EU must partner with cities for strong urban governance

27 March 2024

Urban governance is not an abstract concept, but a reality that most cities face every day. It is how city governments work collectively with their partners in society to plan, finance and manage the public services they provide to their residents.

To achieve their strategic goals, city administrations recognise that they must continue to improve how they organise their own work, and how they collaborate with regional, national and particularly EU levels of government.

As highlighted in the 2023 Eurocities Pulse survey, city leaders have been busy developing city governance structures that promote partnerships and are better able to adopt a whole-of-society approach to governance.

Looking to 2024 and beyond, improving city governance continues to be an important ambition for many city leaders. Ahead of the European elections, the Eurocities manifesto, ‘A better future starts in cities,’ includes several ways in which the EU needs to improve how it works with its cities.

A clear long-term vision for cities at EU level 

There are many examples of how the EU is working effectively with cities to overcome challenges such as economic recovery, the housing crisis and climate action.

Well-known initiatives, such as the Covenant of Mayors and the Urban Agenda for the EU have been complemented by new approaches, including the EU Mission for 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030 and the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, as well as the Living-in-EU movement.

However, the Eurocities policy paper – How the EU can work better with cities – says the growing landscape for engagement between cities and the EU has led to a lack of clarity about the role and relevance of some of these initiatives. As a result, the policy paper says a single governance framework on urban matters should be established.

Building on this position, the Eurocities manifesto calls for a transparent and coherent EU governance strategy for urban policies, which increases cities’ capacity to improve public services and ensure a green, prosperous future for their residents. This includes establishing a regular and direct dialogue between the EU and city leaders and giving cities a greater role in the development of EU urban policy.

To improve the relationship between cities and the EU, the manifesto outlines the need for the creation of an Urban Envoy, centrally placed in the European Commission, with a mandate to oversee and coordinate all EU policies and initiatives for cities and urban areas.

Adding to the message of the Eurocities manifesto, city leaders from across Europe have also joined the Belgian Presidency of the EU to sign the Brussels Declaration, which further adds to the call for an ambitious EU urban policy.

The declaration, which was developed with input from Eurocities, outlines the need for local governments to have greater involvement in EU decision making, for urban issues to be better integrated at European level, and for more city-friendly European regulations and funding.

Multi-level support for urban investment

When it comes to EU investment, the cohesion policy, the EU’s main public investment policy, has historically supported the development of all territories across Europe, including urban areas. However, in recent years, the policy has developed a full-fledged urban dimension, making it one of the key EU policies supporting cities.

Multi-level governance, based on the partnership principle, is at the core of cohesion policy, which means there is a clear role for cities in its design and implementation.

This partnership principle is supported by the policy’s urban dimension, which ensures funding is specifically available to urban areas, through investment tools such as the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the Cohesion Fund.

This allows cities to develop sustainable urban development strategies that address their local needs, including the development of clean urban transport infrastructure, energy efficient buildings, cycle tracks and footpaths.

Looking ahead, the outlook for the current cohesion programme, running from 2021 – 2027, looks stable, with the EU planning to set aside 24 billion euros to support sustainable urban development and many more billions invested in urban areas.

However, as program implementation speeds up, cities have cited several issues that need to be improved in relation to the implementation of the partnership principle, with formal consultations sometimes lacking depth, member states taking centralised decisions without consulting local authorities, and bureaucracy and red tape often leading to complications for cities.

As debate gathers pace on design of the policy after 2027, there is also uncertainty about whether the current level of multi-level investment will be maintained. For example, there are concerns that the European Commission may view its NextGenerationEU centralised recovery plan as an alternative delivery model for cohesion funds.

In a recent joint call, Eurocities and their partners in the EU Cohesion Alliance stated that the next European institutions must keep cohesion policy as the main pillar of the EU’s development plans.

Involving cities in the EU recovery plan

Along with the cohesion policy, another key focus of cities’ work to ensure strong multi-level governance has been the EU’s Covid-19 recovery plan, NextGenerationEU. Around €720 billion is available through the plan’s main funding instrument, the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF).

The recovery plan has the potential not only to support economic recovery, but also to accelerate Europe’s just, green and digital transformation and put Europe on the path to climate neutrality.

Eurocities and other stakeholders have continued to advocate for rules that would make the involvement of cities in the design and implementation of the plans a requirement for national governments.

However, the Urban Recovery Watch report, published in January 2024 by Eurocities and the Global Cities Programme at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs), says the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) is not solid enough to drive the urban actions required to reverse the effects of austerity. The report has found that the design and governance of Member States’ plans have been centralised at national level, with a lack of consideration for local governments’ needs.

With the European elections bringing a new EU mandate in June, cities are calling for the stronger involvement of cities in the implementation of future public investment schemes, as well as recommending more direct access for cities to RRF funding.

Building partnerships beyond city borders

At all levels of government – including city administrations – increasing recognition is being given to the important role of cooperation between cities and their surrounding municipalities and rural areas. According to statistics, around 50% of the rural population of the EU lives close to a city, often as part of wider metropolitan areas.

Rural-urban cooperation is a crucial means of tackling inequalities across all of the EU’s territories, as well as achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal.

With this in mind, in 2023 Eurocities published its Connecting Territories report, highlighting the need to better recognise metropolitan governance as an essential part of the management of complex urban-rural relationships.

A particularly noteworthy case  in the report is that of the Czech city of Brno, which has developed an innovative €300 million integrated strategy to ensure links between the city and its surrounding 180 municipalities and rural areas are maintained. The strategy, which is improving transport links and tackling inequalities, is an excellent example of how EU funds and support from the cohesion policy can build effective urban-rural partnerships.

It also reflects the message in the Eurocities manifesto, which outlines the importance of territorially balanced development to ensure good quality of life for everyone.

Working with people

Another key aspect of governance for cities are the fields of citizen engagement and participation, which ensure that people have a say in the decisions and democratic processes that affect their lives. As the level of government that is closest to its citizens, city administrations have significant experience when it comes to the operation and organisation of citizens’ participation activities.

With the EU elections taking place in June 2024, cities are focused on bringing people closer to Europe, helping them to understand the issues that are important, and encouraging them to take part in the traditional democratic process.

However, as new economic, social and climate challenges emerge in urban areas, city administrations are also leading the way when it comes to new methods of engaging and inspiring citizens. In recent years, Eurocities and its members have taken a leading role in new EU projects focused on building citizens’ participation.

The CitiObs project reimagines the role of citizens in governance and democratic processes. CitiObs supports, enhances and connects Citizen Observatories that empower everyday people to share data or observations about their local environment, such as air quality, noise levels or biodiversity. By engaging citizens in this civic process, the resulting crowd-sourced data can be used by researchers, policymakers and urban planners to make more informed decisions.

In addition, the Nets4Dem project is fostering European networks of academics, practitioners and civil society, creating a hub for advanced research and collaboration in democratic innovation. The project creates various opportunities for local government officials to train their democracy muscles and enable mainstream democracy innovations across urban policymaking through capacity building and policy development.

Nets4Dem’s Democracy Lab serves as a platform for city officials and democracy practitioners to promote collaborative problem-solving and democratic innovation at the local level.

Partnerships for change

With 75% of people now living in cities, it is clear that strong urban governance is a crucial means of tackling inequalities and ensuring prosperity.  If managed well, cities can act as engines of growth and provide residents with better job opportunities and improved healthcare, housing, safety and social development.

As the European elections approach in June, the next EU institutions must create a strategic partnership with cities to develop strong, targeted EU urban policies that inspire citizens and enable the development of high quality, effective public services.

From cities, the message is clear: let’s work together, across levels of government, because together we can achieve more. This will ensure that people can enjoy a better quality of life in sustainable, inclusive and well-managed urban and metropolitan areas.


Andrew Kennedy Eurocities Writer