Connecting territories: the best of urban-rural cooperation

13 June 2023

The so-called division between people living in cities and those living in rural areas is a stereotype that is often circulated in the media and in everyday conversation. On one hand, there is the depiction of rural residents who are resentful of their prosperous city neighbours, and on the other, the city population who look down on their surrounding rural communities.

Rural and urban, stronger together

In reality, cities and their surrounding rural areas are actively involved in any number of partnerships, relying on each other for food supply chains, jobs, commerce, innovation, and the delivery of critical services.

At all levels of EU government, increasing recognition is being given to the important role of rural-urban cooperation in tackling inequalities across all of the EU’s territories. The relationship between the city and rural is also crucial to achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal.

Throughout Europe, there are many examples of projects where cities are actively working on innovative partnerships with their surrounding areas.

Several of these are highlighted in a new collection of case studies developed by Eurocities and its members. As the urban-rural debate gathers strength at both EU and local level, the Connecting Territories publication provides examples of cooperation projects between cities and their metropolitan areas and shows how EU funding is crucial for these complex initiatives.

An electric bus in the city of Katowice, Poland. The local municipalitie’s electric buses are improving connections with over 50 surrounding communes. Photo © Katowice City Hall.
urban-rural cooperation is not only possible but it is already happening in many metropolitan areas all over Europe
— Frantisek Kubes, from the City of Brno

“The main idea behind this publication is that stronger cooperation is fundamental to achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal and promoting a green, digital and just transition in all EU territories,” says co-author of the publication, Frantisek Kubes, from the City of Brno.

“Cities and metropolitan areas are not only ready to do their part in localising these objectives, but they are also aware that to do so it is fundamental to work with surrounding areas and promote urban-rural cooperation in the wider region.

“This publication demonstrates that urban-rural cooperation is not only possible but it is already happening in many metropolitan areas all over Europe.”

Demonstrating the value of EU support

Much has been written in recent years about the benefits of collaboration at the metropolitan scale. The European Commission’s recent Rural Vision 2040 sketches a roadmap to develop thriving and connected rural communities thanks to renewed cooperation with cities. In response, Eurocities published its own policy paper, calling for a clearer focus on urban-rural cooperation to deliver on the rural vision’s objectives.

The Commission’s  8th report on economic, social, and territorial cohesion in the EU also recommends strengthening urban-rural links to promote territorially balanced development.

Eurocitie’s new collection of case studies further demonstrates how metropolitan areas are often the most appropriate level of government to set up cooperation between the core city and the rural municipalities close to it. Examples in the publication range from projects related to mobility and food, to those using urban-rural cooperation to produce renewable energy and reach self-sufficiency, and cities looking at ways to promote social services in the wider metropolitan area.

Leading by example

An artist's design of urban-rural cooperation in Brno city and its municipalities
Improving transport connectivity in Helsinki and its surrounding municipalities

One of the biggest projects highlighted in the report is in the metropolitan area of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Despite having a large urban population, the area around the city is mainly agricultural land with 40% of municipalities made up of 500 – 1,000 residents.

Following the development of a comprehensive strategy involving the city of Brno, over 180 municipalities and several other organisations, 300 million in EU funding has been used to develop a wide range of projects aimed at reducing inequality, improving health and transport links and bringing jobs. This includes projects focused on sustainable mobility, waste management and social housing.

The impact of the project has been significant, leading to enhanced political cooperation, a long-term common vision, and improved quality of life thanks to new roads, transport terminals, bicycle and pedestrian routes, and the creation of services to construct social housing.

Another innovative example is the Living Labs project involving the Finnish capital Helsinki and 14 surrounding municipalities. The project was set up through the EU research project ROBUST, together with 11 other similar living labs across Europe.

The living lab was an experimental collaboration that brought policymakers, researchers, city officers, businesses and locals together in one location where they worked together to develop and test new ways to solve problems in a specific geographic region. The aim of the lab was to introduce new networks that could find solutions to issues such as transport links and housing issues, as well as boost opportunities for innovation and growth.

The project has achieved very positive results, including boosting opportunities for local entrepreneurship, recognising the need to ensure the protection of the environment when it comes to building planning, and creating long-lasting links between all the people involved.

Reinforcing EU support and funding

Ensuring sustainable energy production and distribution in the Oslo Region of Norway

“With around 50% of the rural population living close to a city, it is clear that the potential for cooperation is enormous,” says Peter Austin, from the City of Oslo, who also contributed to the report. “The EU has the potential to achieve great results in its objectives of economic, social and territorial cohesion by working with metropolitan areas to promote urban-rural cooperation”

The evidence gathered in the publication suggests that the EU is already supporting this process. “EU support is often an important driver for collaboration, even for pilot actions,” says Austin. “EU funding, and particularly Cohesion Policy, through integrated territorial investments, contributes to stimulating new and innovative ways of working together, with a potential for scaling up in the longer term.”

EU funding contributes to stimulating new and innovative ways of working together
— Peter Austin, from the City of Oslo

The report indicates that EU support for such initiatives should be reinforced and that it should promote both exchanges and research that drive urban-rural cooperation.

Austin adds: “The interdependency between cities and their neighbouring communities has many forms. To meet the policy ambitions at every level of government, not least under the prevailing global and European challenges, there is more reason than ever to embrace strengthened cooperation between rural and urban areas.”

Expanding the conversation

Mayors meet with European Commissioner, Elisa Ferreira, to stress the importance of rural-urban cooperation at EU and international level.

At a recent meeting during the Brussels Urban Summit, several mayors met with Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, to convey the importance of rural-urban cooperation at EU and international level. They made it clear that cities are ready to put urban-rural cooperation and territorial development at the top of their priorities.

“It is such a great pleasure to meet with you today and to hear the examples of projects that are promoting urban-rural cooperation, said Commissioner Ferreira. “It is important that we continue to discuss and promote good practical solutions on promoting urban-rural cooperation so that we can better tackle territorial challenges at EU level.”

It is important that we continue to discuss and promote good practical solutions on promoting urban-rural cooperation
— Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms

Presenting the new Eurocities publication to the Commissioner, André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities, stressed that for rural-urban cooperation to become an EU priority, there is a need to promote a political agenda and dialogue at the EU level.

This dialogue needs to involve all levels of government and must ensure that more national, regional and local resources are channelled to support rural-urban cooperation. A platform for exchange at EU level on rural-urban projects, investments and joint strategies can help develop necessary evidence.

“The urban-rural divide has the potential to accelerate and exacerbate many ongoing crises, including the climate, the social and the migration one,” says Sobczak. “The imperative to working together in Europe and at the global level to tackle a potential urban-rural divide has therefore never been stronger.”