Cities, urban life and music: “An URBACT-inspired playlist ’bout the cities”


By URBACT, on June 13th, 2022

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In the run-up to #URBACTfest, sit back and enjoy this musical tour of urban Europe, from Daniele Terzariol, URBACT ad-hoc expert and Deputy Mayor of San Donà di Piave (IT).


The cities URBACT supports are complex realities and a source of design inspiration. They’re also often the starting point or the landing place for many artists. On the eve of URBACT’s first community appointment in person after two years of forced stop – the URBACT City Festival, in Pantin, Greater Paris, from 14 to 16 June 2022 – here below, we offer you a sound journey to discover some songs inspired by the cities, sealing an unprecedented parallelism between the themes connected to the extracted texts and the partnerships that have developed thanks to URBACT.

“An URBACT-inspired playlist ’bout the cities” can be reached and listened to at the following link: or by framing the QR-code on the page.


Arcade fire – The suburbs (from “The suburbs”, 2010, Mercury Records)

“In the suburbs, I
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving
You always seemed so sure”


The Canadians Arcade Fire produced this song, for their third album, recalling the uncontrolled expansion of the urban territory in the 1980s: these were years of bourgeois aspirations, of terraced houses, of serial subdivisions. And they make, of this picture, a metaphor of malaise, of an existence devoted to the capitalist race that’s destined to cease, but also of an unrepeatable age, which, for them, coincides with a glittering adolescence. From the text emerges clear images of years spent in the gentrified residential area, between the park, the market and the schoolyard. There’s a sense of an ending and melancholy, which is perhaps also the conclusion of an era and a social class, of an economy and its homes. “The Suburbs” is a concept album dedicated to the outskirts, the sprawl and the decadence of the urban designs of the city.

URBACT supports the sustainable regeneration of urban voids, neighbourhoods and cities in search of their own identity, bringing together stakeholders and administrations, and adopting urban planning experiments through placemaking, for a more sustainable development. Some examples? The iPlace, Thriving Streets and Tourism Friendly Cities networks.


Kevin Morby – City music (from “City music”, 2017, Dead Oceans)

“Oh, that city music
Oh, that city sound
Oh, how you’re pulling my heart strings and
Oh, let’s go downtown”


Kevin Morby’s City Music represents what we hear when walking through the city, alone, lost in our personal world. It’s a piece that starts out intimate but opens up in new-wave breaths. The album is a kind of soundtrack of cities, beyond urban noises, it’s the story of how city centres are crossed by the sound they themselves produce, by a long, pulsating, ‘dangling’ music. The cities of Morby are alive, each with its own natural vibration, each with a discernible sound.

Music can be a strong driver of social change and inclusion. For example, the OnStage project was born from this awareness, led by the municipality of Hospitalet de Llobregat (ES); the project offered the inhabitants of Hospitalet the opportunity to access music courses for beginners, involving primary schools and creating a space for social cohesion. This helps address local problems such as exclusion, youth unemployment and early school leaving. Thanks to URBACT, this good practice was exported to other municipalities across the EU, including Adelfia, in Italy, where the ‘Music’n’play’ initiative took root.

(an octet of strings, winds, and French horn performing in a street; photo by Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

M83 – Midnight city (from “Hurry up, we’re dreaming”, 2011, Emi Records)

“Waiting in the car
Waiting for the ride in the dark
At night the city grows
Look at the horizon glow
Waiting in the car
Waiting for the ride in the dark
Drinking in the lounge
Following the neon signs
Waiting for a word”


M83 is a French band of six elements, performers of a perfect dream-synth-pop. Midnight city is one of the best episodes of the album “Hurry up, we’re dreaming” and tells of a night-time journey through the city, in a suspended time in which many of the inhabitants of the city rest while others, instead, live the nightspots that dot the sidewalks, illuminated by neon signs, dazzling with light. The song reminds us that every city takes on many guises and behaves differently, once the sun has gone down over the horizon.

The city of creative fun and the nightlife are themes developed by the URBACT Gen_Y City network: in recent decades, young people have increasingly chosen to live in urban areas, while the percentage of elderly residents in cities has generally decreased. However, the impact of wage levels and different unemployment rates in Europe have led young people to move mainly to large cities. In this sense, Gen_Y City has tried to develop, attract and keep young local talents, in particular the creative talents of Generation Y (i.e., people born between 1980 and 2000) within cities of all sizes. The policies of the night are also at the center of the UIA ToNite project, led by the city of Turin and funded as part of the fourth call of the programme on Urban Security, born from the desire to analyse urban social phenomena deriving from the perception of insecurity, to address them through multidisciplinary solutions aimed at improving the liveability of public spaces in the evening and at night.


