Cities want more than recovery

22 March 2022

We are two years into a crisis that no one saw coming. The pandemic, which may shortly become an endemic, has had an untold impact on cities.

To date, there have been several different phases of response; the immediate, to ensure vital services were kept running during a time of urgent need; the opportunistic, using the situation to develop something better; and now there is the recovery, which will depend largely on how cities are able to implement local strategies.

The over €750bn assigned to the NextGenerationEU recovery funds are themselves historic. Not since WWII has Europe put such a razor-sharp focus on recovery. Moreover, they hold the promise to deliver on core European values and goals such as the European Green Deal, and to secure a digital and inclusive transition.

The potential of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) aside, as well as other sources of funding such as Cohesion Policy and national resources, it is city leaders who will be responsible for the vast majority of actual implementation of measures to achieve these goals, given that cities are not only the place where most people live, but also the site where most impact can be made with the right investments.

In this way, the recovery funds can provide the boost that cities need to ensure recovery locally. “As cities, we are fully aware that the decisions we make today will have implications for the investment priorities for many years to come,” says Dario Nardella, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Florence.

Seizing the moment

The call to TalkWithCities has had a mixed response. Although the EU made it a requirement of the NRRPs to consult local authorities, data collected by Eurocities shows that cities have not been adequately involved in the national level plans. While this lack of involvement differs across Europe, depending on the relationship between member states and their local and regional authorities, it charts a missed opportunity to build back better.

While making their calls to be more involved, however, city leaders have not sat on their laurels. Rather, they have been active in doing what they can for their citizens via bold recovery strategies.

The early lockdowns gave a strong impetus to further develop ideas such as the ‘15-minute city’, which is being championed by the likes of Paris. Milan, for example, has mapped access to essential services, especially healthcare, and is taking steps to ensure that citizens can access this within a 15-minute walk of their place of residence. The city has also made a number of other investments, such as bike lanes.

Many cities, including Dublin and Florence have used the crisis as an opportunity to reassess their city growth strategy. For cities that receive especially high numbers of tourists, another question has become how to make their local economy more resilient to shock, such as a drop in tourist numbers, while also taking time to consider what the real benefits of tourism are and how it can negatively impact liveability in many urban centres.

“Tourism, before anything else, must be rethought and must be conceived in a sustainable way,” says Nardella. “The crisis is offering us an opportunity to rethink traditional models and revolutionise them.”

Feel Florence, for example, is a new online portal to promote sustainable tourism. “Making tourism central for the economic recovery and also sustainable is an important objective for our city,” adds Nardella.

Amsterdam is focussing on the ‘doughnut model’ for its post-crisis recovery. This idea, developed by economist Kate Raworth, holds that the principle of economic activity is to meet the core needs of all people, while staying within the environmental boundaries of the planet. This especially concerns resource use, and, Amsterdam, already a champion of the circular economy, aims to become fully circular by 2050.

Amsterdam’s model is piquing the interest of other cities, such as Brussels and Copenhagen, and is a great example of how cities learn from and cooperate with one another across borders.

Gaining access to the recovery funds will help ensure the long-term success of these city-driven projects. On a broader scale, capitalising on the natural cooperation between cities could be beneficial for developing pan-European projects – the legislation that set out the NRRPs gave seven flagship challenges on areas such as digitalisation and energy efficiency, and encourages cross-border cooperation to meet them. At city level, including through networks like Eurocities, there are existing trans-national relationships that could be levied for this purpose.

Cities still calling to be involved

According to results collected by Eurocities, in their submissions last year to the national recovery plans, 79% of cities proposed projects on public transport services, 53% included projects on renovation, and 47% wanted to go forward with the digitalisation of education and public services.

In Italy, which incidentally is a net recipient to the NextGenEU funds – to the tune of some €33 billion – the interaction between national, local and regional levels has been much more cohesive, and the funds are beginning to be shared out.

In Florence, money has already been allocated to the creation of four new schools, built with sustainability in mind. The schools will incorporate design ideas such as natural lighting and better ventilation, rainwater recovery and a green system to protect against smog, high temperatures and noise.

Meanwhile, Europe faces other challenges, such as a housing crisis, with a growing number of citizens, including middle-income groups, finding that accessing decent, affordable and adequate housing has become more difficult than ever. Monies, including from the recovery and resilience funds should be levied to ensure that a focus is put on renovating buildings to make them more energy efficient, and that no one is left behind.

Given the current situation in Ukraine, cities especially in Eastern Europe, are currently dealing with the reception and integration of refugees that are turning up at their doorstep, and the impact of the energy crisis is further affecting city budgets.

Ensuring the effective use of the recovery funds will require working with local and regional authorities, such as in the example of Italy, throughout the implementation phase. Luckily the ambitions outlined by cities across Europe match the Next Generation EU goals.

For cities more broadly, the recovery also offers a chance to transform the way many things are done locally, and take a leap towards the necessary digital and green transitions of our times. This will also include crowding in private investments and working together on big agendas, such as through the 100 Climate Neutral Cities Mission of the European Commission.

There are many aspects to recovery from a local perspective, which is why cities need a better say in how they will manage a sustainable recovery. This should include a more direct dialogue between cities and their national levels, as well as consideration of how cities can contribute to pan-European goals and projects. In addition, this might involve reworking some of the original submission areas of the NRRPs where they can have greater impact, such as in cities, and more generally, looking at how any changes in the EU fiscal rules could accommodate a smoother recovery in cities.

“In these challenging times, we have an important opportunity to rethink our cities and build back better: we are not going to waste it,” said Nardella.

Interested in the topics covered in this article? Join the Eurocities Economic Development Forum this Wednesday.

These topics will be explored in greater detail by Eurocities writers over the coming weeks. Cities face many competing challenges and are committed to learning lessons, and using the potential boost from recovery funding, to jump ahead of where they were two years ago. By using this opportunity to take a leap towards the much needed digital and environmental transitions of our time, cities want #MoreThanRecovery


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer