Stronger urban policy in the EU and China

2 July 2021

The Chinese word ‘市‘, ‘shì’, translates only loosely into English as ‘city’ and is often employed to describe what we in Europe might term, on the one hand, megacity, province, county and on the other hand, district, sub-district or town. Compared to European cities, the size of Chinese cities can be enormous: Leeds, with its population of 789,194 has been sister city to China’s Hangzhou, with a population of 9,806,000 for more than 30 years.

And yet, European and Chinese cities face many of the same questions: How can we make sure that our cities growth and development happen sustainably, and how can that growth also be a motor for healthier people and stronger societies?

Chinese street-scape with people and tram

For the last three years, we’ve been working to answer these questions with the European funded project Trans-Urban-EU-China. The first thing to work out was just what the difference is between the way we use the term ‘smart city’ in the EU and in China. You can find an article that delves into the distinction here, and a longer document that gives more details and examples here. In this policy brief, you’ll see a comparison of urbanisation in the two regions, while this one contains the most up-to-date recommendations for effective international collaboration in the future.

Stronger communities

For a city to be truly smart, it turns out that, rather than an obsession with technology, it must deliver stronger communities and more liveable spaces. This detailed report shows how community building and placemaking can go hand in hand, and is full of examples from the EU and China, from Turin’s Case di Quartiere (which we also delve into in our ROCK project here), to how traditional courtyard homes blurred the distinction between public and private space in the Dongcheng district of Old Beijing.

Women dance in Turin
A Casa di Quartiere in Turin

There is a multitude of ways to further the twin goals of engaging people in the life of the community and improving local sustainability. We see communities coming together to make public art in Manchester and to work together on urban gardening in Shanghai, along with lots of other tools like participatory budgeting and finding new uses for abandoned urban spaces.

Details of how these tools work, what kinds of activities are involved, their strengths and weaknesses, and real city examples are outlined here. Luckily, there’s also a shorter cheat sheet for policymakers to get a rapid but thorough overview of these tools, their uses and the best ways to implement them available here.

Heritage versus technology

In a webinar that you can check out here, we teamed up with the ROCK project to take a closer look at how local cultural heritage can bring people together, including migrants and ethnic minorities in China and Izmir.

All this doesn’t mean that technology isn’t still part of the picture. In fact, we produced this piece for Forbes magazine to highlight where technology does come in, and how European cities like Dublin and Madrid and Chinese cities like Chengdu and Hangzhou are entering partnerships with private tech giants to try and improve quality of life in a futuristic fashion.

Between the bottom and the top

China is well-known for a top-down approach that sees enormous cities or train lines built as if overnight, but in both China and Europe the gap between what cities initially plan and what ends up being created can sometimes be rather large. This can be seen as the result of dissonance between the abstracted ideas at the top and the practical reality on the ground, and we learned that this is a dissonance that can function as a space for creativity; for example, having different mandates from different branches of government can allow local Chinese leaders to be freer than they might otherwise be in choosing their own path forward.

This handy policy brief was developed to share ideas for closing the gap between what is planned and what comes out the other end, including examples of exchange between local government and the private sector in Stockholm, as well as examples from Madrid and Vienna. A more in-depth treatment of these ideas is fleshed out here, and an extremely detailed presentation of approaches like living labs and digital planning was created here.

A boat pulls in to the port of Stockholm
Stockholm port is a good example of public/private collaboration

Often cities are inspired by good ideas coming from other cities, but it’s not always simple to go from the idea to the practice. Our webinar, ‘Replicate, replicate, replicate,’ brought in some experts from Trans-Urban-EU-China and the Smart Cities Information System to talk about how we can effectively make good ideas from one city work in another, and what factors get in the way.

Location, location, location

A global trend that is especially relevant in China is the rapid growth of urban populations. Dealing with this growth in a way that is both environmentally and socially sustainable is a real challenge, and one that Trans-Urban-EU-China sought to help solve. One side of the solution involves enlarging cities, while the other is about making better use of the space that is already available.

