“We live a crisis of crises,” is Anna Lisa Boni’s, secretary general of Eurocities, assessment of cities’ current reality. Although sombre-sounding, this start of the Eurocities 2020 conference, held online on 4 November, does not wane cities’ confidence in their crucial role to shape our future. “Cities will come out more cohesive,” says Juan Mari Aburto, mayor of Bilbao. COVID-19 has forced change upon cities, and cities are choosing to see this time as a unique opportunity to imagine a better future and reinvent our society.
Do cities have a future?
With the pandemic challenging every aspect of urban life and forcing cities to close the things that make them vibrant, many analyses have raised the question: will cities survive? Seemingly stripped of their DNA, in the middle of managing the pandemic, it seems difficult to imagine them bouncing back. Yet history has shown that cities are resilient, innovative and can adapt to change. The question would rather be, as Greg Clark, global advisor on Future Cities, puts it, what kind of change will COVID-19 spur? And what can cities do to drive the change, rather than just endure it?
The first thing to note is that, as critical as the pandemic is, it is not the only issue. “A vaccine won’t fix everything,” says Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona. “All other crises will still be there.” Mayors agree that the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our systems, accelerated old trends and fostered new ones, and put a new emphasis and urgency to resolve pre-existing issues creating a need for a new social, environmental and civic contract.
However, Clark finds that European cities might have an upper hand in this crisis. “European cities are world leaders in aspects that COVID-19 has proven we need most,” says Clark. For example, they have a track record of commitment to sustainable city futures. And European mayors are ready to play the part. “European cities have a great opportunity to show the way forward,” says Jan Vapaavuori, mayor of Helsinki.
Moving forward together
To move forward, cities need each other. It became undeniable as cities exchanged challenges and good practices as part of their immediate response to COVID-19. “City to city collaboration at a European level and cooperation within the Eurocities network has never been more important,” recites the statement from UK Core Cities that the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, shares during the conference. In contrast with the national level response to the crisis in Poland, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, mayor of Gdansk, mentions how cities have stuck together. “European cooperation and solidarity will be crucial to recovery,” she says.
Cities are also well aware that any future plan has to put people at the centre. Johanna Rolland, mayor of Nantes, reminds colleagues that the voice of citizens must come through, no matter the pressure the crisis is putting on cities. And Klára Dobrev, Vice-President at the European Parliament, recognises that cities are in a privileged position to empower people. At times of growing tension, and frustration, people feel like they have lost control of their lives and they cannot find satisfying answers from weakened national and international governments.
“We need a new European dream,” adds Emil Boc, mayor of Cluj-Napoca, “to inspire and mobilise people. To work together towards prioritizing care, reducing inequalities and positively affecting climate change.”
“Real solutions affecting citizens come from the local level,” says Dobrev, and the role of the EU is to provide the tools and funds to tackle the challenges our societies are facing. Dobrev proposes to give a new shine to the principle of subsidiarity – the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level. Recognising that the local level and the urban perspective are essential to recovery and have to be made more explicit in future policy and funding plans.
Putting together a toolbox for the future
Cities are glad to hear that the Vice-President at the European Parliament acknowledges their crucial role while noting how their efforts should be better integrated at European level. Mayors Ada Colau, Zdeněk Hřib, from Prague, and Emil Boc, from Cluj-Napoca, paused on the need for more integrated funding, and the role of the EU in signaling its priorities by how it decides to allocate its funds. Cities believe greater direct funding for local authorities, and new financial vehicles, would enable them to take a more active role in reshaping their future rather than feeling the future is happening to them.
Nantes also called for Europe to help regulate the market, in a time when digitalisation of trade is exploding, European policies can help cities support their efforts to foster local and circular production. “Legislation has to evolve at European level,” says Johanna Rolland.
Future(s) for cities
In his analysis, Clark described the future city as a ‘blended city’, somewhere in between a physical city and a virtual city, where people will have increasing choice and flexibility over where to live, how to work and travel. Ricardo Rio, mayor of Braga, has noted how many cities have been rethinking their public space in light of the pandemic. And that’s not the only first step cities have already taken towards their future. “The recovery must be green and just,” urges Anna König Jerlmyr, mayor of Stockholm “without forgetting the important role of culture.”
So, if we were to spell out this new future, what would that give us? Anna Lisa Boni proposes to look at a plurality of ‘FUTURES’ holding the keywords to “the age of Euro-Cities” as Marvin Rees called it. ‘F’ for ‘flexible’, continuing to be resilient and adapting as a network of cities. ‘U’ as the ‘unique’ opportunity to rethink strategies and to empower cities. ‘T’ for ‘transversal’, since everything is connected. ‘U’ for ‘united’, because cities are stronger together. ‘R’ for ‘recovery’, the focus for Eurocities in the time ahead. ‘E’ stands for ‘European citizens’ as they are at the centre of cities’ work. And ‘S’ for ‘solidarity’, the core of our network.