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District approaches to sustainable energy: Key learnings

By Platform
City planning maquette

On 9 November 2023, the Policy Learning Platform held a webinar on the topic of district approaches to sustainable energy.

To reach ambitious decarbonisation targets, there is a significant need to tackle the energy consumption of buildings by improving energy efficiency while also integrating renewable energies at scale.

Given that many districts are comprised of buildings with similar construction and characteristics, applying district-level approaches can be more cost-efficient by bundling activities into a common project. Tackling the district level also allows for joined-up planning between renovations and for considering the public space between and around dwellings.

As well as a keynote from the SHAPE_EU project, good practices were also presented from the Interreg Europe projects LC Districts and EXPRESS, as well as from the Horizon 2020 project STARDUST.

Webinar agenda

The webinar has been designed and moderated by Katharina Krell and Simon Hunkin Thematic Experts for a Greener Europe. 


00:01:02 Introduction to the webinar and topic by Katharina Krell and Simon Hunkin 

00:09:05 Keynote speech by Julien Dijol from Housing Europe on Generating CO2 savings and social benefits together: Recommendations from SHAPE-EU

00:30:40 Q&A: You mentioned the offer of SHAPE-EU, the blueprint, when is it due? And the one-to-one support for cities, how to enact that?

00:32:22 Presentation by Beatriz San Martín Zaragüeta from Land and Housing of Navarra, Spain on district energy renovation in Navarra region (LC Districts)

00:46:55 Q&A: Can you explain how you get biomass and how much biomass you need?

00:48:40 Q&A: How have citizens been involved? Do you have any resources explaining your participative approach?

00:51:13 Presentation by Terttu Vainio from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland on the net zero concept of the new neighbourhood Ilokkaanpuisto (STARDUST)

00:57:58 Q&A: Why was there not enough space on the roof to place the photovoltaic panels there?

00:59:33 Q&A: How can we scale this idea up?

01:03:02 Presentation by Lorenzo Federiconi from the Department of Infrastructure, Territory and Civil Protection, Italy on integrating district approaches into regional planning and strategies (EXPRESS)

01:17:05 Q&A: How do you work across political cycles? Do you have the possibility to act, at the regional level, as a stabilising element for the long term?

Panel discussion

01:20:51 Q&A: How do you make sure that the original residents can still live in these districts if they become more popular and trendy after the renovations?

01:23:50 Q&A: If a municipality would like to introduce a district-scale approach to renovation, what needs to be done? Where to start from?

Key learnings

From this webinar, we can highlight some key insights for local and regional policymakers:

  • Europe has ambitious goals to cut its carbon emissions by cutting energy use, and making use of sustainable energy resources This will entail the renovation of buildings across the continent, improving efficiency while also integrating renewable energy technologies. The rate of renovation needs to increase significantly.
  • The current building-by-building approach is slow, costly, and often complex for individual households. Larger scale solutions, tackling districts at a functional level can be a solution to this, as buildings in a district often have similar construction so are suitable for similar approaches.
  • As well as building renovations, larger-scale renewable energy technologies can also serve multiple households – for example, geothermal district heating or shared solar photovoltaics – at a cheaper cost than individual installations. By bringing down costs and reducing complexity, district approaches can also improve social cohesion and combat energy poverty.
  • Although there is much promise, there remain several barriers to district-level interventions, including difficulty in defining the district level, encouraging cross-departmental co-operation, bringing together different public finance streams, attracting private finance and managing multiple stakeholders.
  • SHAPE_EU, the Affordable Housing Initiative, provides a support programme for district-level social and affordable housing renovations. It has a number of outputs available for practitioners, including best practices, webinars, a funding guidebook, and policy recommendations.
  • As the efficiency of buildings increases, the cost of further improvements begins to outstrip the benefits in terms of CO2 emission reductions. There are plenty of options, but it is necessary to consider the balance of reductions versus costs. A building-only approach is often not optimal, with better results from also including district heating, for example.
  • The project identified common features of integrated district renovations beyond energy renovations, including reducing the use of cars and increasing public transport, creating new green and public meeting spaces, creating cooling islands, preserving local heritage, developing citizens associations, and preserving biodiversity.
  • SHAPE_EU recommends the creation of new financial tools, advanced procurement strategies within the social housing sector, facilitating dialogue between stakeholders for inclusive governance and co-creation, and advocating for a cohesive and adaptable urban policy framework that breaks down silos.
  • In the Chartered Community of Navarra, Spain, many households are not insulated, resulting in poor energy performance. The Community has therefore sought to improve energy efficiency and has implemented a Global Intervention Project through a participatory process.

    A one-stop-shop has been established to offer building owners a single contact point for renovations. The region has made use of numerous EU projects to renovate districts, adding biomass district heating, and has also developed a Roadmap for Energy renovation in urban and rural areas, and characterised the residential built environment in a GIS viewer to help prioritise investments.
  • In Tampere, during the STARDUST project, the new net-zero district of Ilokkaanpuisto has tested out a jointly owned photovoltaic plant, installed in a rural area, which can provide enough power to fill annual consumption. The high-density district would not have enough rooftop surface to install the PV panels, so this approach enables the provision of sustainable energy for all, while also providing power for geothermal heat pumps.
  • The Marche region of Italy has looked to develop an integrated strategy for developing low-carbon districts, looking at social, cultural, economic, environmental and energy improvements. After the LC Districts project, Marche implemented the CERTIDISTRICT action to design and test low-carbon districts by applying a certification tool (the ITACA Protocol) which also considers aspects beyond energy performance, such as environmental impact and human health.

    The protocol is applied at the regional level, taking into account not only buildings but also infrastructure, public spaces and services. The approach has been integrated into the Regional Environmental Energy Plan and the ERDF Operational Programme.
  • Speakers emphasised that pilot actions can be a strong starting point – regions can learn from others but need to ultimately develop their own methodology and approach, also monitoring the socio-economic impact of activities.
  • The responsibility to initiate district approaches is not on the individual homeowner, but rather on the municipality, social housing association or another structure entrusted with the mission by the public authorities.
  • A dedicated team is needed in the territory, at the local authority level, potentially via a one-stop-shop. This team needs to maintain a long-term vision for district renovation, as done in Marche and Navara.
  • The panel discussion focused on avoiding the adverse effects of residents being priced out of their neighbourhoods, the need to include citizens in the process and to work with new stakeholders to achieve impact at scale.
  • Public authorities should take advantage of opportunities to learn from other cities and regions which have already advanced with vehicle sharing, through Interreg Europe projects and the Policy Learning Platform which can offer on-demand expert support through peer reviews and matchmakings.

Download the presentations below.

Energy efficiency