Festival of Europe: urban renaissance

9 May 2022

Home to masterpieces of art and architecture, Florence is a jewel to behold, and to many the birthplace of the renaissance in Europe. The long term benefits from this medieval investment are evident – in 2019 around 16 million tourists visited the city, dwarfing the city’s population 40 times over.

But wandering around a city is different to living in it. Today, following two years of pandemic, Florence is one of many cities across Europe considering the next steps in its urban transformation. Add to this the deep impacts from the war in Ukraine, felt right across the continent, and the need for an urban rebirth is apparent.

Mayors from both Ukrainian and EU cities met alongside European and national officials in Florence this Friday, to exchange on current and future urban needs in a special event organised within the context of the European University Institute’s Festival of Europe conference.

Investments in EU cities

When it comes to funding options for investing in EU cities several options exist. The cohesion policy funds have been a crucial lifeline for many cities and remain a key EU instrument to support the recovery. Since the beginning of the pandemic, these funds – part of the European Structural and Investment Funds – which are designed to deliver key investments to rebalance economic, social and territorial cohesion across the EU, were made more flexible, allowing cities to make quicker investments and respond better to urgent needs.

The EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility is the other essential instrument that will support cities to recover from the pandemic. Cities aim to ensure that investments made via these two programmes will be streamlined. However, a lack of involvement by cities in the design and implementation of the national recovery plans in most EU member states presents a clear challenge to this ambition.

For her part, Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, who attended the event hosted by the city of Florence, said that cities are engines for growth that have a special role to play in delivering the green, digital and inclusive transitions on which the European Commission wants to base the recovery efforts. In this endeavour, she noted that cities and the European Commission must work in partnership and that there should be a particular responsibility of larger and mid-sized cities to work within their functional and metropolitan areas to boost recovery efforts, as highlighted in the recently published 8th Cohesion Report.

Responding to a request made by Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, on how to better guarantee direct support to cities, Commissioner Ferreira made reference to the European Urban Initiative as a necessary tool – the new €400 million EU programme that is designed to support integrated and participatory approaches to sustainable urban development, while creating a strong link between EU policies and cohesion policy investments in urban areas.

The New European Bauhaus similarly aims to link together different EU initiatives. Supported financially via the EUI, and other sources, the NEB offers cities an opportunity to test solutions that will transform the built environment into a more sustainable, inclusive and aesthetic place.

Another recent good example of how the EU is working with cities to enable recovery while keeping on track with the green and digital transitions – brought up by Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona – is the 100 climate neutral cities mission.

Recovery for Ukraine

All of this, however, pales in comparison to the rebuilding and recovery efforts that will be needed in Ukraine, where, as Mihhail Kõlvart, Mayor of Tallinn and Mathias De Clercq, Mayor of Ghent, both rightly pointed out, long term plans are already needed, in which all cities must be involved.

According to Commissioner Ferreira, the challenge faced by Ukrainians lives at the very heart of the European project: the right to determine your own future, to stand for human dignity and embrace ideals of freedom and peace. A sentiment that was earlier echoed by Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, who gave a keynote address at the State of the Union.

“There is a pre-24 February reality and a post-24 February reality. The world has changed. We need to understand that the weight of the democratic global order now rests heavier than ever on Europe’s shoulders. It is our whatever-it-takes moment. A moment that comes once every generation. A moment in which we must understand that Europe is also in the streets of Bucha, in the tunnels of Mariupol, in the cellars of Irpin, on the shores of the Isle of Snakes,” she said.

For this support, Vitali Klitschko, Mayor of Kyiv, who joined the mayors’ event online, gave his thanks. However, two other Ukrainian Mayors were on hand to paint a picture of the current situation and needs in Ukraine, where, it was reported, over 68,500 buildings have been destroyed or damaged, including 1,500 educational institutions, and over 20,000 civilians have been killed.

Anatoliy Fedoruk, Mayor of Bucha, spoke of a need to develop a special programme for the reconstruction of the city, while noting that many European cities have started offering help bilaterally. Such as Leipzig, which has been twinned with Kyiv for over 60 years, and is today responding to the needs of its sister city, sending medical equipment and other crucial supplies.

And with over 5 million refugees having left Ukraine to neighbouring European countries in the last 10 weeks, it is fellow European cities, as the destination of first resort, that are providing support, welcoming refugees, and coordinating reception and integration activities.

Yet, despite these huge efforts, while the European Commission has made financial resources available via the EU Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, React-EU, and monies available from the cohesion funds, no new resources have been offered to address the crisis. Something that mayors say is much needed.

Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw, where 300,000 refugees have already been received, said that much of the reception actions taken so far have happened on the basis of need and therefore been sporadic, thanks to the work of NGOs and caring actions of people, but that what is needed now is financing at the city level, coupled with clear strategies at national and EU level, including a voluntary relocation scheme coordinated at European level.

Nonetheless, should another 300,000 refugees come to Warsaw, Trzaskowski said “we will take them”.

Following on from the words of Fedoruk about the need to plan now for reconstruction, Ivan Fedorov, Mayor of Melitopol, who spent five days in Russian captivity, proposed a project for cities to help cities. While it is unclear how any of the EU funding sources described above could help Ukrainian cities directly, there are increasingly clear lines of communication between Ukrainian and EU based politicians, which no doubt become even more important in the coming weeks and months.

As Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence and President of Eurocities, said the war in Ukraine has “opened the EU’s eyes” to the plight of refugees, as it has “rediscovered its identity, its unity and compactness.”

local and European leaders from across the EU met to discuss future investments in cities, at the Festival of Europe 2022 event in Florence


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer