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The greenest cities in Europe

A common thread links Nantes, Hamburg, Vitoria and Stockholm, and the colour of that thread is green: they've all been recognised as cities with a five-star commitment to environmental issues, in honour of which, each of them has held, or will hold, the title of European Green Capital.

Launched in 2008, with the first award made in 2010, the European Green Capital initiative is designed to promote sustainable development and care for the environment. As around four out of every five Europeans live in towns and cities, urban issues are vitally important. The award looks at a number of factors, including practical issues such as transport, waste management and noise pollution as well as the more visibly appealing – and environmentally and ecologically vital – such as parks and green spaces. It's a combination of all this into an integrated urban management approach that has qualified Hamburg, Nantes, Stockholm and Vitoria for the title. Lets take a look at these four cities linked by that green thread.

Vitoria-Gasteiz (2012)

Vitoria

Set on a hill on the plain of Alava, Vitoria is in Spain's Basque Country, around 70 kilometres from the northern coast, not only is this year's European Green Capital surrounded by forests and mountains, but wherever you are within the urban area, you are no farther than 300 metres from a green space. The city's cheap and efficient public transport and a laudably low daily water consumption – less than 100 litres per person – as well as the reduction in pollution due to the city's green effort all make Vitoria a worthy role model. Perhaps the most attractive aspect for visitors, though is the anillo verde the green belt of linked countryside and natural parks which surrounds the city and which can be explored by bike or on foot. There are museums, too, including the Fournier and the Museum of Natural Sciences, the old cathedral where visitors have an opportunity to visit the restoration works, tempting Basque cuisine and a lively cultural agenda.

Nantes (2013)
Described in 2004 by Time magazine as 'the most liveable city in Europe', Nantes lies on the banks of the Loire, just over 40 kilometres from the Atlantic coast of France. The city has long been a leader in the field of urban transport, and in 1985 was the first French city to reintroduce electric trams successfully, now boasting the longest tram network in the country. With a classical music festival, a jazz festival centred around the Erdre river, lively carnival celebrations, an international science fiction convention and other annual events, the cultural agenda is busy throughout the year, and no doubt will be even busier next year when Nantes replaces Vitoria as holder of the title of Green Capital.

Hamburg (2011)

Hamburg

Whether you take a boat trip from Hamburg to Cuxhaven along the river Elbe, the river that brought trade and wealth to the Hamburg, or enjoy time out under the spreading oaks overlooking Alster lake; whether you choose to explore HafenCity, the modern urban-planning project that is transforming the city's harbourside district or opt for an afternoon in the park - maybe Stadtpark, or the huge Planten un Blomen park with its botanical garden and the largest Japanese garden in Europe... whatever you choose to do, Hamburg has plenty of options to charm and delight visitors. The city – one of the richest in Europe – has managed to achieve a fine balance between the environment and urban life, which was one of the factors that led to it being named Green Capital in 2011.

Stockholm (2010)

Stoclholm

There were plenty of reasons that contributed to the Swedish capital being chosen as the very first European Green Capital in 2010, and the city continues to be a role model in the environmental stakes. A fascinating city, comprising 14 islands interconnected by 57 bridges, Stockholm boasts the world's first national urban park. Nearby are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Birka, Drottningholm and Skogskyrkogarden, all within easy visiting distance. Established in the eight century, Birka, set on an island in Lake Malaren, is a great day trip back into the country's Viking past. Drottningholm boasts Sweden's best-preserved royal palace where the Slottsteater – the palace theatre – still uses the original eighteenth-century stage machinery regularly. Skogskyrkogarden, the Woodland Cemetery, is a poetical work created by the modernist architects  Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz on around 250 acres of pine-covered ridge that evokes the Nordic philosophy of nature, life, and death. Back in the capital, the central district of Sodermalm is a great place to stroll around discovering the local art and crafts shops, jewellers, and second-hand stores or just enjoy the typical bars and cafes. But with so many separate islands, there are plenty of other places to explore in this Venice of the North, one of the cleanest capital cities in the world.

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