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New Perspectives of European Urban Policies

June 29, 2012

Often the walks I do and the pictures I take and publish on this blog are made at the fringes of some conference or meeting I am invited to attend. In the case of the last posts about Zagreb, the occasion was given by the International Scientific Conference Rethinking Urbanism, (Zagreb May 19th 2012) a very interesting international symposium where I discussed the Working Paper below.

The title of the paper – New Perspectives of European Urban Policies – refers to the current negotiations of European cohesion policy, of which Urban Policies are an increasingly important dimension, in a time when Croatia is becoming the 28th EU member State.  I am aware that my paper is rather general, but this reflects the uncertainty of these policies for which the EU has no formal competence in the Treaties, but a longstanding experience on the ground.  I hope some of the ideas behind my presentation may be of some interest for the few readers of this blog.

European Urbanisation Trends

Europe is largely urbanised: 75% of the population lives in urban areas and this share is expected to rise to 80% by 2020. Urbanisation happens not only in and around cities but more and more between them generating the so called metropolitan areas or ‘urban functional areas’.

Besides quantitative surveys several differentiated drivers influence the quality of process and the patterns of urbanisation: provision of services and infrastructure, land prices in and outside the cities, location of economic activities, housing policies, planning systems, demographic changes, lifestyles, etc. These factors can lead to high density and compact urban centres, but also to low density developments on former greenfields.

All the above mentioned factors influencing urban development are linked to the ‘urban performance’ which encompasses quality of life in the cities, their competitiveness and capacity to attract (and retain) investment and skilled people on the global market, their role as drivers of innovation and sustainable economic development etc. Indeed some cities in Europe are performing very well, they are becoming more attractive and growing. Others lose competitiveness and population (shrinking cities).

Key questions to be addressed at EU Institutions are:

  • What can the EU do to guarantee each European city the same chances and opportunities?
  • How can we foster a balanced polycentric development  in all European regions?
  • Can the EU play a stronger role to promote the European compact city model against the American green suburbia model?

Urbanisation as such can be seen as a positive and negative factor for sustainable development under social, economic and environmental point of view.

Compact cities require less transport, they support effective public transport; they use (and seal) less land and help to avoid flooding; they safeguard areas for food production and leisure in their surrounding, etc. On the other side high density may cause problems of noise and air pollution, green areas within the city might be rare, causing heat islands and high concentration of PM10.

Good town planning and urban design can provide high quality built environment in the compact city, however, it needs strong political support and favourable economic conditions to cope with the attraction that still many citizens have for living in a suburban low density built environment with easy access to (private) green space, low levels of noise and pollution and the illusion of ‘living green’.

Cities have the potential to influence the level of quality of life of citizens by soft and hard measures, e.g.:

  • providing essential services in all cities’ neighbourhoods in walking distance (10 minutes city)
  • enhancing quality of urban planning and design,
  • integrating land use and transport planning
  • managing deprived areas
  • investing in public mobility, cycle lanes, etc
  • having long term vision on land planning
  • calming apartment prices through effective housing policies
  • managing interaction between the city and its hinterland, other cities and regions
  • providing incentives for more sustainable lifestyles

On the other side urban development is also driven by European and global factors that may be out of reach for the municipal administration. In this case European Cohesion policies can provide a valuable contribution to integrate local policy and create attractive and sustainable cities in a wider perspective.

In some case European policies may also be responsible for unsustainable development, for instance when contributing to economic competitiveness and growth of cities (e.g. financing roads and other transport infrastructure or the physical regeneration of brownfields) without considering environmental and social needs at a broader scale (missing integrated approach). A higher share of private cars, new roads as well as low prices for agricultural land and detaxation for building investments have largely contributed to urban sprawl. European territorial policy favours a polycentric development and balanced relationship between city and countryside, but European policies not always contributed this targets.

European Policies and Urban Development

Besides their own actions and developments cities are faced with many changes and challenges driven by sources outside their reach – financial globalisation, demographic changes, migrations, consequences of new international relationships like EU-enlargement or the ‘Islamic spring’ in north Africa and in the Middle East, the impacts of climate change, with extreme weather events getting more and more often, rising sea level, heat waves, etc.

Many EU policies affect directly or indirectly these challenges and thus the situation of cities and towns. One of the first and most important policies in this direction was the Transeuropean Transport policy (TENT-T) financing the European Railway Corridors with the aim to improve accessibility for peripheral areas. But at the same time this attempt could be seen as encouraging longer commuting distances and therefore again urban sprawl or even endangering local communities.The case of the high capacity rail connection between Lyon and Torino should be always on our mind and especially in the minds of European decision makers.

The EU policies influencing urban development are in particular market-building policies (e.g. liberalisation of the energy-market), market–correcting policies (Cohesion policy – territorial cooperation policies), market-cushioning policies (e.g. environmental protection – Noise Directive, Air Quality Directive), energy policies (Energy Performance of Buildings Directive).

The institutional discourse about urban issues at European level was launched by the Commission in 1997 with the Communication “Towards an Urban Agenda”. This document states not only that towns and cities encapsulate all the fundamental problems of European society, but that they hold the key to increasing quality of life. It soon became clear that EU policies can promote more effective responses to the social, economic and environmental challenges in urban areas and that they can significantly assist the development of networks and know-how as well as the exchange and capitalisation of experiences.

In 1998 the Commission adopted the Communication ‘Sustainable Urban Development in the European Union: A Framework for Action’ which became the focal point of the first Urban Forum held in Vienna in the same year.

In 1999 the ‘European Spatial Development Perspective’ was adopted and the first Pilot Project on Urban Areas showed first positive results opening the way to the well known Community Initiative Programmes Urban (1999-2006) and Urban II (2007-2013)

The key principles of these Programmes were distilled in the Urban Aquis, a document compiled by an informal network of European cities who benefited from the first Urban Programmes. That document was adopted in the Informal Meeting of Ministers responsible for Urban Development in Rotterdam 2004. The same principles were reinforced and reformulated in the conclusions of the British Presidency, the so called Bristol Accord on Sustainable Communities (2005) and in the Leipzig Charta on Sustainable European Cities (2007) under German Presidency. The Leipzig Charta was officially signed by the responsible Ministers who committed to their implementation in the Member States. In Marseille (2008) and Toledo (2010) , under French and Spanish Presidency, this committment was renewed and it was agreed to produce a Reference Framework for the European Sustainable City, a web-tool which has already been tested in 66 European Cities and is entering the implementation phase.

The principles of sustainable urban development have been the subject of many declarations and initiatives at European level in the last 2 decades, and they have been widely enforced by Cities at local level. European cities show a growing awareness and common understanding of their role and have initiated several initiatives to achieve sustainability in urban areas – Local Agenda 21 and Aalborg processes, Covenant of Mayors, several networks working together on topics such as healthy cities, e-governance, sharing knowledge and producing guidelines, case studies, good practice etc.


There is also an increasing awareness regarding the manifold interlinkages between the local level and the European level and in between the regional and national level. Most important is the direct local implementation of EU regulations at national level and the implementation of European Funding schemes (ERDF and ESF) at regional level. On the other hand cities find also increasingly strategies to bypass the nation-states (and their bureaucracy) starting to cooperate with each other to exchange information and best practice which adds a horizontal governance dimension between European urban areas.

Current European policy at all levels sees the cities mostly as single entities ignoring the European dimension as a result of all the single city actions. The Thematic Strategy on Urban Environment (2006) has been an important step towards a more sustainable and integrated approach of the European policies related to urban development, but it still considers “just” single cities action, what alone is not yet sufficient for a more efficient European urban policy. The Leipzig Charta (2007) states that “We must stop looking at urban development policy issues and decisions at the level of each city in isolation.”

Currently cities exchange information and share best practice but joint and concerted action, e.g. to reduce a certain amount of greenhouse gases as their contribution to national and European climate change strategies is not yet enough widespread. We rarely have clear data on cities current contribution to greenhouse gases and so their potential to reduce it and support national and EU climate change policy. Addressing only single cities ignores also the fact that cities nowadays tend to compete against each other on limited resources (like taxpayers, enterprises or development funds) leading to contra-productive effects and inefficient resource use.

Several EU and local policies require the ‘integrated approach’: a.o. the Thematic Strategy on Urban Environment, EU Territorial Agenda, Leipzig Charta, Cohesion policy guidelines, the URBACT Programme. Again in the Leipzig Charta we find that “Every level of government – local, regional, national and European has a responsibility for the future of our cities.” The manifold interlinkages between the local level and the European and in between the regional and national level have to be managed appropriately. There are several ways how the local and European level interact: the direct local implementation of EU regulations via the national level, city strategies to bypass the national and regional level and take directly influence at the European level and cooperation among the cities in twinning or transnational city-networks (like Eurocities) which leads to an Europeanisation of urban areas. So, there are several governance approaches interlinked and supplementing each other necessary.

The Urban Dimension of EU Territorial Cohesion Policy 2014-2020

On October 6, 2011, the European Commission adopted a draft legislative package that will frame EU cohesion policy for the period 2014-2020. The Commission proposed a number of important changes to the way cohesion policy is designed and implemented, namely:

  • concentrating on the Europe 2020 Strategy’s priorities of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth;
  • rewarding performance;
  • supporting integrated programming;
  • focusing on results – monitoring progress towards agreed objectives;
  • reinforcing territorial cohesion;
  • simplifying delivery.

This follows the adoption by the Commission in June 2011, of a proposal for the next multi-annual financial framework for the same period: a budget for delivering the Europe 2020 Strategy. In its proposal, the Commission decided that cohesion policy should remain an essential element of the next financial package and underlined its pivotal role in delivering the Europe 2020 Strategy.

The total proposed budget for the period 2014-2020 will be EUR 376 billion, including funding for the new Connecting Europe Facility, which is designed to enhance cross-border projects in energy, transport and information technology.

The legislative architecture for cohesion policy comprises:

  • an overarching regulation setting out common rules for the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), the Cohesion Fund, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), and further general rules for the ERDF, ESF and Cohesion Fund;
  • three specific regulations for the ERDF, the ESF and the Cohesion Fund; and
  • two regulations on the European territorial cooperation goal and the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC).

The Commission’s 2014-2020 cohesion policy proposals aim to support the strategic coordination of urban policies to enhance sustainable urban development and strengthen the role of cities in the EU’s main investment policy. Furthermore the creation of a ‘Urban Development Platform’ will promote capacity building and the exchange of urban experience at EU level.

What is proposed in the future policy for urban development?

Ring-fencing funding for integrated sustainable urban development: A minimum 5% of resources from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in each Member State shall be invested, in coordinated actions that will deliver long term, energy efficient and innovative city development. Management and implementation will be delegated to cities, to varying degrees, depending on the institutional arrangements of each Member State.

A single investment strategy: EU structural funds should support urban development through strategies that tackle together the economic, environmental, climate and social challenges of urban areas. Member States are asked to combine investments from different sources to support measures related to employment, education, social inclusion and improving institutional capacity. These will be designed and implemented in line with a single investment strategy.


Innovative urban actions: the Commission proposes to allocate part of the budget (0.2% of the ERDF allocation) for financing innovative actions in urban areas. The innovative urban actions shall be urban pilot projects, demonstration projects and related studies of European interest. They may be focused on any policy area as long as they deliver on one of the Europe 2020 goals.


Urban Development Platform: On the basis of lists of cities proposed by Member States the Commission will establish a platform to stimulate direct dialogue between cities themselves and with the Commission . The platform is not a funding instrument but a way for cities to share feedback on the use of the new approaches.


The Commission proposals give for the first time an explicit “urban” dimension to EU policies. Based on the “Cities of Tomorrow” report by DG Regio, the proposed cohesion policy relies upon the territorialisation of urban development issues, aiming at the creation of local jobs, the fight against fuel poverty and finally a better quality of life for the citizens.

The four above mentioned proposals can be a real innovation in European Urban policies, but there is the need of

  • the highest possible degree of transparency in the funding criteria (which project is funded?),
  • monitoring and publicising of the expenditures (is funding used in appropriate way?)
  • allowing sufficient flexibility in the management of the funds and create synergies between the different funds (is EU funding invested in the most effective way?)
  • earmarking in each fund part of the budget for technical assistance used by beneficiaries to prepare high quality and bankable projects (do all cities and regions have the same easy access to ERDF?)
  • involving national associations of local authorities  in the preparation of the Partnership Contracts and the Operational Programmes (are cities really involved in shaping EU cohesion policies?)
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