Baia Mare, Romania: Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystem

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City: Baia Mare
Country: Romania
Award Categories: Living Green for Climate Change Icon
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Initiative: From a mining and polluted city towards a green, innovative and participatory city: SPIRE – Smart Post-Industrial Regenerative Ecosystem

Baia Mare is currently transitioning from its past as Romania’s mining capital towards a new resilient-based sustainable development model.

The SPIRE project follows the triple bottom line at the nexus of environmental, societal and economic matters.

From the social lens: (1) Urban health improvement due to soil remediation; (2) Awareness, knowledge and capacity building related to sustainability; (3) Citizens’ environmental behaviour shifts towards an eco-friendly culture.

From the environmental lens: (1) Circa seven hectares of polluted land reclaimed for public use; (2) Urban landscape co-design and co-production through phytoremediation techniques; (3) Urban system re-naturalisation and re-connection strategy.

From the economic lens: (1) Underused local resources stimulation; (2) Bio-based products and business models; (3) Bio-based energy supply to reduce the overall GHG emissions in Baia Mare.

It seeks to apply phytoremediation techniqus to contaminated land, generate inclusive land-use participatory management while changing behaviours by recovering the city’s health and the trust in authorities, and create new local bio-based value chains developing new green business models, therefore is a revolutionary project.

First, the project applies a Nature-based Solution called phytoremediation to heal the urban soil from heavy metal contamination – the willow roots can extract heavy metals from the soil if they have enough time (5 to 15 years). It is the first time it has been tested in a highly contaminated city with severe public health problems. To try to solve this we have experimented, tested and implemented solutions based on nature by renaturing Baia Mare (in five pilot sites) through phytoremediation, mapped and monitored through an iGIS smart system ( ) to prove the healing results for the city and its inhabitants. Based on the results of the measurements of the soil contamination, we developed a Phitoremediation calculator: to estimate when the soils reach the normal levels.

Second, the project considers co-design participatory processes with students. Pilot site’s changes after co-design and co-production: Out of the five sites we choose one to be transformed into a park.

Third, the solutions are publicly monitored through an iGIS smart system to transform these actions into pragmatic environmental facts. Along with this technology, a digital token has been created as an app: the iLEU is provoking – not without difficulties – an environmental behavioural shift related to proactive transport (pedestrian walks, by bike, on skateboard…, etc.) or circular waste mindset. iLEU in place:

Fourth, we started to change the awareness, knowledge and capacity building related to sustainability and citizens’ environmental behaviour shifts towards an eco-friendly culture. One result was the activity “Donate your Christmas Tree” through which citizens were urged to leave fir trees in established sectors to be transformed into biomass used in the city’s greenhouses.

Last but not least, the project has an operations headquarters, the SPIRE HUB, a physical Makerspace to meet and share experiences and learnings while using the machinery at the disposal of the citizens with the ultimate goal of uniting the community bounds to create a new 2050 urban reality.

Benefits of Urban Greening

Harnessing the Power of Plants

One of the essentials of the SPIRE project that appealed to all the parties involved, is “the magical” ability of plants to extract, stabilise or volatilise heavy metal contaminants from soil. The core proposal relies on phytoremediation technology, a Nature-Based Solution (NSB). Phytoremediation technology for soil is classified into the following categories: phytoextraction, phytostabilisation, rhizofiltration, phytodegradation and phytovolatilisation. SPIRE has examined this green method for the remediation capacity of historic contamination of soil due to Baia Mare‘s industrial past. Based on scientific evidence, this project aims to prove that this long-term action, counting on nature’s restorative capabilities, is not only feasible but preferable compared to other more invasive and expensive methodologies.

Quality of life in cities depends, among other things, on green (and blue) infrastructure and multifunctional ecosystem services locally generated. Green infrastructures and their services benefit health and wellbeing by covering a wide range of options and possibilities: Improving mental health (lowering the levels of mental distress, increasing positive feelings related to life satisfaction), improving physical health (mitigating air pollution and reducing noise pollution, facilitating physical activity), enhancing social cohesion (public spaces are an enabler of community activities and social interaction). Children and elderly people usually benefit the most when they have the chance to have a green space near their homes. A well-designed network of green spaces also reduces health inequalities in cities.

Delivering Multiple Benefits

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, there are five components for human wellbeing: the material needed for a good life, health, good social relations, security and freedom of choice. Urban green infrastructure and wellbeing are two interconnected dimensions that feedback into one another. An individual’s wellbeing is enhanced through healthy interaction with green infrastructure, while the more we use and enjoy parks and green streets, the more we become aware of the need to protect and improve them.

An essential element linked to green infrastructure, ecosystem services, and wellbeing is the concept of biodiversity. Biodiversity contributes to many aspects of our wellbeing. It protects us and makes this planet still habitable, directly impacting our health (physical and psychological). In the recovery and greening process in the reclaimed areas of Baia Mare, the need for biodiversity plays an important role. Selected plants aim to avoid monoculture, including native species already existing on the sites, and considering the needs of the local fauna (urban birds, bees and butterflies).

Baia Mare municipality leads this project with European Commission support. Romania adhered to the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda, adopted by UN GAR A/RES/70/1 in 2015. A National Strategy for the Romania 2030 SUD was adopted in 2018, by HG no. 877/2018. The Paris Agreement was ratified under Law No. 57/2017. The European NUA was finally validated in 2021 with the Ljubljana Agreement. Till 2027, support will be provided under the European Urban Initiative: SPIRE project has been developed under this initiative.

The City’s Bold and Innovative Vision

The impact of COVID-19 has taught us how visionary SPIRE is, reclaiming and enhancing Baia Mare’s green infrastructure, particularly relevant due to the health and climatic crises. The citizens’ physical and psychological wellbeing is enhanced through healthy interaction with green infrastructure.

Nature-based phytoremediation Solutions are linked to adaptation and climate resilience and work hand in hand with risk reduction strategies. With phytoremediation methods applied in the city, the urban environment improves, and the urban land revitalises while strengthening risk governance, enhancing preparedness, and enabling an effective response to recover and “build back better.”

Pollution is one of the most significant environmental challenges worldwide, and the lessons learnt related to phytoremediation in the city have great potential for scalability and marketability. Short-term results lackingness prevents some cities from investing in these measures. However, with the SPIRE project as a global reference, the real impact and long-term positive consequences will become evident over time. Any city that wants to apply phytoremediation techniques to clean the soil from heavy metal pollution should analyse Baia Mare’s experience: what are the correct vegetal species, where to get them, when is the right moment to plant them and how to do it properly to get the maximum impact on soil decontamination.

The iLEU reward platform – supported by the iGIS smart system, already in place- is a green economic replicable action that has created a new culture-shift towards resilience, not only in citizens’ environmental behaviour and green rationale but also in legal frameworks and procedures.

Partnerships and Collaboration

SPIRE combines cross-sectorial spheres with Baia Mare Municipality as the lead partner. Six more change agents share responsibilities:

  • academics such as the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca (USAMV), which deals with contamination and remediation plants (proposed the initial list of plants as well as conducted the soil and plant measurement)
  • public authorities such as the Baia Mare Metropolitan Area, which secures the long-term 2050 project strategy;
  • private enterprises, such as Green Energy (who deal with the SPIRE mentoring programme, the bio-based models and usage of biomass to a school) and ARIES Transylvania (who deal with the communication activities of the project).
  • SMEs such as Urbasofia (Urban policy, planning and design-underpin the knowledge of participatory urban planning) and Indeco Soft (software development to create and implement the iGIS, iLEU, and Makerspace platforms).
  • The UIA expert-Amaia Celaya Alvarez not only provides very good articles but also shared the results of the project worldwide and gets involved in the future development of biomass products.
  • Doctors, experts in environmental health and international urban advisors provided by the European Commission, accompany the project process.
  • UIA secretariat who helped us overcome all obstacles that appeared during the project’s implementation.

We must add that almost all providers (both for equipment and services) get involved in the project too.

Addressing Urban Challenges

The Issue

Baia Mare is a municipality along the Sasar River in North-Western Romania. With a population of ca. 145,000 and a metropolitan area home to more than 230,000 residents, the city is the capital of the Maramures county. The city is currently transitioning from its past as Romania’s mining capital toward a new sustainable social, economic and environmental development model. The last metallurgical factory closed in 2012 and the city is now coping with a multi-dimensional set of challenges (including economic decline, depopulation and environmental pollution). On top of the socio-economic consequences of the closure of the core productive system in the city, the mining and metallurgic industries left a legacy of circa 627 hectares of land polluted by heavy metals (up to five times the acceptable value) within the metropolitan area (with children, youth and the elderly as the main target, along with people affected by diseases such as asthma and lower respiratory infections, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal and kidney dysfunctions, nervous system disorders, skin lesions, immune system dysfunctions, and cancers, to name a few health problems linked to heavy metals contamination).

The contaminated land, now disconnected from the urban fabric, threatens the inhabitants and the environment, although it is an essential resource for the regeneration and sustainable economic development of the urban system.

The Impact of the Issue

The city is located in the valley that lies between the Somes Plateau and the Eastern Carpathian Mountains. The volcanic rocks in the nearby mountain massifs contain gold-silver ores and non-ferrous metals such as lead, zinc, copper, etc. Although the city and its citizens are ready to move on into a new socio-economic era, the metallurgical legacy persists in the form of heavy metal pollution of the environment that significantly affects local ecosystems and human health in the urban area.

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of adverse health effects, amongst them an increase in the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. Short and long-term exposure to air pollutants is associated with poor health outcomes. The most harmful pollutants – closely associated with excessive premature mortality – are fine PM2.5 particles that penetrate deep into the lungs’ passageways. Compared to the average life expectancy in the Romanian population, in Baia Mare, the life expectancy is 2.2 years less; also, the overall mortality index is 10-15% higher; D2 deficiency is 65-95% higher, and the frequency of metabolic diseases caused by lead pollution is 40-60% higher. Past extractions have caused pollution of the environment: surface and underground water, air and soil pollution.

A Nature Orientated Future

Phytoremediation techniques can provide an effective way to restore large areas confronted with soil and water polluted by human activities, constituting a cost-effective and ecological alternative to physical remediation methods, less environmentally friendly and financially efficient.

Nature Positive Solutions


Over four years, SPIRE introduced a pioneering approach encompassing three core elements: phytoremediation to combat heavy metal pollution, an environmental token system that rewarded pro-environmental actions and supported eco-initiatives, and biomass upscaling to address energy challenges through sustainable utilisation of green waste. These innovative solutions were collaboratively designed, developed and rigorously tested in partnership with local stakeholders. The project’s primary objective was to demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of eco-solutions within post-industrial regions grappling with heavy metal contamination and the imperative for economic revitalisation.

One of the project’s key achievements was planting seven hectares of land to assess the phytoremediation potential of a specialised plant selection. This effort led to the development of the Phytoremediation Calculator, accessible at This tool was created through ongoing soil analyses, allowing users to gauge the effectiveness of phytoremediation concerning identified levels of contaminants such as Cd, Pb, Zn and Cu. You can explore the results at

Youth and creative citizens were mobilised and empowered through the SPIRE Makerspace, which served as a creative hub designed to provide citizens with tools, knowledge and support for engaging in eco-initiatives.

The school gym has undergone retrofitting to include a biomass installation for heating during the winter. This biomass is sourced from municipal green waste, and soon, it will also be powered by biomass harvested from the seven hectares of planted land used for phytoremediation.


The most important resources used in the project were:

  • UIA financing (1,262,093.60 euros).
  • the students who got involved in the planting and co-creation actions.
  • the community that actively participated in the Donate the Christmas Tree action.
  • the business environment of Maramures.

The sustainable measures undertaken are:

  • On-going awareness and co-creation activities in the SPIRE Hub by involving more city schools.
  • Start-ups developing based on the use of biomass.
  • iLEU users numbers escalating.
  • Finding promotion methods through the Romanian Ministry of Environment, which showed interest in the results of the project.
  • Presenting the danger of pollution in the form of articles, activities and films (in Romanian language).
  • Involvement in good practice European projects: Participating in the UNITE4SOILS project as an associated. partner for creating a cluster of Living Labs dedicated to healing polluted soils degraded by industrial activities.

Even if Baia Mare is one of the greenest cities in Romania (due to its geographical location) it did not stop us from trying to reuse the contaminated/brownfield land. Why? Because a city always needs land for its development and, more importantly, because pollution has negative effects on health.

All projects developed by a public authority are assumed by decisions of the City Council, becoming priorities for the city.

Multi-Stakeholder Support

SPIRE combines cross-sectorial spheres with Baia Mare Municipality as the lead partner. Six more change agents share responsibilities, from academicians such as the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca (USAMV), which deals with contamination and remediation plants, or public authorities such as the Baia Mare Metropolitan Area, which secures the long-term 2050 project strategy. To private enterprises, such as Green Energy or ARIES Transylvania, who deal with the SPIRE mentoring programme, bio-based models, and the communication activities of the project. SMEs such as Urbasofia (Urban policy, planning and design) and Indeco Soft (IT) underpin the knowledge of participatory urban planning and software development to create and implement the iGIS, iLEU and Makerspace platforms. Doctors, experts in environmental health and international urban advisors provided by the European Commission, accompany the project process.

Local communities close to the sites and students have been engaged through the SPIRE Local Network in different activities during these years (including plantathlons, workshops, co-creation landscape dynamics, and environmental actions within the influence of the iLEU digital reward.

Local companies are also involved in the project’s activities which can lead to the further development of boimass used in small businesses.

All these implications give us a message that the community has begun to understand how unhealthy pollution is and that it is time to react.

Management and Maintenance

The initiative was collaboratively designed by all partners under the coordination of the municipality. It emerged from the urgent need to address derelict to contaminated land in areas requiring significant regeneration. The initial concept involved planting these sites for phytoremediation purposes, but it expanded to encompass additional value chains and ecosystems, which were then piloted.

Among the constant challenges of testing innovative solutions (methodologies, implementation and acquisition, monitoring and assessment), several other significant challenges were encountered throughout the project’s lifetime. These included obstacles posed by the pandemic, which hindered the co-creation process and community engagement. Additionally, issues related to rising material prices required for renovating the SPIRE Hub/Makerspace. Furthermore, there was significant resistance from the Court of Funds regarding the use of iLEU tokens as a means to pay local taxes.

The challenges were successfully overcome by swiftly adapting to changing circumstances. This adaptation involved the development of new co-creation methodologies that combined digital and physical elements. Additionally, innovative mechanisms for environmental reward value chains were introduced, and novel approaches were implemented to reach out to relevant stakeholders and actors in the initiative.

Measuring and Reporting Impact

Monitoring Results

The initiative has already been implemented. The project’s timeline goes from Spring 2019 to Summer 2023. The SPIRE Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are built upon the SDGs – particularly Goal 11 – and the EU Action domains affecting the project: Smart and sustainable Urban Development Assessments and Nature-Based Solutions.

The eight specific measurement areas are (1) climate adaptation and mitigation, (2) green space management, (3) air/ ambient quality, (4) urban regeneration, (5) participatory planning and governance, (6) social justice and social cohesion, (7) public health and wellbeing, and (8) potential for a new green economy and green jobs, with a total number of 28 indicators.

Several tools and mechanisms have been designed to measure impact:

  1. Pilot site’s physical changes after co-design and co-production:
  2. GIS Dynamic Atlas platform developed to track phytoremediation techniques progress (including calculator):
  3. iLEU digital reward system in place:
  4. SPIRE Hub Makerspace built and functioning:
  5. SPIRE outcomes were noted internationally:
    • we were invited to become partners in the “CitiesWithNature” platform
    • we were selected among the 16 UIA funding beneficiaries (out of 85 funded) to participate in the UIA Just Transitions study.
    • we have submitted our project for the Guangzhou Award 2023 (out of the 274 initiatives we have been selected in the 45 Deserving initiatives which will be published on our Urban Innovation Database in the near future, which is open to the global public for city-to-city learning).
    • We became an associated partner in the project “UNITE4SOIL.
Demonstrating Progress

The SPIRE project has implemented an iGIS smart mapping and monitoring system for five pilot sites that will provide healed land for the future of Baia Mare. The iGIS system includes on-site ground measurements of pollutants and satellite imagery, as well as predictive algorithms for site improvements due to phytoremediation activities. This smart system is underpinned by Copernicus, which offers information services based on satellite Earth observation data and on-site (non-space) data. The information services provided are free and have open access for its users. SPIRE iGIS is available at:

The interface displays a customisable view tailored to collect, revise and show information about phytoremediation and plantation processes in the city. It will also embed information on the future Baia Mare Metropolitan Plan 2050. Information regarding plantathlons and landscaping is being added continuously to the platform to provide a comprehensive image of the SPIRE efforts and benefits to the community.

With solid consideration for general Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, data regarding iLEU user mobility trails are visible within iGIS, supporting identifying and creating bike and pedestrian lanes within the city, and being used for education, gamification, assessment, and measuring the SPIRE project Key Performance Indicators. The platform provides a complete overview of the intervention areas and simulations of the impact of replication in different areas using Artificial Intelligence. Multimedia tools will enable visualisation for students and local stakeholders, enabling them to simulate the effects of actions and understand specific NBS and processes.

Measuring Impact

This initiative was highly focused on co-creation and involved various activities such as workshops and civic events. These efforts aimed to achieve several goals, including:

  •  Co-developing landscape designs for seven hectares of land, represented through five pilot sites in five different neighbourhoods. One of the sites (Colonia Topitorilor) became a park (in a neglected neighbourhood).
  • Co-implementing phytoremediation plantations through civic events called plantathlons. There have been several planting (plantathlons) activities because the first plants did not survive in such heavily contaminated soil. However, after several plantings, we saw not only that the contamination decreased but also that the plants survived.
  • Establishing a business network for the circulation of iLEU tokens, with three businesses participating.
  • Engaging youth in the renovation and design of the SPIRE Makerspace but also in the transformation of the SPIRE hub into a Living Lab for the city.
  • Collaborating intensively with surrounding municipalities (four of them) of Baia Mare to develop a Metropolitan masterplan for upscaling phytoremediation and bio-based solutions, with the aim of addressing soil contamination issues at the metropolitan level.
  • Changing the attitude of citizens regarding environmental protection. This was seen both in the active participation of schools in the planting events and in the Donate your Christmas Tree activity (in the first edition 70 fir trees were donated and in the 2nd over 700).

Learning and Transferability

Adaption and Enhancement

The phytoremediation techniques implementation suffered delays due to COVID-19 since the planting seasons and planned public plantathlons couldn’t be followed accurately, and some of the specific vegetal species had to be changed due to logistics.

Because planting in such contaminated soil had not been done before, we could not have known that the plants would not survive. However, based on the data showing us that even if the plants died, they succeeded to extract contamination. Therefore, we did alternative plantings until we saw that they not only survived but also started to grow.

The city had not performed participatory urban processes before (such as surveys, training sessions, workshops, etc.). Thanks to digital technologies (due to COVID-19 constraints), community awareness, commitment and personal actions were built.

The iLEU encountered several legal barriers: regulations across Europe about the creation and usage of local currencies are different regarding their issuing and use, often depending on their form. In Romania, only the National Bank can print money. However, specific laws enable the circulation of electronic currencies in certain conditions, while virtual currencies are unregulated. The SPIRE reward token has changed traditional national and municipal rules and procedures.

Potential for Replication

The project has already been included as a case study in the “Just and Democratic Transitions projects in practice”, since the project offers interesting insights into how to harness different motivations for public participation in local green initiatives whilst also exploring how the concepts of local currency/tokens can help support small behavioural changes. (

The project offered the potential for customised replication in surrounding cities/localities by creating the Metropolitan long – term bio–based Strategy, a methodology for others to replicate the project’s results implemented in Baia Mare City.

As partners in the “CitiesWithNature” platform, we will continue to share our results.

Our project initiative has been recognised as one of the 45 exemplary initiatives of the 6th Guangzhou Award and will be published on our Urban Innovation Database in the near future, which is open to the global public for city-to-city learning.

Inspiring Other Cities

Pollution is one of the most significant environmental challenges worldwide; according to the European Environmental Agency, the management of polluted land costs about €6.5 billion a year in Europe alone.

SPIRE phytoremediation techniques tested in Baia Mare have great potential for scalability and marketability. In emerging countries with significant population density and scarce funds available for environmental restoration, low-cost and ecologically sustainable remedial options are required to restore contaminated lands to reduce the associated risks.

Transferring activities have already been made with teams working in cities such as Dakar (Senegal) or Guayaquil (Ecuador) which suffer similar heavy metal contamination issues.

We have been invited to be an associated partner in the project “UNITE4SOIL project for the creation of a cluster of Living Labs dedicated to the health of soils polluted and degraded by industrial activities” submitted for funding under Horizon Europe, Research Innovation Action – Call: HORIZON-MISS-2023-SOIL-01-08, Co-creating solutions for soil health in Living Labs.


Reducing Negative Impacts and Ensuring Sustainability

In addition to planting, which is a significant measure for carbon sequestration, there are other vital actions aimed at reducing the carbon footprint both during project implementation and in the long term through the municipality’s commitment to hosting recurring eco events:

  • iLEU Platform: This environmental token reward system promotes walking and biking as its primary goal, rewarding citizens with tokens for these eco-friendly modes of transportation.
  • Donate Your Christmas Tree: This initiative involves collecting Christmas trees after the holidays and using them for biomass upscaling, contributing to sustainable energy solutions and reducing waste.

These actions collectively contribute to carbon reduction efforts while encouraging eco-friendly behaviours.

Environmental Considerations

A GIS Dynamic Atlas platform has been developed to track phytoremediation progress and plants status at the pilot sites.

A Conceptual Adaptive Site Management Application (CASMA) has been designed to score the proposed remediation options according to different measurements: local fit, phytoremediation capacity, life-cycle duration, the timing of the first harvest, time horizons, biomass produced and applications; value chains / cascading use, landscaping qualities and cost.

A remediation Toolkit guided by the CASMA provides a specialist catalogue based on soil HMC, remediation capacity per planting cycle, biomass harvest cycle, the cost-effectiveness of soil preparation and plantation, primary and secondary potential applications, and cascading uses, as well as a set of design options.

A set of selected species is proposed:

  • avoiding monoculture by using a mosaic of planting schemes that include woody plants and herbaceous species;
  • providing a sensory experience to the observer through colour, shape, and texture;
  • choosing species with root depths suitable for contamination depth existing at the given site;
  • integrating plant species assortment for accessible and sustainable landscaping (well-acclimatised plants, local plants, and low-maintenance species);
  • including plants able to provide valuable long-term ecosystem services while considering the needs of the local fauna (urban birds, bees, and butterflies);
  • abstaining from using edible plants if contamination is high enough to pose the risk of accumulating in plant organs at dangerous levels,
  • choosing alternatives to common aromatic or medicinal plants as well as fruit trees that could be picked by people.
Use of Natural Resources

There is now an increasing need for innovative, sustainable, affordable and integrated solutions to soil pollution in Europe. One Nature Based Solution (NSB) to the contamination of heavy metals is phytoremediation. Phytoremediation techniques can provide an effective way to restore large areas confronted with soil and water polluted by human activities, constituting a cost-effective and ecological alternative to physical remediation methods, less environmentally friendly and financially efficient.

Phytoremediation is a green technology that relies on plants to mitigate pollutants from the environment. This method is cheap compared to traditional ones and enjoys broad public acceptance. Phytoremediation technology is classified into the following categories: phytoextraction, rhizofiltration, phytostabilisation, phytovolatilisation, phytodegradation. Not all plants are suitable for phytoremediation. Also, not all are equally efficient. Thus, plant selection has to be carefully made.