Some 300 people came together in Copenhagen on 22-23 March at the Fifth European Summit of Regions and Cities. The Summit titled as “The European urban fabric in the 21st century” was organized by the Committee of the Regions (COR), partly for politicians (mayors and presidents of regions from EU countries), partly for leading architects, urban planners and researchers.
Many people criticize such large meetings saying that these are dominated by pompous but empty statements. With enough patience and open ears, however, interesting statements can be “angled out” from the ocean of words. The following aims to be a collection of statements which I found interesting.
In the opening speech of Mercedes Bresso, President of the Comity of the Regions (COR), strong words were used against the Urban Platform (which is one of the novelties planned by the Commissioner for the post 2013 Cohesion Policy regulation). The COR was unhappy about the idea that the Urban Platform would be organized for 300 nominated cities, emphasizing that this plan is not on terms with modern participation practices (open to all cities). According to Bresso’s view the European Parliament also shares these worries. These statements resembled a power game between two institutions (the COR and the Commission) regarding domination over the links to the European cities.
The political importance of the Summit could be seen from the presence and speech of José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission. In an unusually emotional speech Barroso urged for smart and green, sustainable and inclusive growth instead of artificial growth, fuelled by irresponsible financial behaviour. As metropolitan population (living in urban areas over 250 thousand people) makes up 59% of European population, urban areas have to play vital role in the fulfilment of the new types of growth targets. The knowledge based, resource efficient, carbon free economic development of the cities is of key importance, and must be in accordance with the positive valuse of the European model of urban development. Barroso argued strongly for the inclusion of the regional and local level into the discussions over the multi-annual financial framework, even if the national governments are reluctant towards this proposal. The audience could be very satisfied with the arguments used by the president of the Commission with the hope that these were not only compliments towards the regional and local leaders but real priorities to which the Commission will insist in the upcoming difficult negotiations about the future of Cohesion Policy.
While in the debate many COR members (from the regional level and rural areas) questioned or even opposed the accentuated role planned to be given to the urban areas, Jan Olbrycht, leader of the Urban Intergroup of the European Parliament emphasized the importance of the 5% as a special ringfencing for urban areas and made it clear that this should only be the minimum, i.e. the investments into cities should be much higher.
The second panel (and in my taste the thematically most interesting part of the meeting) was the debate about the involvement of the citizens in regional and local projects. The mayor of Bratislava described the euphoria of people 23 years ago, after the collapse of socialism. This euphoria has turned into apathy in the last years, due to many corruption cases people have lost their trust in elected politicians. Nowadays a new euphoria seems to develop among young people who argue for a new type of policy – they claim that participatory democracy has to be involved into decision making. The mayor of Ghent mentioned many types of social innovations, such as the employment of full time neighbourhood organizers, frequent neighbourhood debates, collection of locally suggested projects, etc. which are frequently and successfully used in his city. According to the mayor of Athens people argue much easier against something than to give positive opinion. It took a lot of work for the council to convince with arguments people about the need of underground parking in dense urban areas! The local leadership has to take enough time and efforts to inform, debate and convince people about new ideas to win their support. This is even more difficult in complex issues, such as area regeneration, where many strategic details have to be decided and it is much more difficult to take different interests and opinions into account. In his summary Simon Güntner expressed his reservations about direct democracy. In his view participative methods do not pay attention to many important aspects, to minority interests, to financial questions … these can only be discussed in the usual structure of political parties, as these represent certain interests (workers, middle class, etc.) . In his view the reactivation and modernization of party politics is needed.
Closing the conference Mercedes Bresso, President of the CoR, said that cities must be in the front line also in the efforts to change mindset about lifestyles and consumption; they present the lowest but finest level of solidarity.
URBACT Thematic Pole Manager