What the UK Can Learn from Europe’s Cleanest Cities

There’s more to a clean city than keeping your streets litter-free. Factors such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and public transport schemes all contribute to making cities greener and more liveable than ever. Some places have raced ahead of the rest when it comes to sustainable living. Scandinavian cities in particular channel money and public resources towards transforming their cities. It isn’t all down to respective governments and city planners however — inhabitants of each city play their part too. One common theme among the cleanest cities is their residents’ preference towards cycling and public transport. Those cities where people have swapped out cars for road and mountain bikes lead the way in reducing carbon emissions. Plus, their cities are happier, healthier places to live. Let’s have a look at which cities are topping the cleanliness charts this year and what we could do, here in the UK, to emulate their efforts.


Sweden’s capital repeatedly outshines other cities when it comes to green issues. In fact, in 2010 Stockholm became Europe’s first Green Capital, an initiative which was started in Tallinn in 2006. After Stockholm’s shining example, other cities such as Nijmegen (2018) and Oslo (2019) have held this prestigious title.  As well as being dubbed the Green Capital, Stockholm also boasts the lowest air pollution rate in the whole of Europe. Furthermore, its efforts to diminish pollution are paying off — they have seen a 25% reduction in carbon emissions since the ‘90s. If they hadn’t already set themselves enough goals, the people of Stockholm aim to be fossil fuel free by 2050.

In order to live up to its squeaky-clean reputation, Stockholm has many public initiatives in place. Constant efforts to improve public transport, paired with a strong cycling culture, work to decrease traffic in the city centre in order to tackle emissions, congestion and pollution. This culture around city cycling has been attempted in the UK. Most major cities have initiated bike sharing schemes such as Mobike and Santander Cycle. Our city infrastructure, however, has a long way to go before cycling will start replacing driving in city centres.


Across the Baltic Sea, Finland’s capital is also making positive steps towards a cleaner way of life. Helsinki’s most recent pledge is that they’re hoping to make motor vehicles obsolete by 2025 — which would be an incredible feat and a huge step towards sustainability.

Completely eradicating cars won’t be easy, but Helsinki has schemes in place to reach their goal. Like Stockholm, Helsinki has a healthy cycling culture, and the city boasts 2,400 miles of cycle lanes. As well as this, Stockholm is currently developing new technology to improve its public transport system and negate the necessity of cars. A concept from a master’s thesis by transport engineer Sonja Heikkilä outlines the idea of a pay-monthly transport system for all. This ‘on-demand’ public transport initiative will all exist on one multi-purpose online platform. The platform design looks to be a city-planner/ride share app hybrid. The idea is that everyone in Helsinki will have access to affordable and efficient public transport, ultimately reducing car use and pollution.

The UK’s transport system still has a long way to go if we want to emulate such a scheme. It is clear that cost is a major factor in how people decide to commute — until we see reduced charges on public transport here in the UK, it is unlikely that we will get anywhere close to eradicating cars.


Another city that is cleaning up its act, and using public transport to do so, is Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The world health organisation has referred to Tallinn as one of the least polluted capitals in the world. It is also renowned for its greenspaces and clean streets. Tallinn is a small, medieval, walled city which is largely pedestrianised and ill-equipped for motor vehicles. There are roughly 40km² of greenspaces within the city and it prides itself in its environmental outlook.

In 2013, Tallinn became the first European capital to provide free public transport to its residents. As long as you register as a resident and pay a one-off payment of two euros for a ‘green card’ then you can officially ride for free! This has diminished the use of cars, and the consequential environmental damage. In 2018, Estonia rolled out this scheme to the rest of the country in an aim to become a cleaner and happier place for its citizens.

Although there is currently no sign of a similar scheme being implemented in the UK, we must look for other incentives to travel on public transport. Discounts for students, young people, and older generations on busses and trains is a step towards this aim. UK based transport companies already offer such discounts as an incentive, but costs could still be reduced to make public transport a more attractive option to commuters.


The last city on our list is Scotland’s historic capital. Edinburgh’s streets are notably clean and well maintained. In addition, the local councils aim to increase the transport systems and sustainability. One way they have endeavoured to do so, is by establishing ‘low-emissions’ zones and pedestrianizing parts of the historic centre. The ‘open streets’ initiative, which was first set up on the 5th of May 2018, resolved to ban traffic in areas of the old town including Canongate and Cockburn Street. After this pilot run, the council put this scheme in place on the first Sunday of every month.

Commenting Edinburgh’s ‘open streets’, Transport and Environment Convener, Lesley Macinnes said, “We’ve seen how successful similar schemes internationally have proved by encouraging active travel, improving air quality and creating a safer, more relaxed atmosphere so I can’t wait to see this take shape in the Capital.”

Despite Edinburgh’s efforts, their neighbours in Glasgow are rivalling them when it comes to air quality. The above map shows a comparison of the two cities’ average air quality (with lower numbers meaning less pollution) However, both cities’ statistics evidence an improvement in air quality, caused by initiatives such as the ‘open streets’ policy.

Each of these European cities have made strides towards clean, sustainable policies in recent years. Not only are their actions beneficial to the planet, but they also make for happier citizens with a higher quality of life. Here in the UK, it is time to follow the example of these clean, green cities and start implementing some similar policies.