“Today and tomorrow, we shall dream, act and lead together to determine what the city of the future will be like.”
With these words Jukka Mäkelä, the Mayor of Espoo in Finland, officially kicked off the Eurocities annual conference that is taking place in his city.
This year’s event invites municipalities to come back from the pandemic with buoyancy, to take bold steps and act with determination under the banner “An era of new beginnings.”
“Over the next days, we will highlight the role of cities as leaders for the transition toward clean energy, new digital solutions, climate-neutral societies and sustainable economic growth,” Mäkelä told the audience.
Cities that were hit hardest by the health crisis are heeding the call to “dream, act, lead, together” with renewed energy, ideas and strength.
However, with past Covid19 struggles still clearly visible from the rear mirror, Mäkelä invited those in attendance to transform hard times into building blocks, turning lessons from the pandemic into opportunities for action.
Today’s world continues to require an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. If after the pandemic many hoped for a respite, those hopes came crashing down on 24 February, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced new challenges upon city officials.
“Many of us last met at Eurocities’ annual conference in Leipzig in November 2021. It is only six months ago, but the world has changed dramatically since then,” Dario Nardella, Eurocities President and Mayor of Florence told the audience. “I want to send a clear message to our Ukrainian member cities and friends today. We continue to stand with you for peace and democracy. You can count on us,” he added.
The Mayor of Florence’s hopeful words were matched by the audience’s standing ovation for officials from Kharkiv, who made a daring journey from Ukraine to attend the Espoo conference.
A transformative impact
As more and more people are moving to cities, the need for urban transformative efforts has never been greater. And the UN prediction that 68% of the world population will reside in cities by 2050 further strengthens municipalities’ role, enabling them to assert their pressure on the international stage.
“Cities are important allies to the European Commission, making the European Green Deal happen on the ground,” Mäkelä told the audience.
Tytti Tuppurainen, Finnish Minister for EU Affairs and Ownership Steering echoed those thoughts as she followed Nardella on stage: “Cities have the best knowledge to execute the best actions. They need states to create the framework to achieve [climate change] goals.”
“Think globally, act locally,” Tuppurainen added.
Buoyancy requires imagination. Dream, one of the conference’s three exhortations is an invitation to build upon imaginative solutions and what the city of the future will be like.
“Dreaming…is about creating hope for a future of peace and opportunity for all. When we use the power of our collective imagination, we can create the future we want for our cities,” Nardella said.
But it will be impossible to dream about the future of cities without involving the generations that will live in them. The newly created Future Mentors programme aims to respond to that need by bringing together youths and European cities’ mayors.
It’s no chance that the initiative is being implemented in 2022, the European Year of Youth.
Over the past few months, young people aged 18–25 have been mentoring local leaders about their hopes and dreams of what a sustainable future should look like. Fiia Mannikka was one of them. The young Finnish woman told the audience that mental health and climate change are two main priorities for young city residents and encouraged politicians to put those concerns at the top of their agenda.
During a dedicated Future Mentors session on Thursday morning, local leaders and youths shared the Espoo stage to swap ideas and solutions.
Ishaa Asim, a young British activist from Manchester, encouraged local officials to invest in youths and create new opportunities to avoid that younger generations move elsewhere or becoming politically apathetic.
“If you don’t invest in your cities, people like me are going to leave… for a different city or emigrating abroad,” Asim said.
Mathias De Clercq, the Mayor of Ghent, said that he was positively impressed by the interaction with Future Mentors in his city. “There are more dreams than fears for the future,” he remarked.
The Future Mentors will continue to share their perspectives, hopes and expectations in Espoo. At the conference’s closing session, they will come up with five key recommendations on including youths at local level.
“Dreams do not come true unless we act”, Mäkelä stressed, highlighting the conference’s second exhortation: the invitation to bridge the gap between dreams and concrete actions.
Over the coming years, action in cities will take shape both with the creation of sustainable spaces and by responding to pressing challenges. It’s an effort asking for strong teamwork and one for which municipalities have shown to be ready, Nardella highlighted: “The Russian war in Ukraine required us to act quickly as mayors. Many of you have received a great number of refugees in your cities and have provided emergency help to Ukraine.”
Faced with the rapidly escalating political, energy and food crisis, municipalities are walking the walk, Nardella added: “Acting for solutions is in our DNA as cities. As we say: nations talk, cities act,” the Mayor of Florence said.
For municipalities, action will also mean mitigating the climate crisis, Jyrki Katainen, President of Sitra and former European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said. He invited city leaders to welcome the environment into the urban landscape by bringing nature into city buildings and using spaces more efficiently.
“The climate challenge requires us to join forces and lead together for better, faster, and more effective solutions,” Nardella said, introducing the conference’s third exhortation: lead.
“I believe that we have both a very specific responsibility and an opportunity for demonstrating leadership as city mayors,” the Eurocities President added.
Katainen agreed: “All the new trends start in cities…What is done in cities has a significant impact elsewhere,”
Local leadership will be essential to achieving the Green Deal climate neutrality goals by 2050. Many European cities are already leading the way by setting environmental goals whose ambition surpasses that of the EU. The conference’s host is one of them.
“One of Espoo’s key targets is to reach climate neutrality by 2030, which is a challenge for our growing city. However, we have already turned the curve to bring down our carbon dioxide emissions and are committed to delivering this ambitious goal in time,” Mäkelä remarked.
For many, the Espoo gathering is also a long-awaited chance to get together again and join forces to transform the urban future.
“Our last annual conference in November took place during a small window of opportunity between two waves of Covid. Today, we can gather many more people than we could back then,” Nardella told the audience. “To me, it shows that the interest in and support for our network is as strong as ever – not least in times of crises,” he said.
You can watch the entire session about City of the Future here.