What might Europe’s cities look like in the future? Those who want to know the European Union’s vision can find it in a report entitled “Cities of tomorrow”, published in 2011 by the European Commission. It is not, though, a technology-driven vision of driverless cars and urban farms. It tries to translate goals, targets, values and principles articulated at the EU level over the years into a common understanding of what policies the EU’s member states and institutions would like Europe’s local governments to pursue.
The vision – or collective desire – that emerges from the report is not a surprise: Europe’s cities should provide compact, socially-integrated urban landscapes, and regeneration and development should come through green policies, efficient – ‘smart’ – responses to data, and co-ordinated policies.
The vision is not radical, and the policy suggestions may appear incremental. But perhaps radicalism is not needed. The Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – a research centre often at the cutting edge of thinking, design and science – cannot be accused of failing to think innovatively. But it says that much of its work on urbanism is intended to help cities work, and feel, like many of Europe’s historic cities: it believes that the cities of the future should have compact, walkable districts, with public transport that connects districts and the city to a wider urban infrastructure.
These are some of the historical patterns of Europe’s urban development that could make it easier for Europe’s cities and city-dwellers to shift towards more energy-efficient lifestyles, one of the EU’s principal goals. But the Commission’s report also makes clear that this model is threatened: Europe’s cities are sprawling, their eco-systems are under strain, their populations are ageing, and they concentrate poverty and social polarisation, not just wealth.
These are problems the EU is obliged to address (and needs cities’ help to do so: as much as 70% of EU legislation requires implementation at a local level). If the EU is to meet its climate targets, it needs cities to be more energy-efficient. But it is also “inconceivable”, argues Paul Bevan, the head of the Eurocities association of European cities, that the Europe 2020 goals of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth can be achieved without harnessing the potential of cities.
In 2007, member states agreed the Leipzig Charter on sustainable cities. If this is to be honoured, the problems of unemployment, segregation and poverty in cities need to be eased. If the EU is to act on another commitment, the Toledo Declaration of 2010, it will have to pursue a more integrated approach to urban development.
The EU, therefore, has an agenda of issues with a strong urban dimension. It does not, though, have an urban policy. The idea of a European urban policy has champions: Jan Olbrycht, a centre-right Polish MEP who heads the European Parliament’s informal cross-party group on urban issues, says that “we need an EU urban policy that is much more complex” and that EU funding should be used as an instrument of policy rather than as a means of distributing money. But, some observers say, there is little prospect of an urban policy emerging, given the opposition of the member states.
However, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for regional policy, denies that there is “rivalry” between the member states and the centre. He says: “The reality is that these days neither member states nor the EU can achieve their economic or social policy objectives without engaging with cities.” Hahn says that member states have also been calling for more co-ordination of policies that apply to cities. “The next [Council of Ministers] presidency trio” – Greece, Italy and Latvia – “has already indicated they want us to work on a new urban agenda to follow up Leipzig and Toledo.”
In the absence of an urban policy, much of the policymaking focus has been on boosting the urban dimension of the EU’s cohesion policy. That has resulted in a name change – the Commission’s department for regional policy is now the directorate-general for ‘regional and urban policy’ – but not more money. Another suggestion by Hahn – that “cities should have more power when it comes to the planning and spending of their own funds” – may yet happen. That would be part of what Hahn hopes would be a “re-set” of the EU’s relationship with cities next year.
“We did propose an urban premium, which is no longer part of the discussions” on the long-term budget, says Hahn. “I think the key now is rather to ensure that the very substantial sums that will be available are spent intelligently.”
Bevan argues that there needs to a broader change in the cohesion policy, so that “it is no longer about evening up development across the EU, expecting every last place to have the same GDP; it should recognise that we need Europe’s top 200 cities to really perform. The [economic] recovery will be led by London, Paris, and metropolitan areas,” he says.
Bevan and Olbrycht emphasise the need for more partnership – between the EU and cities, but also between cities and their surrounding areas. That is one of the reasons why the Commission is proposing, as part of the cohesion policy for 2014-20, to introduce ‘integrated territorial investments’. It is also drafting a proposal for a European code of conduct for partnerships with national, regional and municipal authorities.
For the foreseeable future, many of the aspirations in the “Cities of tomorrow” report will need to be promoted indirectly, with individual member states deciding where their EU money is spent. This special report looks at an issue that frames much of the thinking on the urban agenda: how cities grow (see page 16). It also considers areas where the EU’s influence is more direct – public procurement (a core issue for local policy-makers), and environmental issues – and at a number of cities whose fortunes are most directly affected by the EU.
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