Are cities ready for the future?

5 November 2020

“This is what I would call a generational shock,” says European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, “because none of us remembers anything like that form the past.” Šefčovič was in dialogue with 10 of Europe’s major cities at the Eurocities2020 Annual Conference. Can cities stand up to this shock, or will they crumble? Around Europe headlines forecast the ‘End of cities.’ But can we really imagine such a world? Quoting the American philosopher Susan Lander, Šefčovič reminded the audience that “The seeds of civilisation are in every culture, but it is city life that brings them to fruition.”

Cities to blossom

So how will cities continue to blossom? Šefčovič pointed to the role that the current crisis has played as an accelerator, especially in the field of the green and digital transition, a transition that cities have been at the centre of. For the commission Vice-President, while the pandemic has posed a threat to cities, it has also made clear just how essential they are. “I think that cities to a great extent already confirmed and demonstrated their resilience,” he told those gathered online, “You managed to secure the continuity of services, continuity of business, protecting people’s lives. Nationwide testing would never have been possible without absolute close cooperation and enormous work of municipal workers. They’ve been at the core of the action.”

Mathias De Clercq, mayor of Gent, was quick to point out that, by putting resilience at the core of their policies, cities like his have been well primed to respond to the issues brought to the fore during the pandemic. “Cities are in a constant state of change,” he said. Futureproofing in Ghent means, for example that the city has long engaged in pilot projects in working from home, and was the first city in Belgium to hold its council meetings online, all of which are coming in handy now that almost the whole city staff is doing so.

But Šefčovič was not there just to register the resilience of cities – he had a question from the European Commission for Europe’s city leaders: “How do you see our possible collaboration?”

The cities in the Eurocities2020 conference were more than ready for such a collaboration. Peter Kurz, mayor of Mannheim, stressed the importance of a single framework that could take account of resilience, sustainability and local wellbeing to ensure a combined European and local approach. He suggested, for example, that cities could institute local Green Deals, directly connected to the European Green Deal. Truly participatory governance, said Kurz, must be real multi-level governance, and that means having cities on board. Kurz insisted that the EU recovery and resilience plans must include the involvement of cities as a prerequisite for national frameworks.

Cross-border crisis, cross border solutions

Fiona Twycross, deputy mayor of London, stressed the importance of working across borders to deal with the crisis, and with the stark inequalities that it has exacerbated within our societies. “We all need to make sure that we manage to maintain optimism, that we are optimistic and ambitious. I’m keen to work with other European cities, and I am optimistic that we can all do this together,” she said.

Pascal Smet, state secretary of the Brussels Capital Region had a vision for how such cooperation could be operationalised, with the EU at the helm. He outlined three key points for Šefčovič’s attention: First, the need for cities to be structurally recognised at EU level, not just member states; second, the need for a tool at EU level that cities could use to compare key metrics and fuel positive change; and third, flexibility in EU budgetary rules to allow for sustainable development in cities.

Lina Liakou of The Resilient Cities Network drew on her experience of working with cities around the world to reemphasise points that cities had made, from the importance of indicators to the essential nature of multi-level governance, right down to the level of the neighbourhood. She also stressed the need to integrate foresight and resilience into the planning cycles of the city, so that investments in sustainability do not end up creating risk.

Digital and physical spaces for recovery

Minna Arve, mayor of Turku, was impressed with the Commission’s approach, shared by cities, of reacting to the crisis “not just by coping with challenges but using it to undergo transitions in a sustainable, fair and democratic manner.” She also highlighted that this is a moment when “people are looking for leaders close to them and opportunities to take part.” To facilitate this, Turku is harnessing the huge leap in digitalisation to hold regular community events where the city and the locals can dialogue about current events.

Like Turku, Athens has used platforms including the Athens digital club to deal with the crisis. However, deputy mayor of Athens Vasileios Foivos Axiotis, also pointed to the importance of non-digital spaces. Through Create Local Athens, the city has offered 50,000 m2 of public space to citizens, along with more pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes.

Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig, noted that the crisis has served in many ways as a healthy reminder: “In a time of crisis we depend on our infrastructure.” The city is using its buildings, for example, in an intelligent way do deal with issues exacerbated by the crisis, such as domestic violence. “We started a new women’s shelter in an empty municipal building,” and in another they began to house the homeless. This serves as a warning for cities not to become too dependent on outsourcing services to the private sector, because you never know when you’ll need them. “Cities are always at the front line of solving problems, any problems.” For this reason, Leipzig, despite anticipating that times will be tougher economically next year without so much support in place, has decided not to cut its budget, especially its investments. “Investment, even in times of crisis, remains important.”

New visions for democracy

Like London, Paris is working hard to mitigate the social inequalities that the pandemic has laid bare. One of its strategies, ‘the 15-minute city,’ seeks to ensure that every local has access to basic services within 15 minutes. This is a vision of true accessibility, which takes into account that 15 minutes is different for people with different capacities – 15-minute trip may look different to a cyclist on the one hand and a young child on the other. Like Leipzig, Paris will be leveraging existing infrastructure for new purposes: It is planning to make its schools the capital of the 15 minute city, opening them more up to the neighbourhood, with democratic or commercial activities that would be accessible to everybody. “Democracy is the solution to the covid crisis. We have to empower people to explain how they would like the city to evolve,” explained Diana Filippova, advisor to the mayor of Paris.

There are different ways of doing democracy. Helsinki “has changed from a reactive to a proactive city,” according to deputy mayor for education Pia Pakarinen. That means reaching out and trying to meet the needs of inhabitants without first being asked. During the current crisis, the city is prioritising consistent and logical communication to inhabitants, and it is coordinating with neighbouring cities to ensure that this is the case. What does the future look like in Helsinki? “We are not going back to the old normal,” Pia firmly declared.

Cities must be part of the future of Europe

Having heard the voices of these major European cities, Commission vice-president Šefčovič responded that as cities were doing so much to shore up the future, they would be well placed to have a say on the future of Europe: “Once we start the Conference on the Future of Europe, ‘what is the future of our cities’ could be one of the topics.”

Commission vice-president Šefčovič also acknowledge that recovery plans “should be based on broad multi-level ownership.” He highlighted the role of city networks in harnessing the momentum of cities into creating. “Let’s push together, we from European level, you from local level, upon the national governments. Let’s think about forming a coalition of the willing of cities who would like to go into greater depth when it comes to resilience plans, and I will look within the Commission what would be the most practical way to set up a working group between the Commission’s Joint Research Centre and these interested cities.”

The Commissioner was impressed at how quickly cities were transforming and agreed that infrastructural investment was essential. Concretely, Šefčovič stressed the importance of having cities properly involved in recovery plans along with member states, with Eurocities acting as a vehicle for collective pressure, and of sufficient EU funds to support cities. He also suggested that more opportunities than ever will be available to cities under the new Horizon Europe programme, and pointed out that the European Investment Bank has been asked by the Commission to spend more than 50% of their financing on climate related goals, which cities could certainly take advantage of.

His final message to cities is that the dialogue was not to end with the end of this session of the Eurocities2020 Annual Conference, and that the EU level and local level would remain in touch throughout the pandemic and into the future. So, are cities ready for the future? It looks like the answer is yes.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer