The corona crisis shows that resilience on many levels is necessary for cities to cope with future challenges. Up in the very north of Denmark, Aalborg’s sustainability strategy is central to the city and a step in this direction as it gives guidance for the green transition and points the way to a modern economy.

It acknowledges the nine planetary boundaries and each citizen should be given the chance to contribute to the green transition in their way. Moreover, Aalborg wants to take co-responsibility to the development of the world via international co-operations.

Aalborg is progressive for a long time now when it comes to sustainability. Expressions of that are the Aalborg Charter  and the Aalborg Commitments which both aim to strengthen local sustainability efforts by internationally agreeing on specific sustainability objectives amongst cities. In practice, these sustainability efforts are supported by four elements that all circle around Aalborg’s citizens in the center:

  • Network for Sustainable Business Development (NBE):

The NBE helps local companies to optimize their production with regards to sustainability issues. About a hundred companies are involved in the network.

  • Green agent:

The green agent is a city employee who gives assistance to citizens’ green projects and is responsible for the communication concerning sustainable behavior.

  • Center for Green Transition:

The Center for Green Transition works as a platform for projects with a sustainable focus. These projects are all public-private partnerships.

  • SMART Aalborg:

With the help of the SMART Aalborg initiative, citizens and companies can express ideas that are then transmitted to politicians. This enables citizens and companies to participate in the debate over the use of the municipalities’ funds.

I talked with Mr. Anders Du Mont-Thygesen about those ideas to achieve a better understand of Aalborg’s approach with a deep and very honest focus on sustainability.

@City of Aalborg

Which process did you use to develop the strategy and did you try to involve the citizens?

I was not involved in the making of the strategy for 2016 to 2020. But I am currently deeply engaged in developing the forthcoming strategy. However, the current corona crisis will delay its publication.

While before the focus was quite only on environmental issues, we now try to understand sustainability more broadly and look for opportunities for citizen engagement. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) from the United Nations  work here as the guiding principles.

For the development of the strategy, we first established internal and an external working groups. The external working group was what we called the Council for Sustainable Development. It consists of members of the city council, housing associations, youth associations, NGOs as well as business, industry and educational institutions. Those working groups operated with the goal to foster strategic sustainable development. Those groups did then bring the debate to their networks such as universities or associations. We also conducted used our annual a sustainability festival as a platform to openly debate strategic issues.

Which feedback did your strategy get internally and externally? Do people widely accept the focus on sustainability?

It is true that you first need to convince people of your vision and now we can say that the strategy is internally not perceived as an annoying add-on anymore, but that it is widely accepted.

Externally, the citizens always want to achieve more which is sometimes in conflict with the internal perspective which is driven by a sense of costs and realism.

Important for the acceptance of the strategy was also the widening of the understanding of sustainability. Now we not only look at the environment, but we also make social issues a subject of discussion. Maybe the SDGs worked here as a good instrument to promote this broader understanding of sustainability. Besides, Aalborg is a city with a historically strong focus on sustainable issues. The Aalborg Charter and the Aalborg Commitments in which cities across the world agreed upon specific objectives are an expression of that.

Which measures did you so far implement in Aalborg?

As a direct consequence of our strategy, we aligned four elements which contribute not only to sustainability but also to social and economic goals:

  • Network for Sustainable Business Development
  • Green Agent
  • Center for Green Transition
  • SMART Aalborg.

Those elements contribute to the idea that the citizens are at the center of the strategy and that specific aspects such as the strengthening of housing associations derive from it. Moreover, we internally try to take ideas of the circular economy into account when it comes to public procurement, provision of our fleet, or equipment for our employees.

Which is the biggest challenge to the implementation of the strategy?

Getting the strategy anchored in such a big organization as the City of Aalborg and among seven departments is challenging. It needs to be relevant for all those seven departments: Being ambitious, but leaving no one behind.

Besides, we are lucky that local politics are quite stable here because that always contributes to the success of a strategy.

Which challenges are relevant for Aalborg in the long term?

Biodiversity still needs to be improved and this will not work in the short term. We also did not yet crack the code to get all citizens on board in showing interest in city-related issues which is why we can still improve discussions with the citizens. Creating a story is what is important here.

What we can so far observe during the corona crisis is that cities and communities are likely to be more important in the citizens’ lives. This is another reason why citizen engagement is crucial and just doing it pro forma is not enough. We need to help citizens where they are and better understand their needs.

Which diplomatic relationships with other cities does Aalborg maintain?

We are very focussed on being an outward city and in comparison to other cities in Denmark, we have the most twin cities. It is very important to exchange with our twin cities, especially with those of a similar size as they often face similar challenges. We do also concentrate on international networks. We strongly support the Sustainable Cities Platform which supports transformative actions. The Basque Declaration is the latest we agreed upon and it tries to achieve the necessary socio-cultural, socio-economic, and technological transformations. The next declaration aims to respond to the EU Green Deal. Moreover, Aalborg engages a lot in the network ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

Find more about city strategies: Have a look at our talks with officials from HelsinkiEindhovenBochumZürich, and Mannheim to find out more about city strategies in the face of global competition.