Cities and Sustainability within EU policy-making

By Laura Martelloni and Vasilis Niaros, P2P Lab

The European Union has a long history of sustaining and supporting sustainable development in urban areas. EU urban policy emerged in 1987 as a response to environment-related concerns, and largely looked at urban areas as contexts of both social and environmental degradation.

Globally, the UN Rio Conference of 1992 - the first Earth Summit ever held - heavily contributed to the shift from understanding cities as sources of major problems, to seeing cities as contexts of meaningful responses. Since then, the topic of sustainable urban development has increasingly informed both the general debate and political agendas across the globe, paving the way to a period of vitality and momentum around the urban matter.

Although urban planning does not fall under the EU policy competence, the topic of territorial development started to shape significantly the European strategies for sustainable development and growth since the 2000s. The Cohesion Policy acts as the main driver for boosting harmonious and homogeneous development in all Member States and regions.

Ever since, growing attention and investment over urban areas across structural and investment funds, has materialised in pioneering initiatives such as URBAN I and URBAN II (1994-2006), the European Capital of Culture, the European Green Capital Award or the Covenant of Mayors. All of them witness the extent to which the urban matter gets more and more recognized as a strategic priority across sectoral policies. Furthermore, the Treaty of Lisbon also contributed to reinforce the territorial dimension of the cohesion policy, calling for development strategies which are able to take into account place-specific needs, strengths and opportunities.

The debate promoted by the European Commission in the context of the 'Cities of Tomorrow' initiative in 2010 has contributed to the development of a true 'European urban policy'. Through a series of workshops and wide stakeholder consultation, the initiative brought about the attention on the key principles and characteristics of a shared 'European' model of sustainable urban development: the city of the future shall be socially advanced and cohesive, highly inclusive and accessible, respectful of diversities, based on democracy, as well as a place of high quality of life and welfare, good housing and services, environmental regeneration, innovation and growth. All these principles earmark the main steps of the European Union project itself, as they take into account both foundational acts such as the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as the progress achieved through urban-related policy acts such as the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (2007), the Toledo Declaration on Urban Regeneration (2010), and the Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (2011).

The urban dimension plays a fundamental role in Europe 2020 strategy. Cities are considered strategic contexts for achieving most of the Strategy's ambitious targets for the 2014-2020 programming period. The revised regulation on structural funds foresees that at least 5% of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) shall address the topic of sustainable urban development, via integrated and holistic actions accounting for multiple economic, social, environmental and demographic challenges that cities have ahead. Programmes such as URBACT III and Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) have been launched to support cross-cities cooperation and development of bold solutions to common problems. Furthermore, initiatives such as the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) and EIT's Knowledge and Innovation Communities (many of them addressing directly the urban dimension) provide cities with the unique opportunity to operate in an international, multi-sectoral community, committed to knowledge sharing and collective capacity-building towards sustainable change. Lastly, we shall not forget the key role played by Horizon 2020's (one of the largest public investment programmes in research and innovation ever) role in driving cities' innovation, with dedicated streams of funding covering a variety of topics and sectors.

The Pact of Amsterdam (European commission 2017b) marks, to date, the most recent effort towards the achievement of a European policy for sustainable urban development. It was born from a series of informal meetings between the Ministers responsible for urban matters, the Commission, other EU institutions and relevant stakeholder organizations and cities' networks. The pact establishes the Urban Agenda for the EU, which kick-started a new period of reflection and action around urban matters, and opened the way to new working methods, rooted heavily in multi-level and polycentric forms of governance. One of the key objectives of the Agenda is to empower cities in playing an active role throughout the development of relevant EU policies, while fostering coordination and collaboration across all governmental levels. This shall in turn contribute to 'better regulation, better funding, better knowledge', as key preconditions for anticipating changes and allowing cities to implement more effective strategies. So far, the Agenda has identified 12 priority themes and built as many Thematic Partnerships (i.e. - 1. Inclusion of migrants and refugees; 2. Air quality; 3. Urban poverty; 5. Housing; 6. Circular economy; 7. Jobs and skills; 8. Climate adaptation; 9. Energy transition; 10. Sustainable use of land and nature-based solutions; 11. Urban mobility; 12. Digital transition). These themes are, in turn, constituted by variable geometries of cities, Member States and stakeholders across Europe. The Partnerships are in charge of developing specific Action Plans for each theme covered, in order to 'analyse challenges and bottlenecks and recommend focused, concrete and implementable actions' (European Commission 2017b).

Partnerships' work will be crucial in informing the next 2021-2027 programming period, as well as in guiding cities towards the achievement of the Agenda 2030 goals. The new cohesion policy will offer enhanced opportunities to cities, empowering local authorities in the management of funds, supporting place and people-based development strategies, international networking and capacity-building, also via a dedicated European Urban Initiative. This initiative will aim at strengthening integrated and participatory approaches to sustainable urban development, providing a stronger link to relevant EU policies, in particular, cohesion policy investments. It will do so by facilitating and supporting cooperation and capacity building of urban actors, innovative actions, knowledge, policy development and communication in the area of sustainable urban development.

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