“If I just look at my courtyard, three of my neighbors have an electric car", says Christian Patermann, long-time program director at the European Commission and now internationally known as the “father of the bioeconomy”. "But why? Because they can afford it and have the chance to own a private garage where to recharge it. But if you just move a bit away from the city, e-cars basically disappear. This is also because the number of public charging points for e-vehicles is largely insufficient. As a consequence, e-cars risk becoming a privilege for wealthy people who have a garage or a private garden, thus hindering a faster development of the e-mobility.”
What Mr. Patermann sees from his windows seems to mirror an analysis by ACEA, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. According to its latest figures, 10 EU countries with an average GDP of below €17,000, had an electric car market share of less than 3% last year, while almost three-quarters of all sales were concentrated in richer countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark. Therefore, affordability of sustainable practices and solutions is a major issue far beyond the car market. “There is a clear risk that for a certain period, some of them might be reserved for wealthier people”, says Patermann. “The solution is not to go back to the traditional approach, but to make them affordable to everybody in the shortest possible time”.
Figures by the French Statistics Institute, INSEE, show that in 2016, 78 million EU citizens were unable to meet basic needs such as replacing two pairs of properly fitting shoes or worn-out clothes. It is what experts call “material or social deprivation”, a condition common to 15% of European citizens. “A circular approach on a large scale will never be possible unless we involve these people in sustainable practices too”, says Beatriz Medina, an environmental and social scientist at the consulting company We&B. “It would be like building a roof but forgetting the house underneath”. Within Houseful, an EU-funded project aimed at proposing circular solutions and services for the housing sector, Medina works at bringing them to “difficult” settings such as poor neighborhoods, home to families with social vulnerabilities.
One of the demonstration sites where such an innovative approach is being tested is in Campoamor, a working-class district in Sabadell, a town in the outskirts of Barcelona. The district arose as a result of internal migrations mainly from Andalucía, but when this first wave of residents left, they were mainly replaced by migrants from other countries. “The unemployment rate is very high. Most of the people have quite low incomes and especially among migrants there a lot of large families needing social assistance”, says Montserrat Muniente, president of a local neighborhood association, bringing together 800 families. “If I suggested they put solar PV on their roofs, they would think I was crazy. A few of them are owners, most are renting and some are squatters. Their situations are too different and whenever there is something to pay, it becomes impossible to get everyone to agree”.
“The circularity of the building they live in ranks quite low in their priorities. What these people need is first of all affordable rent, a job, and a good education for their children”, says Dara Turnbull, research coordinator at Housing Europe. “When we talk to them, rather than focusing on sustainability, we have to explain to them the practical impact of such solutions on their everyday life: how much they will save on their heating or electricity bills, how much comfort they will gain in their apartments, etc”. Housing Europe is a network of 46 national and regional federations, gathering 43,000 public, social, and cooperative housing providers in 25 countries. Its role within the Houseful Project is primarily to collect the feedback on the ground, to understand what problems might have arisen, and in doing so, to pave the way for replicating the solutions tested. “After working on four demonstration sites, we’ve now identified the first of ten ‘follower buildings’, which will replicate them in turn. Each of them will then hopefully find ten more followers and so our model will grow exponentially”.
The pioneering project run in Sabadell has also helped Housing Europe to frame some of the main obstacles to the uptake of circular solutions in such difficult contexts. “Language barriers, cultural differences, and anti-social working hours of some of the tenants make things more difficult”, says Medina. “Some of them even ignore how to simply sort their household waste. We had to be realistic and drop some solutions, focusing only on those fitting their situation. We start by organizing training to teach them how to save energy and sort their waste and then we see”. Such meetings are also aimed at fostering a “community spirit”: “Circular solutions are mostly collective, not individual. Decisions must be taken together, but to do so, we first have to involve and motivate people, who often don’t feel at home and thus don’t even care so much about their own apartment”. An inspiring model might come from Denmark, suggests Mr. Turnbull: “According to the national legislation, tenants must have the majority on the board of management, deciding on renovations and day-to-day management of every social housing block. It is a very effective model because it empowers them and lets them appreciate that they can really make things happen”.
Marrying circularity and social inclusion is also the goal of the Italian “Energy and Solidarity Community Napoli Est”. This project is located in one of the most deprived areas of Naples and seeks to reduce inequalities and foster virtuous economic and environmental processes. “It is a neighborhood with strong social and environmental problems”, says Maria Teresa Imparato, President of Legambiente Campania, which launched the project. “The crime rate is very high, at night there is basically a curfew, and mafia clans recruit young people for drug dealing.” On its roof, the foundation Famiglia di Maria installed solar panels, supplying energy to 40 families and thus cutting their electricity bills by 30%. “Such savings are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Anna Riccardi, president of the Foundation Famiglia di Maria. “Every day about 50 families attend our environmental and civic education courses. We consider ourselves a garrison of legality and social justice.” The model has proven so successful that Fondazione con il Sud, which has financed it, launched a €1.5 million call for tenders to create 15 more such communities.
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