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The contribution of the Architects’ Council of Europe to the Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities RFSC

May 3, 2011

RFSC Map of Test Cities

March 15-16th I attended the launch of the Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities RFSC in Brussels. Below you will find the text of my presentation to the General assembly of the Architects’ Council of Europe in Dublin, where I informed  the delegates about the ongoing process urging architects to take part in the preparation of this tool and the member organisations to get actively involved in the testing phase at national level.

The RFSC was launched by the French EU Presidency in Marseille at the end of 2008 as a web-based tool for the implementation of the Leipzig Charta.  In the past two years its definition has been fine tuned as an interactive web-tool facilitating the dialogue about sustainable  and integrated urban development within cities, between cities,  towards urban stakeholders, across sectors and at the various levels of a good Governance: neighborhood,  municipality, region, State and European Union.

It is worth noting that the RFSC is a joint European initiative, not a Community initiative such as the Urban or the Urbact Programms. The drivers of this initiative are Cities and local authorities networks (CEMR, Eurocities), Member States of the EU (France with the Ministry on Environment as initiator), the European Commission (DG REGIO of the European Commission, Unit for Urban Development and Territorial Cohesion).

Also the working approach is innovative and complex with a multi-level and multi-disciplinary working structure. The Urban Development Group UDG is the political monitoring committee, the Member States and Institutions is the place where technical issues are discussed more in-depth and the Management Team (joint leadership: France, CEMR, DG REGIO).

These political bodies are supported by technical expertise by CERTU (French urban research Institute also acting as webmaster), by URBACT Program, who has  established the network LC-FACIL (Final Conference in Leipzig 12-13th May) and since beginning of 2011 by NICIS Institute (The Hague) as Technical support for the testing phase.

The RFSC is subdivided into 4 main sections or tools. The first tool helps to develop a sustainable urban development strategy or project with an integrated approach in line with the cities’ own priorities and with the European targets (Agenda 2020). The second tool helps to check the integrated approach of an  urban development strategy or project with the support of graphs and charts. The third tool focuses on the city’s policies and actions towards deprived neighborhoods looking at the integrated approach of regeneration strategies and projects. The fourth tool helps to monitor the progress over time by means of the 33 so-called recommended key indicators, a broader collection of other useful indicators (the so-called basket of indicators), the possibility to add city specific indicators and a spreadsheet to build an own monitoring system.

The four sections cannot be simply used as quick test. They require an active engagement of the cities representatives  to be fine tuned and adapted to the local needs. The clarification about the state of play of the city’s development strategies, the definition of priorities, the recognition of the potentials and the identification of the stakeholders are relevant steps in the assessment process supported by the RFSC.

The core of the 4 tools is a list of 25 questions on sustainable urban development that represent the objectives and principles of the Leipzig Charta. These questions are grouped by 4 pillars: economy, social affairs, environment and governance. Each question is specified with sub-questions to go into details and to stimulate further debate.

What are the expected results of the RFSC? At the Informal meeting in Marseille the Ministers responsible for urban development asked to prepare a web-tool to facilitate the implementation of the Leipzig Charta that was recognised to be the most complete document proposed at European level on Urban policies and the only one signed by the competent ministers. Over the last years the expected results have evolved towards better communication about sustainable and integrated strategies and projects amongst and between different actors, the technical departments in the city administration, the elected representatives, the community of planners and practitioners, and of course the citizens and all urban stakeholders.

The web-tool should promote a multilevel governance approach illustrating and explaining decision-making processes, comparing the impact and results of strategic alternatives, improving coordination among different administrative sectors and the  accountability of the decisions making. Strengthening sustainable urban development policies making urban strategies and projects more sustainable, fostering integrated thinking and actions, raising awareness about potential synergies, warning about possible gaps and conflicts, creating cost-savings in the long run, assessing progress over time, identifying the potential need for adjustments, building capacity in urban management.

All these ambitious tasks should be tackled in a process of a step-by-step learning, finding useful examples and illustrations from other cities, exchanging with peer-cities and learning from each other..

Back to the basics of the Leipzig Charta, the RFSC intends to foster building a common European platform for urban policies through a critical self-assessment of cities as a support for decision-making. Not any kind of standardisation in urban development strategies, but creating a shared platform for debate, a common language that can be adaptable to the national context and the local situation.

There has been long discussions about the possibility of ranking cities through the RFSC. So far it is not the intention of the RFSC management team, but who knows what this tool can become in the hands of the cities? For sure it has to enable comparing different strategic approaches and the results of urban development policies.

Another important point is that there will be no obligation for cities, and it should not become a precondition for EU funding. The rationale behind it is to encourage cities to own the RFSC instead of seeing it as an obligation to fulfill, a new burden imposed by the Brussels institutions to obtain financial support. This becomes even clearer noting that it is yet unclear who will overtake the management of the RFSC from 2012 onwards. Cities will not be charged to use the RFSC and they will get no financial support. Only the test cities are getting technical support from Nicis until the end of the year. Peer learning, voluntary exchange and capacity building is the spirit of the initiative.

What has been the role of the ACE?

As members of the UDG and institutional representation of the architectural profession at European level the ACE has been invited to meetings and debate in different context: in the Experts Group, in the Member States and Institution MS/I Group and in the Urban Development Group UDG meetings.

Due to our limited resources we could not regularly attend as it would be necessary to have a strong impact on the initiative, but we have succeeded in submitting a thematic paper in September 2010 about urban quality indicators and detailed commentaries to the proposed set of indicators by December 2010.

I would like to underline that as the only representatives of the architectural and planning profession within the whole process the ACE is bearing a great responsibility in this process. Although our political weight is limited, our role can be key to success of the initiative and I felt that many of the participants to the RFSC drafting process welcomed the critical but constructive approach of our contribution.

We have 6 months to test and finalize the RFSC.

The questions to be answered in the testing phase are:

–       are the tools matching the cities’ needs?

–       are the overall goals of the RFSC met?

–       what can be the future of this webtool?

The final version of the RFSC Webtool will be presented in Poznan  in December 2011 and be available to all European cities as from 2012.

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