Looking Backwards And Forwards To The European Urban Forum

Sally Kneeshaw

By Sally Kneeshaw, on March 7th, 2014

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Some 700 people came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of urban areas where 80% of the EU population live. Leading politicians emphasized that EU policies must become more “urban-sensitive”, dealing with the urban economy (growth and jobs), the sustainability of the urban environment, social inclusion through more urban regeneration and improved links between the different levels of government. The Commission promised to continue the urban agenda and to organize Urban Forums every third year.

All this happened on 26-27 November 1998 in Vienna where the first Urban Forum was organized and the Sustainable Urban Development in the European Union: A Framework for Action (28.10.1998 COM/98/605 F) document was discussed. Almost 16 years later, on 17-18 February 2014 in Brussels the CITIES (Cities of Tomorrow: Investing in Europe)  conference took place. The Commission raised questions about the urban future and emphasized its openness to listen to ideas for a new Urban Agenda. Some of those with longer memories wondered what had happened in the intervening 16 years and why the efforts to raise the profile of cities had been unsuccessful?

The Urban Agenda Remains Cleft Between DGs

Commissioner Hahn acknowledged that the Urban Agenda started in 1998 but referred to ‘breaks’ in the process. Now he saw the opportunity to transfer this discussion into a permanent one, keeping the new momentum, which had started with the renaming of DG Regio to include ‘urban’ in its name.
Others were less optimistic. The representatives of the cities were again meeting separately from those of the urban related ministries who had a parallel meeting. Changing the name of one DG does not in itself reduce the separation of the EU DGs: urban, social, environmental, transport, energy, rural issues are still handled in independent silos of the EU bureaucracy and most of the money continues to be allocated along these lines. The ongoing economic and the growing social crisis would require changes in the EU policies but there are still few signs for real inclusion of the third sector, and national governments are reluctant to give more power to the cities even though this government level is the closest to the citizens.

However, as the saying goes, politics is the art of the possible, so, what will the new EU urban agenda look like? We know that in the new programming period, there will be a stronger focus on city investment. But what will this mean in practice? Why do we need an EU urban agenda? What will it encompass? How will it work in practice?

Several Messages From The Forum Speakers

These key questions ran through the two day Brussels event, with a myriad of discussions too numerous to capture in full here. But a few short messages relevant to URBACT cities that we took away from the keynote speakers were:

Joan Clos, former Mayor of Barcelona and Director General of UN Habitat warned that the urbanization model in the north of Europe is not going well, that we need to improve the rate of progress towards climate targets.

Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw, and President of Eurocities http://www.eurocities.eu/ talked about the unrealistic expectations of some regional leaders. “Too many airports and aquaparks have been funded by the EU, and we have to make smarter investments in future”.

Benjamin Barber, from the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, The City University of New York  and author of ‘If mayors ruled the world’,  stressed the human factor. “We sometimes forget that cities are where people live, love and die. They are not just an administrative area.”

Harry van Dorenmalen, Chairman, IBM Europe asked “What is the blocking factor that we don’t go faster?  Everyone is here. Trust me, you have the answers. Maybe it is about belief and conviction. Believe, work together.”

Martin Powell, Head of Urban Development, Siemens stressed the need for the stable governance which makes cities investor ready. He recommended that cities continue to optimise existing infrastructure, in order to buy time, and that within the next ten years we will find the right longer term solutions for the big investments.  In the meantime, cities can make use of simple tools. For instance in traffic management low emission zones improve air quality and bring a revenue stream.

Chris Vein , Chief Innovation Officer, World Bank urged cities to borrow best practices from business. “There is lots to be learnt from start-ups, such as small solutions. Take them to market, and enable the citizenry to become part of creating a better service/product. Better, cheaper, faster. Embed these processes into government.”

Finally, there was a clear message from many speakers that one of the best things the EU urban agenda can do is to help cities to share practices- exactly what URBACT is doing! Jan Olbrycht  , Member of the European Parliament, Chair of the Urban Intergroup reminded the Forum that what comes out of this exchange should be strong recommendations informing European policy “Do this and don’t do that”.

So one of our main conclusions from the Forum is that URBACT cities need to continue the good work of learning vital lessons towards sustainability. And perhaps we also need to up our game to improve the visibility of our results, and to make sure we share the benefits of our exchange to have stronger influence this EU urban agenda.

The Ball Is Rolling

Now, the ball is rolling – and is likely to accelerate at pace. Outgoing Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, concluded that the EU does need its own urban agenda, and he charged DG colleagues to produce an initial draft of this by the end of the year. He also confirmed the intention to establish the forum event – a platform for dialogue between the EU and cities – once a year.

In the meantime, how do we, as urban practitioners, get involved in this work?
Well, for a more detailed record of the two day Urban Forum you can go there. Also, if you have thoughts on the EU’s urban agenda, you can contribute to the debate via the following survey.
As urban issues cut across DGs, you will find relevant information on each of the websites, as well as on twitter and other social media platforms. In particular, the DG Regio and Urban website  and Twitter accounts are rich source of information.

And then of course there is URBACT. Initially, discussion of the commission’s interest in establishing an Urban Forum prompted questions about the future role of URBACT. However, it is clear that within its new programme (2014-2020), URBACT will have a pivotal role to play in these developments. So, we will aim to keep you in the picture, and look forward to our cities and stakeholders playing an active role in the EU urban agenda as it unfolds.

Sally Kneeshaw, Ivan Tosics and Eddy Adams
are URBACT Thematic Pole Managers and regular contributors to this blog.

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