“Inwork poverty can not become the new normal”

14 June 2023

Cities have always been the place where the future happens first.” With those words, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen began her online speech to the attendants at the Brussels Urban Summit. 

In the so-called capital of Europe, the Brussels Urban Summit kicked off yesterday, putting cities at the centre of the action. More than 2k attendants gather these days to debate and share insights on contemporary urban challenges. 

“When cities work together, they can multiply solutions,” Greg Clark, Global Advisor on Cities and moderator, introduced the event. 

Looking for a solution for every challenge 

Urban challenges are not to overlook. The list of recent emergencies slowing down cities’ progress seems increasingly long. Covid-19, urban ageing, homelessness, or mismatch of skills, to name a few. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has triggered a refugee crisis, inflation, and energy poverty. 

The latest Russian attack triggered Vitaly Klichko, mayor of Kyiv, to join online. He took the opportunity to thank European cities for stepping in to help and shared his desire to join the union. “We see our future as part of the European family. It’s very important to bring the peace back. Unity is key for peace,” he said from the capital of Ukraine. 

Not only have cities welcomed Ukrainians and helped rebuild from the ashes, proving that they are “partners for local and global challenges,” added Vonderleyen, but also “we increasingly look to cities for urban solutions to global challenges.”  

However, the uncertain global context impacts the local state of inequalities. Cities are “centres of opportunity and communities, but also inequalities and adversity,” reminded Vonderleyen.  

So, can the local level develop concrete actions to rebuild the social contract towards an Urban New Deal positively?

The plenary ‘Tackling inequalities and rebuilding the social contract in cities’ followed as a session where mayors discussed challenges and solutions.

Inequalities impact everyone, solutions should benefit all 

According to the latest Eurobarometer, the top two concerns of EU citizens are the rising cost of living and poverty and social exclusion. Indeed, recent shocks have fallen hardest on the most vulnerable, threatening to widen the gap between rich and poor, but also worsening middle-class conditions. 

In these circumstances, how can cities ensure inclusive growth, encourage social cohesion and face the lack of trust? 

Philippe Close, Mayor of the City of Brussels, stated the importance of running a profound analysis of the pandemic, which was delayed due to recovery and the war in Ukraine. “It’s important to take onboard every citizen,” and he highlighted the power of solidarity actions across cities.  

As a mayor of a non-European city, Jaime Pumarejo, Mayor of Barranquilla may not have been impacted by people from Ukraine, but he has his own experience. “25% of my population come from other countries, mainly Venezuela,” Pumarejo shared.  

Such population increase entails two other challenges: preserving the environment and providing arrivals with a decent place to live. Barranquilla offers newcomers the same rights as any other Colombian for the next ten years to ensure equality. 

European Commission President Ursula Vonderleyen

“I was not ready to host, educate and assist that amount of new people,” Pumarejo admits. But the challenge became an opportunity as soon as they joined the labour force. Subsidies were transformed into taxes contribution and a better pensions plan forecast.

Currently, Barranquilla is one of the least unequal cities in Colombia. 

From hosted to belonging 

Tackling inequalities has also been a top priority in Glasgow. For Susan Aitken, Mayor of Glasgow, many factors come together to create a crisis, including people who have not been in poverty before. “Inward poverty has a new meaning now,” she stated at the plenary. “People have low incomes that do not allow them to have a normal life.” 

An example is the housing crisis, which all speakers face in their cities. Glasgow faces the biggest one in years. “We’ve been working very hard to build as many affordable houses as we can, but we’re struggling to get [asylum seekers] a decent house” since integration should be guaranteed. 

In this context, Pumarejo agrees on ensuring housing affordability but also on the importance of not assigning culturally-alike people to the same neighbourhoods, which usually becomes an obstacle to social integration.

The mayor of Bristol, Martin Rees, explained the city is the least affordable city after London considering elements such as the cost of renting or buying a house and food, for instance. Also, one out of five children are living in poverty. Moreover, he adds that inequalities hit vulnerable groups harder. “We put housing at the centre [of economic growth].” 

Bristol implemented the ‘One City Plan’ in 2021 to tackle inequalities. The goal is to “create an equal, healthy and sustainable city” by 2050. Bristol got together the public, private, voluntary and education sectors to work all together for long-term goals set after Covid exacerbated existing challenges. 

But inequalities may be now reaching a point where they risk eroding the foundations of democracy. This geography of discontent plays out through greater political polarisation and disengagement from democratic processes.

Rees insists that crises can be a thread but also an opportunity. However, if policies to tackle inequalities do not work during emergency situations, he says, this can create the ground for people to feel left behind and disconnected from national governments. “Brexit was the proof,” he added. “If we do not ensure opportunities for the green transition, we’ll end up with another anti-EU sentiment. An unequal economy may be shaped by only a few people skilled,” Rees added to illustrate that if governments do not step in, equality in the future may mean that there are not enough people properly skilled for green and digital jobs.

Matúš Vallo, Mayor of Bratislava, also discussed anti-EU sentiments that far-right parties are disseminating in Eastern European countries when pressing situations arise. 

“Cities can be examples of promoting democratic values, and the democratic leaders can bring change to people’s lives and goals,” Vallo said. “Trust is the only thing we can work with to extend values to our citizens” and to solve urban challenges. 

According to the mayor, a former architect, physical space can influence people’s behaviour and feelings. Local leaders should deliver and make sure democracy means there is a place for everyone, physical and intangible.

Fostering inclusive growth and social cohesion 

“A smart city is a city of knowledge,” said the mayor of Brussels. The city has prioritised education, setting the highest budget ever. Close wants to maintain two aspects, the cosmopolitan and the student environment. But this should be built on a social pillar. “By building universities also in the working-class areas, you offer a better life to the population,” he added. 

Glasgow launched a diagnostic of the causes of inequalities five years ago that aimed to cover many areas the municipality is involved in, such as investment, infrastructure, procurement, housing and economic development.  

To foster social cohesion, Barranquilla focuses on parks as public spaces that generate community building. “The elderly can exercise, kids can play,” he illustrated. 

Amidst such troubled waters, data shows that local leaders inspire more trust than national leaders. On average, 46.9% of people across the OECD countries trust their local government, compared to 41.4% for national governments. With this head start, cities have a critical role in protecting democracy while navigating multiple crises. 

Do inequalities undermine trust in democracy? The role of local leaders 

For the mayor of Barranquilla, gaining trust from locals comes from making them understand that, even though they want their leaders to do it all, there are budget constraints. “It’s about choosing what to prioritise. The challenge is also building a roadmap in which people agree,” he explains.

The second challenge Pumarejo mentions is the centralisation the city faces in a country like Colombia. “We, mayors, look at our citizens in the eye, but we do not have the capabilities to have everything done. We need decentralisation fast,” he said. 

For Aitken, this often means that sticking to a long-term vision entails some pain when choosing and taking decisions that may not be well accepted for some, with the position of the mayor being the first to be impacted. 

But trust seems to be challenging to get among non-nationals. Brussels, the second most international city after Dubai, faces this concrete test. The mayor of the city of Brussels points at the low rate of voters among those who are not country nationals and explains his struggle when trying to gain their trust to convince them to participate in municipal elections. 

Rees and Vallo add that national governments still have to understand the relevance of the local level, “even after Covid and the war in Ukraine,” continues Vallo. The mayor of Bratislava also adds that local leaders play a mediator role in building an environment for dialogue and then deciding where to invest their funding.

For example, they may want to focus on creating equal opportunities in the labour market. Equal opportunities are part of democracy. Inequalities jeopardize growth and recovery, said Lamia Kamal-Chaoui, Director, OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. Inwork poverty can not be the new normal, she added. There will be future crises that will follow the same pattern unless we break the cycle. And cities are mobilising to ensure current and future residents’ better quality of life.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer