The Covid pandemic and the environmental crisis are giving cities a transformative role toward a more resilient, just and sustainable future, city officials and experts at Eurocities’ annual conference in Leipzig said.
At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis many were ready to proclaim the end of cities as more and more people left for the countryside, said Pascal Smet, the Secretary of State for the Brussels Capital Region said. But, in fact, the crisis has strengthened their role.
“Today if one thing is clear, it is that people need cities more than ever. People want to stay in cities, they want to go out, to meet others. Cities are back and have a crucial role to play, both socially and economically,” he added while participating in the “Towards a green and just recovery: what does it take?” opening panel.
The dual health and climate challenges offer plenty of room for creative re-invention, translating EU goals at a local level, city officials said.
Municipalities have shown great resilience during the pandemic, said panellist Aziza Akhmouch, Head of cities, urban policies & sustainable development division at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“When we see the energy and the quick fixes that mayors brought to difficult situations we can be optimistic. The pandemic has tested the capacity and agility of local administrations, and we can be very proud,” she added.
Cities will need to continue to exercise that power to respond to old and new challenges.
Smet highlighted how many people can’t live in cities because they can’t afford to buy or even rent a place. Providing affordable housing will be very important, the Secretary of State for the Brussels Capital Region said.
“A worldwide network of good ideas”
At the same time, what will help cities confront climate challenges and achieve zero-emission goals is a more agile bureaucratic infrastructure, according to Markus Lewe, the Mayor of Muenster.
Waiting for years to get approval for new transport facilities, for instance, only slows down the changes municipalities are working so hard to introduce, he said. “We need a cross-cutting administration, faster procedures,” he added.
Lewe also highlighted the importance of cross-border cooperation with other municipalities, stressing that cities can only become more resilient if they join hands.
For the Mayor of Muenster, cities should keep a close connection with each other and exchange best practices. “We need a worldwide network of good ideas,” he said.
Tackling a crisis with green answers
Held at the same time as international leaders are shaping up the future of the climate battle at Cop26 in Glasgow, the Eurocities conference is keeping a laser-sharp focus on how to tackle environmental challenges.
Cities like Tampere are making gigantic steps toward climate neutrality already. The Finnish municipality is devoting a sizeable budget to the plan of achieving climate neutrality by 2030, twenty years ahead of the European Union.
In the run-up to that goal, the Tampere has in store 236 projects ranging from the urban planning, housing, mobility, energy and consumption sectors, that will help it to reduce its CO2 emissions.
One of the many lessons municipalities can draw from the coronavirus crisis is that biodiversity has become very important, according to Anna-Kaisa Ikonen, the Mayor of Tampere.
“The meaning of nature is growing. People are exploring the possibility to study and working in green areas. We need to look at this even more,” Ikonen said.
Listing mental health and loneliness as some of the main issues they are confronted by, city officials are stressing the importance of parks and nature as areas for recovery and comfort.
Muenster, for example, is creating meeting points and exercise areas in town, with a focus on densely populated areas while promoting walking and cycling.
People, cities’ biggest asset
As cities are getting back on their feet after the Coronavirus crisis, Ricardo Rio, the Mayor of Braga, sounded a positive note, stressing that his city is still considered the third happiest in Europe.
Rio credits residents for that achievement. “People are the biggest assets we have in cities”, he said. “To have talent, to have youths, to have diversity in cities is very important for sustainable recovery,”, the Portuguese Mayor said.
To make itself even more palatable to residents of today and tomorrow, the Portuguese municipality is focusing on providing a good quality of life, social innovation and economic development in the near future.
“It will be crucial to have a holistic approach in which all policies will be connected” and work in tandem with one another, Rio added.
Help from above
For Akhmouch, fighting inequality will be one of the cities’ main challenges over the coming years. “The Coronavirus crisis has been an eye-opener about inequality. This is the social bomb that’s going to hinder growth…if we don’t tackle the inequality issue, then this will become a major bottleneck in the future,” the OECD expert said.
Ultimately, however, cities won’t be able to solve present and future crises without support from above, Akhmouch conceded.
“It’s an illusion to think that all global transformations can be handled at the local level. Mayors are stepping in to confront the climate challenge, but only a third of CO2 emissions in cities can be curbed at the local level.
“We need bold initiatives at EU level and national level. Local action can’t be a substitute for this,” Akhmouch concluded.