Cities are building the social Europe of tomorrow

14 November 2023

“Europe will be social and urban or will not be [at all].” Renaud Payre, Vice President of Lyon Metropole, concluded his speech at the Social Affairs Forum last week with those words.

The event focused on ‘Empowering Cities – working with vulnerable groups to mitigate the effect of crises’. Crises in plural, as cities have faced multiple in recent years, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, spikes in prices of food and energy, migration, and climate-related disasters.

And we can not forget the deepening cost of living crisis. “Last year, almost a quarter of the EU population, 96 million people, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion,” reminded Annette Christie, Councillor of the City of Glasgow and Chair of the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum at the opening of the event.

Future is here

The importance of local governments’ decisions is increasing. By 2050, 80% of Europe’s population will live in urban areas. “Ensuring sustainable and well-managed cities and metropolitan areas which offer a good quality of life for people is essential to most of the population today and in the future,” added Christie.

Preserving the fulfilment of basic needs, protecting essential public services and integrating vulnerable groups in decision-making processes are key to moving forward without leaving anyone behind. Cities are very aware of challenges and the Social Affairs Forum proved that working together brings municipalities closer to the solutions.

© Métropole de Lyon – Jérémy Cuenin

This joining forces to find solutions comes at the right moment, as EU elections are just around the corner, and municipalities need to see some changes. “The social model we envision for Europe can be successfully implemented within a multi-crisis scenario only if it is inclusive and considerate of all segments of the population in our cities,” said André Sobczak, Eurocities Secretary General.

But this new contract, said Christie, should specify who’s accountable for delivering the right services to citizens by involving all levels of government. “We need a renewed people-first and citizen-centric approach in Europe,” said Christie, to deal with “the daily challenges experienced by many citizens and their concerns, like access to affordable housing, securing a job that offers decent pay, so they’re able to pay the energy bills and put healthy food on the table, as well as access to essential public services.”

In 2022, high energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis meant that an estimated 9.3% of Europeans could not keep their homes adequately warm. In 2021, that percentage was 6.9%. Cities play a pivotal role in structurally addressing energy poverty and promoting energy-saving practices and home renovations. Lyon Metropole with the Slim Programme aims to massively identify households in a situation of energy poverty and guide them towards sustainable solutions. To deliver coordinated, targeted actions, the mobilisation of local associations and social workers and the adoption of socio-technical support when delivering energy counselling is essential to engage and empower the most vulnerable in housing renovations that would improve their health and quality of life.

Proof of the importance of topics such as housing and a just transition is their inclusion among the 12 key priorities that Eurocities will highlight during our upcoming elections campaign.

The balance between emergency responses and forward-looking policies

Nicolas Duvoux, professor of sociology at the University of Paris VIII Vincennes Saint-Denis, presented Paris as an example of clear income segregation in a city in which the more central somebody lives, the more unequal daily life becomes.

“The pandemic has not created new vulnerabilities but highlighted preexisting ones,” he said. This is not only a problem of today’s society, but also for the future. Professor Duvoux explained that climate change will affect more those groups at risk, such as migrants, young people and single mothers, which already belong to the group of low-income individuals experience a lot of difficulty in cities today. Moreover, poverty has shifted from older to younger people in the last half a century.

Carsten Beck speaking at the forum © Métropole de Lyon – Jérémy Cuenin

Young people have difficulty building their own future. Carsten Beck, Director of Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, agreed that youth is an important group to consider when designing policies, but “I don’t think we actually comprehend what a truly ageing society looks like,” he added. Beck maintained that the main issue to discuss is how to re-design cities for an ageing population.

Beck stated that “more and more people are worrying about the future,” triggering a worrying mental health trend. “We need to start finding out who’s responsible for the future. It’s a bottom-up approach that needs to be supported and funded. If we have a strategy to bring the future to the table, we need immediate results since people are asking for that.”

The City of Helsinki shared how to address mental health through a comprehensive, holistic and flexible approach. They focus on prevention and low-threshold mental health services for vulnerable groups. The Mieppi project allows people in need to get professional support through specialised access and confidential units located across the city.

Municipalities are aware of future challenges, but present needs are urgent. Duvoux mentioned that 500 students from Paris required food support this year.

“If you have children going to food banks, the future doesn’t matter,” agreed Beck. “The future becomes irrelevant if we can’t accommodate our emergency needs.” Combating food insecurity and providing access to healthy food for all is a significant challenge. Lyon Metropolitan Area’s agricultural policy aims to make local agricultural assets a metropolitan common good and to progress towards sustainable local products.

Gothenburg provides food to children in deprived areas as part of its fight against child poverty. The municipality realised most of the children they worked with did not have breakfast in the morning, an obstacle to their learning.

Quality food provision is just one challenge cities face. Poverty, housing, a sense of belonging, low-incomes, quality jobs, and gender equality are all interconnected issues to be tackled by all levels of government.

In Birmingham, one in four people work in low-paid jobs, and half of the city areas are among the most deprived across the country. As a result, in-work poverty is rising faster than employment. Given this situation, the municipality works on local employment by remodelling recruitment pathways and applying a neighbourhood approach. Moreover, there is social investment through local procurement. For example, the ‘Youth Employment Futures’ project trains adolescents to remodel their career pathways, linking them with five key sector employers.

Nothing for the people without the affected people

Christie asserted the importance of engaging residents in policy-making processes, especially those that belong to vulnerable groups, to ensure their needs, challenges and perspectives are considered. “Inclusive policies help create a sense of belonging and participation, reducing tensions that can arise from disparities in our cities, limiting access to resources and opportunities,” said Christie.

Nantes is an example of inclusion. Since 2015, the city has experienced strong refugee flows. The city pays special attention to young migrants, offering a space for them to express their needs, providing workshops, interviews and the opportunity to produce a podcast.

Ruth Paserman speaking at the event

For Ruth Paserman, Director of Funds, Programming and Implementation at the European Commission, it’s essential to involve the most vulnerable so they are part of the decisions rather than simply affected by them.

“The involvement of vulnerable groups in policy design and solutions is a critical component of addressing the crises and long-term structural issues in the European context,” stated Christie. Additionally, “empowering communities to lead on initiatives can result in innovative solutions to local challenges.”

Indeed, the lived experience of minorities makes them experts on relevant topics and should be recognised and valued as a resource rather than an obstacle, said Joe Brady, Policy Advisor at the City of Glasgow. He likes to talk about resilience rather than vulnerability. “People make Glasgow. We recognise their resilience and their dignity.”

Other initiatives, such as AGORA in Grenoble, aim to give a voice and a space to those new arrivals who struggle to be heard in the city. With the help of Eurocities project UNITES, Grenoble Metropolitan Area put in place a panel of asylum seekers, refugees and subsidiary protection holders from different nationalities for them to think of better ways to identify problems in the reception process.

Holistic approaches, data and crosscutting and collective work

The successful implementation of prevention measures requires holistic and integrated approaches, backed by qualitative but also quantitative data, and implemented in partnership between city departments and external stakeholders.

“We focus on stats, but stats do not have an impact. Stories do,” stated Brady. Following this idea, Sobczak added that “Eurocities is ready to collect and analyse data, but also to put faces to it. We’ll continue to exchange practices and experiences.”

Preventing future challenges and being ready for them are as important as focusing on the present issues residents face. Cities are at the frontline of supporting the most in need. However, the lack of funding and resources forces them into impossible choices where they have to prioritise between people in dire need and focus on crisis response rather than highly needed prevention.

Paserman noted that the European Social Fund Plus and the European Regional Development Funds are long-standing funding opportunities for social policy, now helped by the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the Just Transition Fund. However, cities report the inaccessibility of those funds, which national and regional governments distribute. Bartłomiej Ciążyński, Deputy Mayor of Wroclaw, emphasised the centralised character of countries like Poland or France and the difficulties of dealing with other levels of government to access funds and get support on social policies.

Vicki Felthaus, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, empahsised the need for funds to eradicate homelessness. “All these young people are in front of our door, but we do not have the common ground to build all the houses we need. We need help on this. We need a direct line to the EU and funding to build houses that will provide affordable living,” she said.

For Lea Filoche, Deputy Mayor of Paris, these funds are crucial to providing social benefits and highlight the importance of living up to the challenge of the green and digital transition for a better future.

“Cities must have a seat around the table, which does not mean they’re there to implement decisions made by others but to provide feedback and be involved in the process,” added Sobczak.

The future may be uncertain, but municipalities will surely keep working to tackle social challenges. “Let’s consider the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum strategy as our North star, as a beacon of hope in those darker times,” said Christie.

Lyon Metropolitan Area hosted the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum 2023 from 8-10 November under the title ‘Empowering Cities – Working with Vulnerable Groups to Mitigate the Effect of Crises.’

Over these three days, 180 people from all around Europe had in-depth discussions, shared insights, and witnessed the incredible capacity of cities to innovate, adapt, and extend a helping hand to those in need.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer