating” Lake Ulemiste on the edge of the capital, a long-term project that includes increasing native fish diversity and giving the lake back a healthier ecological balance.

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Surrounded by tracts of forest, and with the lowest population size of any Baltic capital, it’s no surprise that Vilnius is one of the New East’s greenest cities. The city government boosted its sustainability credentials by offering tax breaks and grants to any of its 500,000 residents who want to renovate their housing to improve energy efficiency, a scheme that has since been rolled out nationally. Buildings constructed with a focus on natural light, organic materials and maximising space have increasingly become the norm; K29, a new conference centre on the bank of the Neris River, is the latest such forward-thinking building (the architects received an award for sustainability from Lithuania’s environment ministry). The city is also home to Lithuania’s first urban farm, an entirely independent project that began with locals deciding to regenerate an abandoned greenhouse to sow crops and foster better community cohesion.

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With green space covering 25% of the city, the widely used Verturilo bike share, and publicity campaigns to educate people on how to save energy, Warsaw is becoming greener by the year. The city’s environmental governance is on a par with Oslo (the Siemens European Green City Index ranked Warsaw and Oslo in fifth place), while the municipality runs a curiously named thermo-modernisation fund that supports the upgrading of public-utility buildings to make them more energy-efficient. The city’s publicity campaign, Capital of Cleanliness, is dedicated to teaching the public how to prevent energy wastage, while Warsaw’s extraordinary, electricity-producing, multi-purpose waste plant recovers recyclable resources, thermally processes waste that’s unsuitable for recycling and composts the organic part of the waste. Warsaw’s sewage works are new on the scene and the envy of central European metropolises, providing biogas for heat as well as fertilisers that farmers can buy.

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