A policy brief that covers these issues from the point of view of land-use planning and management, participatory cooperation and urban finance is now available here. The recommendations, derived from the experiences of European cities, are intended to aid Chinese planners but are very relevant to European local planners too.

For a very extensive treatment of how land management policies in Europe and China compare to one another, with examples from cities like Dresden and Wuhan, check out this report from the project. We also got a technical overview, including presentations from Dublin and Brussels during this project webinar.

Social cost and benefit

The idea of sustainable local policy is that all types of benefits, social, economic and environmental, should march forward in tandem. But understanding exactly how these benefits relate to each other, and how best to measure and think about trade-offs is notoriously challenging. This ability is indispensable for reaching and communicating good policies, so it’s no surprise that the most popular webinar of the whole project was this one on social cost-benefit analysis, featuring the example of Rotterdam.

Blank price tags
How do you put a price on social benefit?

To get a firm grip on how social cost-benefit analysis works, with examples including pollution, tourism, infrastructure, sport and transport, see this thorough investigation. One big question that cities raised about this was how to justify the cost calculations, and the answer was relatively simple: when you come out with a big monetary figure attached to something not-so-tangible like quality of life, just be sure that you show people where the number comes from. That way, your decision-making is transparent and defensible.

Data driven

To even begin with something like social cost-benefit analysis, you need data at hand, and even once you have the data you need ways to visualise it, understand it, and make predictions based on it. For those of you that really want to unleash their inner nerd, you can check out Trans-Urban-EU-China’s findings on the use of big data and artificial intelligence to get a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between air pollution to transport. This document is not for the faint of heart!

Screen showing line graphs
Are you a data-phile?

Not all intelligence is artificial, however. Communication between different knowledge communities, experts, practitioners, and normal people, can amplify results and breed innovation. Our webinar on constructing a community of communities online set out the principles for achieving this necessary step to real global knowledge-building. For specific insight on knowledge sharing between city practitioners, this guidebook gives a good overview of approaches to learning from each other.

Another powerful tool for knowledge development is the living lab, which inverts the idea of a laboratory so that the role of test subject is swapped out for that of active contributor with whom emerging ideas and innovative concepts can be explored. Just how to understand what a living lab is, and to look at a few good examples in Europe and China was the fruit of this paper.

For a better world

The assumption at the core of collaboration between Europe and China is that the two regions share challenges to which they can potentially take similar approaches. This website developed within the project presents the core challenges which unite our regions: inequality, isolation, integration, urban sprawl, emissions, and resource scarcity. It then compares the European and Chinese approaches to these issues.

This page presents examples of cities like Sofia, Warsaw and Beijing that are tackling these issues, as well as indexing some of the tools developed by the project for dealing with them, from subsidies to education festivals. A complete list of all such tools is available in the online compendium.

If you’re looking for some summer seaside reading, then you can find many of these insights on how to create socially inclusive and sustainable cities in Europe and China in the book that the project produced, ‘Towards Socially Integrative Cities.’ You can pick up a physical copy here for admittedly quite a steep price, or download the PDF for free here.

Working with China

In the urgency of the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, having the established platform of Trans-Urban-EU-China meant that cities could share how they were working with partner cities in China to address issues like mask shortages and policy decisions. Cities from Belgrade to Bristol shared their work in this webinar. As cities started to settle into lockdown mode, we also heard from Wuhan and Tel Aviv on how they were using digitalisation to adapt to the new normal.

However, the connection between European and Chinese cities goes way beyond the current pandemic. The project allowed us to explore how European and Chinese sister cities have collaborated over the decades on everything from skills and training, to education and tourism, to health and wellbeing, to public-private partnerships and investment. We learned that working with China means thinking and acting clearly on issues like human rights, having strategies to manage under- or over-enthusiasm from Chinese partners, and having an agreed vision for what the relationship is intended to achieve.

The project may be over, but the journey is not. Sustainability is still a broad goal linking cities in Europe and China, and cities around the world. In Eurocities, we’re working with a new European Commission initiative, International Urban and Regional Cooperation, which pairs up EU cities with others around much of the world, including China, to work on sustainability. We hope you’ll join us on the next leg!


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer