Working on socially equitable cities

4 November 2021

For Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, cities must be “caring cities”, meaning they should be urban spaces where adequate housing is protected,  with a strong safety net for most vulnerable populations,  and strong policies in place to address the digital divide.

The event is about to start

“Cities that work for everyone. We can’t do this properly if we don’t place justice at the heart of this transition,” she said at the socially equitable cities panel in Eurocities Annual Conference 2021.

However, this envisioned goal entitles many tough decisions, several of which were covered in the debate: How to tackle energy poverty? What role does digitalisation have? What is the inspiration for a green transition? Who to bring onboard?

And maybe the key to everything: how to turn a challenge such as the pandemic into an opportunity?

A crisis is also an opportunity

As an analogy, the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, mentioned to the audience that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made of two ideas: one is ‘dangerous’, and the other one is ‘opportunity’.

In all challenges, there are opportunities, agrees Alison Gilliland, Mayor of Dublin. “Never waste a good crisis.” Part of the fundings the Irish capital got from the national government was used to change its street life.

The panellists

First, as a temporary solution upon crowded restaurants and packed public transportation during the pandemic. Afterwards, the permanent street model changes for Dubliners. The outside dining areas and the cycling roads became the inspiration for another model in progress. “Perfection is the enemy of the good. We searched for the good, and now we are trying to improve it.”

For Bonet, the opportunity a pandemic brings in is that mayors should be “able to learn from the lessons every single crisis we had” in order to focus on building a green social agenda.

Our generation is still here

Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana

“We find inspiration from the most unusual ones: kids,” explained Veliaj. He adds that adults might not trust politicians, but if children have fun, they are likely to believe and get involved, which leads them to be aware of topics such as sustainable mobility. “They are the true revolutionary force: the next generation.”

“We’re talking about the next generations, but nobody here is 100 years old. 2030 is only nine years away,” comments the mayor of Dublin. She mentions current actions are taken thanks to this generation of citizens. “They learn with us. We learn with them. They provide us with their data. We work with them and work for them.”

Mohamed Ridouani, Mayor of Leuven, insists on working with citizens, but he’s afraid that only the same people will come to the activities, and usually only highly educated people. “You need organisations that breach the gap and bring them to the table.” As an example, he mentions poverty energy can be tackled this way.

Less brainstorming, more ‘trainstorming’

In Veliaj’s words, Eurocities Annual Conference involves ‘trainstorming’ rather than brainstorming, which means there are fruitful debates with other mayors that will lead to actual actions. So what are the actions cities are taking to become more socially equitable?

For Bonet, the deputy mayor of Barcelona, the solution goes beyond: “we need to change the way we do things. Our inspiration is the innovation.” Before tackling a challenge, she proposes asking themselves how to do it simply by changing how they do it. “Asking people instead of pretending we know the perfect answer. Because we don’t have the response to this magnitude of challenges.”

Mohamed Ridouani, mayor of Leuven

Ridouani explained, “one of the reasons why we’re capital of innovation is that we’ve found how to get it done in a radically inclusive way.” The mayor refuses the idea of individualism and puts faith in social collectivism.  “Leuven 2030 is a model in which we include all layers in our society in one governmental model. It’s a very radical and participatory approach.”

In this pilot project, citizens, companies, ONGs can come and decide on the direction. Leuven city council got the poverty ONGs and housing companies on board in the plan, “so the transition we go through is inclusive and we create a sense of belonging.” Regarding the businesses, Ridouani adds that no greenwashing is possible since a plan must be presented every year.

Takeaways from the pandemic

Bonet reminds us that during the pandemic, frontline workers were essential for the continuity of basic services. “We all realised that too often those essential workers are women and underpaid.” Also,  housing conditions affected predominantly low-income and migrant communities, and a sudden drop of public transport users was registered in Barcelona.

The panellists

“Last but not least – we all here transitioned to an online life that allowed us to carry on with certain normality. But many in our cities could not, due to the digital divide, and saw their educational, social, work and even health opportunities decrease.”

The deputy mayor adds that hose inequalities have created new disparities. “If we want to be socially equitable cities, we have to be caring cities.”

The mayor of Leuven explains that two years ago, the Belgian city put in place an unpopular mobility plan that involved less traffic. A lot of discussion and debate took place, “but we put so much effort. And after three years, cycling numbers just exploded. We have opened a cycling school for newcomers that are not very good at cycling.”

The role of mayors

Gilliland concluded that the Dublin city council depends a lot on central government fundings and refers to her level as “weak local governments”. “We have a target of 2030, and then a further one of 2050 and there is tension because our national government is not helping.”

Mayors’ power is intended to be reduced, and they don’t seem to realise “we’re the people on the ground,” she insisted. “We’re all united in identifying the challenges and doing something about them.”

For Ridouani, exemplary leadership is based on empathy, whereas for the mayor of Tirana, new creative ways must be found to uncover what the public is thinking. The city council is conducting consultation through letters “to keep people constantly on the loop. Even if they don’t answer, but those 10/12 questions will make them think those are the important issues we have to find the answers to.” Every four years is not enough, he adds.

Digitalisation can help us to tackle this challenge, commented Bonet. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Digitalisation is a “tool that allows us to test policies before implementing them in our cities.” In Barcelona, they did it for the Low Emission Zones or the effects on air quality. “Digital tools help build better public policies.”

When mayors are on the same boat as ordinary people, Gilliland says, they are showing good leadership. Mayors can provide that. “Let’s make connections here. We’re all facing the same challenges. We are the ones that need to make it happen, and we must take that responsibility.”


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer