A postcard from the SS Rotterdam: Reflection on the 2017 Cities Forum

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on December 4th, 2017

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Memory’s a funny thing. Sometimes, after moderating big events, I remember almost nothing of the detailed discussions. It’s as if the intensity of the exchange is so much that nothing sticks. Or maybe inside my head it has nothing to stick to! But, just back from moderating the 2017 EU Cities Forum in Rotterdam, my head’s stuffed full of content. What’s going on?

Two years ago in Brussels it was all very different. Back then, cities and other urban actors came together to discuss quite abstract existential questions. Do we need an urban agenda for the EU? What would an urban agenda for the EU look like? Who will do what? It all felt very philosophical and introspective. A bit fuzzy.

Fast forward to 2017 and it’s all more tangible. As Mayor Aboutaleb reminded us, it needs to be, given the pressing problems our cities face. But at least we have twelve Urban Agenda Partnerships up and running. Four of them are finalising action plans with another four in the pipeline. These partnerships are generating tangible ways to get better regulation, better funding and better knowledge sharing across the EU.

No one would say that this has been a smooth ride. Normunds Poppens, DG Regio Deputy Director, was right to point out that this it’s a disruptive and innovative process. We’re learning by doing. We’re also learning by talking and listening. The partnerships provide a space for the multi-level dialogue that needs to take place if we’re going to tackle the wicked issues our cities face.

But how do cities feel about this? Is the Urban Agenda giving them more a chance to shape and influence decisions? Our audience poll at the event suggested that although we’re moving in the right direction, there’s still work to do here. Cities may be at the table, but they need to feel that they are shaping the agenda more than they do now, as Anna-Lisa Boni from Eurocities pointed out.

Another big step in the right direction was around the global agenda. Compared to this year, the 2015 Cities Forum seemed like Europe talking to itself. In Rotterdam, we had the UN Habitat’s Agenda 2030 at the heart of our discussions. It was as if someone had opened a window on the world, confirming that cities increasingly face the same issues. The old unhelpful divisions between the ‘sustainable development’ and ‘urban development’ agendas have been blown away.


Clearly, the scope for international exchange and learning is enormous, rooted in the understanding that this is a two way street. Europe’s cities have as much to learn from say, cities in South America, as vice-versa. I’ve discovered this form my own work in Colombia, South Korea and India. The EU’s International Urban Cooperation is an innovative new platform to help broker this further.

There are many benefits of that wider global discussion. One is exposure to radical and challenging ideas. Anticipating future developments in Europe through a global perspective, Joan Clos from UN Habitat spoke about the need for municipal and community ownership of energy. Closer to home, Tanja Wehsely, Vienna counselor, argued for more long term strategic planning and higher levels of public investment. Several speakers referred to the need for a new paradigm in our cities.

Jose Manuel Calvo, Deputy mayor of Madrid, was one of them, and he underlined the work his city is doing to actively involve citizens in decision-making. Through mechanisms like participatory budgets – which feature prominently in URBACT’s recently nominated good practices– city governance is being rewired.


All of this comes back to values, principles and priorities. The recent Cohesion Policy report reminds us that although the 2008 Crisis is behind us, it continues to cast a long shadow. Public investment levels remain below those of 2008. Inequalities are widening. Youth unemployment levels remain stubbornly high in many parts of Europe. Growing numbers of citizens struggle to afford to live in our cities. We have big decisions ahead.

Can the UN Habitat 2030 Agenda help inform this? As ever, it is a matter of priorities. It was De Maistre who said that in democracies, people get the governments they deserve. Well, we might also say that citizens get the cities they deserve. If we have learned anything in recent years it is that nothing is inevitable. We can create and shape the cities we want in future. But first we must decide what our priorities are.


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