How can we boost economic development?


By URBACT, on February 22nd, 2013

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There is certainly no straightforward and simple answer to this question. Anyone who had an answer like this would have found the philosopher’s stone (a legendary alchemy substance said to be capable of turning base metals into gold). Nevertheless, partner cities from URBACT OP-ACT project met in Altena a few months ago and discussed issues of economic stabilisation. Most partner cities are not only challenged by demographic change and ageing, but also by shrinking due to economic decline in recent years – in some cases in recent decades. Globalisation, structural economic change and dependency in many small and medium sized cities on only a few industries, their mono-structural economy, are the basis for their vulnerability.

This analysis led to insights which enabled participating cities at least to take one first step towards answering the question above.

  • A table with only one or even two legs is rather unstable . Urban economies need diversification.
  • Cities need to make efforts which will be sustainable and off er good prospects for the future for development and investment in economic fields. It does not make too much sense to put effort into economic fields where Europe cannot compete any more with newly industrialising or developing countries.

However, the fact that we know what not to do does not by any means mean we know what we should do. And at this point it gets more difficult to provide general answers to the question posed at the beginning. Answers to this kind of question depend so much on the specific situation of a particular city. For one city it may be possible, because of its natural landscape, or else its historical and cultural possibilities, to develop the tourism sector in a promising way. Other cities, on the other hand, may make use of higher educational institutions, e.g. universities, in order to stimulate innovation moves in the city economy. Whether a city is able to expand its function as a central location, e.g. that of supplying the rural area, depends in a crucial way on its hinterland. Many cities are trying to be active in the field of creative and cultural industries (CCI) in order to broaden their economic basis. Yet in this field too, the prospects for success depend on the particular situation. Furthermore, in this field small and medium-size cities are in competition with larger cities and metropolises, which are probably more appealing for the majority of creative workers.

Examples and case studies for these – and further – potential ideas were discussed in Altena. Although we did not manage to find the philosopher’s stone, or to find answers to the challenge of economic decline in the form of a ‘recipe’ or of cookery book, nevertheless, a whole bundle of principles and fields of action was identified which are in a position to support economic stabilisation or even growth. The most important ideas and fields are the following:

  • In a changing economic w orld, new skills are needed. This can already be supported for instance in schools by business and entrepreneurship training activities.
  • New forms of cooperation are needed. Platforms for this can be provided by cities.
  • One-stop agencies, stable and simple regulations and other easy-access suppor t measures can create an environment which attracts investors.
  • Support measures must be tailored to the recipients. Young entrepreneurs, for instance, can be suppor ted by offering inexpensive and simple office space and infrastructur e.
  • Living conditions, the urban atmosphere, the school situation and other “soft” factors can har dly be over-estimated for investor decision making. Urban economic policies are therefore per se integrated policies. Many different departments and professions need to be included in decision making. A further important principle, possibly the most important, is to include people into urban policy and decision making. P ublic participation is a key. Or, as one of the participants put it: “Doing things with people, rather than doing things for people is the key to success.”

As an example of the latter principle, not only was there a specific case study from Nagykallo presented – the renovation of a swimming pool with very little money through citizen self-help. The host city of Altena itself is an excellent example here: a couple of years ago, the whole pedestrian zone was renovated through citizens’ self-help. This was not only “priming the pump” for a wide range of further citizen activities, self-help and self-reliance. It also forms the basis for the city’s current economic strategy, e.g. to attract tourists. And this is nearly as good as finding the philosopher’s stone.

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Hanns-Uve Schwedler
OP-ACT Lead Expert

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