Matt Berninger – Take me out of town (from “Serprentine prison, 2020, Concorde Records)

“Wake me
Take me out of town to the end
Of any road that you wanna go down
Make me
Make me listen all the way
To the end of any road”


Berninger is the leader and the frontman of one of the best bands around, the Americans The National. Berninger doesn’t know pauses and, in a year in which the group has decided to stop, he has produced “Serpentine prison“, a solo album of ballads and authorial stories that start light and flourish slowly. Take me out of town is perhaps the highest moment of the album and also the most derivative from the sound of The National. Matt Berninger, decadent, existentialist and always perfectly elegant, bases this song on the piano that takes us outside the safe walls of a house, to walk along the sidewalks that lead to the borders of each city.

Discovering the suburban realities and walking towards the outer perimeter of the city brings us closer to corridors and green belts, ecosystemic places of animal and plant life. Places where food for human consumption is also produced and processed. The green transition and the policies to fight against climate change ask for a general rethinking of the production chain and to promote a transition towards to local and regional food systems. The URBACT FOOD CORRIDORS network encourages its partner cities to engage in the design of food plans that extend from urban and peri-urban areas through urban-rural connections. This approach enhances the generation of places of production and consumption based on economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Another example? The good practice BEE PATH, an URBACT Transfer Network, whose logic is very simple: bees are the best indicator of a healthy environment. The ‘bee-friendly cities’ project addresses the challenges of biodiversity and food self-sufficiency related to beekeeping through integrated and participatory approaches, to develop and implement efficient solutions useful for maintaining healthy environments.

And finally, another Transfer Network, called BioCanteens#2 aims to guarantee the distribution of sustainable school meals in the participating cities as a key lever for the development of an integrated local agri-food approach, protecting both the health of citizens and the environment.

(beekeeping as a way to promote urban biodiversity; photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Talking heads – The big country (from “More songs about buildings and food”, 1978, Sire Records)

“I see the whitecaps
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there
I see the school and the houses where the kids are
Places to park by the factories and buildings
Restaurants and bar for later in the evening
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas
And I have learned how these things work together
I see the parkway that passes through them all
And I have learned how to look at these things”


The metropolitan pulsations of Brian Eno’s band emerge energetically in this 1978 episode. It’s the first masterpiece of Talking Heads, precursors of the new-wave phenomenon. The flickering and almost psychedelic landscapes of the song describe the elements of a bustling city, extended, dense and full of visual stimuli. It’s also the city of contradictions, it’s the city/countryside cleavage of Rokkan’s theory, the one of social fractures and peripheral tensions. But it’s also the city of resources to be renewed, re-used and converted.

Global Goals for Cities is a pilot network and strategic partnership aimed at accelerating progress towards achieving the SDGs of the Agenda 2030 in 19 EU cities, through peer learning and integrated action planning. The Action Planning Network URGE, which takes its letters from ‘circUlaR buildinG citiEs’, promotes actions supporting the circular economy in the construction sector, one of the main sectors for the consumption of raw materials. URGE brings together nine cities and their stakeholders to learn from each other to develop integrated urban policies that support the circular economy in construction, contributing to the development and birth of sustainable cities.


The Rolling Stones – Living in a ghost town (single, 2020, Polydor Records)

“I’m a ghost
Livin’ in a ghost town
I’m goin’ nowhere
Shut up all alone
So much time to lose
Just starin’ at my phone”


There’s no need for long-winded descriptions to frame The Rolling Stones phenomenon. Jagger’s band bastes this track during the 2020 lockdown after drafting the lyrics in a pre-Covid session of the group. Living in a ghost town is a blues-rock track, with funky, rhythmic inserts, a little hymn for who wants to free from distancing measures. As the text of the song reveals, where before the noise of the city dominated, now, in the time of the forced stalemate, silence and calm reign, in a situation of crystallised unreality that reminds us of De Chirico’s paintings of Italian city-scapes.

(Giorgio De Chirico, Mystery and melancholy of a street, girl with a circle, 1960, Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome)

The recovery of post-Covid cities will pass through cultural actions and activities that bring the population back to live the public space. This is also one of the aims of the Access network for which culture plays a prominent role in finding solutions to the complex problems of urban metropolises. Eight European capitals collaborate on inclusive cultural policies to give and create culture for and with all citizens, guaranteeing maximum access to it. Space4People, another Transfer Network led by Bielefeld (DE) dealt with the use of public space, working in particular on the theme of local public transport, an important tool for connecting cities, freeing them from the massive use of cars and leaving spaces for progressive pedestrianisation of historic centres, to create attractive places in the city and a sustainable urban mobility programme to support these public spaces. Space4People adopts a citizen-centred approach by evaluating potentials and scarcities, developing future visions and testing possible solutions for public space in our cities. A space that needs to be truly human-sized.

The sound journey continues here:

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Cover photo: aerial view of rows of houses in suburban Centerville, Maryland; photo by Edwin Remsberg/Remsberg Inc.

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