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Greening Budapest: A Path to Sustainable Urban Ecosystems

Kata Tüttő

Hungarian socialist politician and economist, since 2019 November and Deputy-Mayor of Budapest responsible for utility management including transport, waste, water, district heating, streetlight, grey and green infrastructure, nature protection. Member of the European Committee of the Regions she has been rapporteur on several major opinions concerning climate and circular economy, energy poverty, gender and the green deal, Towards a Global green Deal. She is the vice-Chair of the Commission for the environment, climate change and energy ( ENVE). Vice-chair of PES Group in the Committee of the Regions.

Can you describe specific legislation or policy that you have initiated or supported to promote sustainable development in your city?

Among the various initiatives we have taken in Budapest, I would like to mention a very important one: the Dezső Radó Plan. Named after a Hungarian innovator in the field of green infrastructure, this plan focuses on sustainable development and green infrastructure. The Plan is an answer to the green debt we have in Budapest, as well as an inventory of green urban spaces and their intertwining with the city's urban development strategies. Its main goal is to track and increase all the green areas within the city limits.

A very important aspect of the Plan is the tree inventory and the tree value system. As we know, the main conflict in every city is that trees always compete with infrastructure, such as gutters, water and heat pipes, electricity, roads, and parking lots. If we don't give trees a true value, they will always lose out to their infrastructure competitors because it is always cheaper to cut down a tree than to keep it. In the tree value system we are developing, the value of the tree depends on how much public good it provides and focuses on four aspects: i) how much CO2 it captures; ii) how much shade it provides; iii) how much dust it binds; and iv) how much water it evaporates. In the upcoming years, this inventory and the tree value system will allow trees to compete with infrastructure because they will have an established value.

If we don't give trees a true value, they will always lose out to their infrastructure competitors because it is always cheaper to cut down a tree than to keep it.

Is there any other successful initiative or project that you have implemented in Budapest during your mandate related to green governance and sustainable development?

Our city's leadership is very committed to green governance and sustainable development, and almost every city council meeting has something on the agenda related to environmental protection. We were the first in Hungary to deliberately let wildflowers and grasses grow, we stopped importing seeds from other countries, and we left the leaves in the parks as fertilizer, and these are just a few examples. In February, after four consecutive years of applying, we were selected for the LIFE Nature and Biodiversity sub-program, which is usually awarded to national parks. One of our main goals is to increase the number of different species in Budapest and to protect the ecosystem, and we plan to intensively work on it the next eight years.

In addition, we are introducing innovative methods related to trees, such as the Stockholm Method and the Miyawaki Method. The former provides us with a solution for planting trees in the city center in a way that ensures their survival, while the latter helps us understand how different tree species interact and which ones can survive in the long term. Our parks and avenues were originally planted with an aesthetic concept in mind, for instance, using only one species of tree per avenue. While this is aesthetically pleasing, it is not sustainable because if an infection occurs, it could destroy all the trees. We need to change our community's mindset so that, when we replant these avenues, we use a diversity of tree species.

Finally, we are aware of the importance of pollination, so we have developed a pollination strategy. We want to increase the number of insects so we can increase the number of birds later. This strategy focuses on three main aspects: what do we have, how do we look at different parts of the city, and how do we fill in the gaps. We support the recreational function of green spaces, but sometimes it contradicts with biodiversity and nature conservation, so our goal is to follow balanced approaches. The citizens can use different green spaces, but they cannot light fires or bring their dogs. Our ultimate goal is to have happier and healthier citizens, but there are many factors to consider in the implementation of environmental projects.

What are the main challenges you faced in implementing these projects in Budapest?

Although most people like the concept of nature protection, they usually don't like the reality of it.

One of the most important challenges we face in Budapest is the severe limitation of available space, which results in competition between different essential urban needs. This scarcity of space not only exacerbates the housing crisis, but also puts significant pressure on the allocation of land for green spaces, which do not generate direct financial returns, but contribute immensely to the public good. The decision-making process requires us to set clear priorities, particularly in the area of nature conservation. Although most people like the concept of nature protection, they usually don't like the reality of it. Implementing such measures may mean the absence of sports facilities, reduced lighting, restrictions on cycling and dog walking, and the end of mosquito extermination efforts. These changes demonstrate the complexity of promoting biodiversity in an urban environment where space competes with a variety of functions.

Moreover, our commitment to nature protection has led to tangible results and challenges, including the return of beavers to Budapest after several decades. Their natural behaviors, such as cutting down trees and building dams, require innovative management strategies, such as draining rather than destroying their dams, to mitigate their impact on the urban environment. This commitment to biodiversity often conflicts with the interests of our citizens and requires a great deal of effort to navigate. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to prioritizing biodiversity, even when it means compensating private landowners-a decision that sometimes draws public criticism over the allocation of funds that could otherwise support education or health care. To manage these complexities, we invest in communicating to citizens and stakeholders our actions and find compromises.

Have you noticed a change in the behavior of the citizens regarding nature protection from the time you became deputy mayor until now?

Since becoming Deputy Mayor, I have seen a significant change in the way citizens view environmental protection and biodiversity. In the first two years, we received a lot of criticism for things like letting grass grow and leaves compost in parks because people perceived the city as untidy. We put a lot of energy into communicating our work effectively, and people began to understand that these changes in the city are for their own good.

Our objective is to help people realize that making a city greener is not just about planting trees, but about supporting the functioning of an ecosystem.

Infrastructure challenges, such as the impact of tree roots on underground pipes, and environmental concerns, such as the harmful effects of road salt on nature, highlighted the complexity of integrating sustainable practices into urban environments. Despite these barriers, our commitment to gradual implementation and open communication has led to a substantial shift in public opinion. Today, the once-controversial issue of urban greening has become a shared community value, illustrating the importance of patience, flexibility, and commitment in fostering a culture of environmental awareness among our citizens.

What is your opinion on the importance of political commitment to biodiversity enhancement and the implementation of green governance strategies in Budapest?

Our city leadership, including the mayor, has a deep connection to nature and we strongly believe in the positive impact this connection has on people's happiness. The importance of the political commitment to improving biodiversity and implementing green governance strategies in Budapest cannot be overstated. This commitment is critical to addressing air pollution, combating climate change, and improving the microclimate. As summer temperatures rise, the need for green spaces to provide essential water and shade becomes more urgent. Beyond the environmental benefits, these green spaces also provide psychological benefits to our citizens.

In a capital city like Budapest, where housing, jobs and mobility are our primary objectives, integrating green spaces is essential to ensure that people can maintain a connection with nature. While the main sources of biodiversity may not come from the city itself, it is important to promote urban biodiversity. This is increasingly important as most people live in urban areas and may not visit the countryside often.


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