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Cities and good practice: lessons from the URBACT transfer pilots

Edited on

09 October 2017
Read time: 8 minutes

Rumours of the death of good practice have been exaggerated

There is a growing consensus that the planet’s future stands or falls on the ability of cities to tackle the chronic problems facing us. Two related factors drive this opinion. The first is the fact that we are now an urban species, with over 50% of the global population living in city areas (72% in Europe), with a trend towards even higher levels of urban concentration. The second is the growing cities’ focus on confronting the key global issues like climate change, employment and poverty[1].

Consequently, it is no surprise to note the rising interest in peer-to-peer platforms which encourage and support the transfer of good urban practices. In a context where many cities are seeking to address growing challenges with diminished resources, the opportunity to learn from peers is highly attractive. Why risk wasting precious resources reinventing the wheel, when another city might already have taken steps to solve the problem you face? Taking urban transport as an example, in the past decade we have seen serial replication of bike-sharing schemes, of the Medellin Metrocable model and of the Bus Rapid Transfer (BRT) system in cities like Lagos and Bogota.

Yet, although some 70% of the world’s cities are said to be engaged in some form of peer-to-peer information exchange, transfer of good practice between cities is not that simple. In a seminal article in 2013 Christian Bason  declared that the identification of good practice was a cul-de-sac. In his argument, he despaired at the ever-piling compendia of recorded good practice, and questioned the extent to which these impacted upon wider practice.

Bason identified two key barriers to wider transfer. The first was attitudinal – a reluctance to import solutions from elsewhere due to ingrained introspection and what we’d call a ‘not invented here’ syndrome. The other was due to a lack of capacity – particularly within the public sector, where staff often lacked the tools and expertise required to implement practice developed elsewhere.

As the EU’s learning and exchange programme for cities, URBACT is focused on both of these two issues. Sharing effective practice between cities while equipping stakeholders to generate and implement effective sustainable urban solutions is our core business.

Towards the end of the URBACT II Programme we launched a suite of Transfer pilot projects, in order to explore a new way to support peer-to-peer learning amongst cities. We wanted to test the feasibility of a new type of URBACT network, built around the potential transfer of an established example of effective city practice or policy. Our core interests of exchange and capacity building were at the heart of these pilots.

This article follows URBACT’s learning journey through this process. It will examine the key lessons drawn from the experience, paying particular attention to those which are shaping the new programme model. In conclusion, we will set out the next steps in our commitment to supporting the transfer of good practice amongst Europe’s cities.

[1] See, for example, Rockefeller Foundation Resilient Cities and Benjamin Barbour If Mayors Ruled the World



Food social innovation

The URBACT Transfer pilot projects

The URBACT programme has an established network model where groups of cities collaborate on a shared theme over a thirty-month period. With one city operating as the Lead Partner, the entry point for such networks is a shared problem. Usually, cities within the network will be at different stages in relation to addressing the problem.  The concept is one of multilateral activity to produce a set of shared results as well as those developed at local level – primarily in the form of Local Action Plans (LAPs).

Within these Action-Planning Networks (APNs) as we now call them, there have been examples of cities transferring practice. Yet, these have been bi-products of the collaborative activity, rather than the main focus. So, the Transfer Network concept was new for URBACT in that:

  • It identifies one city as the ‘giving’ city, with a good practice case that is potentially replicable elsewhere
  • The outputs were not LAPs, but were focused on the extent to which the good practice was transferred

In September 2013 URBACT issued a call for pilot proposals. This required cities to identify an example of good practice which was well-established, evidenced and which had transfer potential. The programme approved six transfer pilot projects, details of which are set out in the table below:


Giving City



Diet for a Green Planet

Sodertalje (S)

Using public food procurement to stimulate healthy eating and reduce carbon emissions

Mollet Del Valles



Gastronomic Cities

Burgos (ES)

Using gastronomy as a focal point for urban economic development



Alba Iulia


Genius Open

York (UK)

Development of an open innovation tool to engage city stakeholders in problem solving

San Sebastian



Healthy Ageing Cities

Udine (I)

Development of city policy to improve planning for and with older people

Grand Poitiers


Brighton and Hove



Rome (I)

Establishment of an agency to promote temporary use of vacant public buildings

Alba Iulia


Placemaking for Cities (P4C)

Dun Laoghaire (IR)

Participative approaches to placemaking




On reflection, we can categorise these six projects into two groupings. The first focuses on a policy/ecosystem which is applied across the entire city and it includes Healthy Ageing Cities, Gastronomic Cities and Diet for a Green Planet. The second group is one that has developed a methodology for dealing with a particular city problem. This includes Genius Open, P4C and TUTUR.  Later in this article we reflect further on these two groupings.

Although the pilots operated within the framework, principles and rules of the URBACT programme, there was considerable latitude around the adopted transfer methodology. The principal differentiation that emerged was between a bilateral (where the giving city worked with each receiving city individually) and a multilateral model, where the giving city worked with all partners simultaneously. As we explain, this distinction became fuzzier as the projects progressed, and to some extent all networks adopted a hybrid of these two models. 

The trouble with good practice

As we noted at the start of this article, the concept of good practice is, in itself, challenging. It is rarely an absolute concept, and Europe’s diversity means that what is considered good practice in one place may not be accepted as such in another. The process for deciding what practice is good and verifying its effectiveness is a key consideration for any organisation trying to gather examples.

Many organisations have sought to stipulate what is meant by good practice. For example, within the health sector, the World Health Organisation (WHO)[1] has developed the following criteria to define this:

  • Effectiveness – the practice must work and produce results that can be measured
  • Efficiency – the practice must produce results within a reasonable level of resources
  • Relevance – the practice must address the priority health problems in the WHO region

For its pilot call, URBACT required Lead (‘Giving’) Cities to explain their practice, verify its effectiveness (i.e. through external evaluation) and be able to estimate its potential for transfer. All potential transfer pilots were required to reflect an integrated approach to sustainable urban development, and to reflect the EU 2020 priorities.

In relation to this question of defining good practice, URBACT’s conclusions from the transfer pilot– derived from an external evaluation as well as working with the projects – were that:

  • Clear criteria for the definition of good practice are required
  • The practice must be clearly documented
  • There must be evidence of impact

These important points are being factored into the design of the forthcoming transfer project model.

Another important emerging consideration for URBACT, was the fundamental issue of potential transferability. Throughout the pilots this has been a recurring focal point, as URBACT’s priority relates to the potential of the practice to make an impact in other places. On the ground, a number of issues arose from the pilots which are additional factors relating to transfer potential, including:

  • Affordability – without adequate resources a new project will fail
  • Timing – even the most powerful concept can be rejected if this is wrong
  • Political approval – Leaders often seal the fate of imported concepts

URBACT is not in the business of identifying good practice as an end in itself. The programme aims to support its transfer and implementation across Europe’s cities. Consequently, the importance of assessing the practice’s implementability was an important finding from the pilots. This assessment must include a consideration of the ‘movability’ of the practice but also of the capacity for transfer and adaptation amongst the receiving cities. The latter does not only include the skills and attitudes within the local administration, but also the governance, legal and economic contexts within these cities.

During the pilot, some of the participating cities found themselves unable to transfer any aspects of the targeted good practice. They included Molletai, which lacked the capacity to implement the Sodertalje Diet model, and Alba Iulia, which did not have the infrastructure to establish an agency to broker the use of temporary spaces in the city. Although both cities were impressed by the respective good practices, fundamental barriers meant that they could not transfer and implement them.

Had these ‘receiving’ cities established a better understanding of the target good practice, and what was required to transfer and implement it at the start, then this could have been avoided. They might either have opted not to take part, knowing that implementation was highly unlikely, or they could have perhaps participated as ‘observers’ rather than as ‘receivers’.

This important finding has valuable implications for the design of URBACT’s future transfer calls. It means that there must be a preliminary phase where potential receiving cities explore, investigate and gain a full understanding of the good practices. Furthermore, there should be an opportunity for potential receiving cities to withdraw – ideally at an early stage – if having gained a full understanding of the practice, they conclude that they could not transfer and implement it.

Consequently, the programme is likely to adopt a modular, staged approach, to the transfer network structure. This is described in outline in the concluding section of this article.

The transfer methodology

“ How cities learn” is a long-standing area of interest for URBACT. This is particularly the case with these pilots, where the ‘How’ question was at least as important as the ‘What”. This deep process interest was partly derived from an appreciation that successful peer-to-peer city transfer cannot be reduced to ‘copy and paste’ approaches. We already know this from our extensive work with cities in the existing programme networks.

Indeed, from our established URBACT model, we were able to draw upon methods and processes which have already been proven to work well with our city networks.

One of these was the Lead Expert function, where partners are able to employ the process and thematic expertise of an experienced expert. In most cases, this role has proven to be especially valuable in relation to the transfer activity. Having an experienced third party come in to help codify and explain the practice has been cited as a key part of this role. Another is being able to work closely with the Lead and other partners to determine an appropriate methodology for the project. This has also included – in some cases – providing a coaching function for partners that has been highly appreciated.

These Lead Experts were also central to another tool taken from the standard URBACT repertoire. This is the baseline study, which provides an opportunity to benchmark participating cities and to assess their readiness for adopting the good practice model. This activity, which is a key element of all URBACT networks, provides an important snapshot and acts as a key tool to cement the partnership, as they begin to learn about one another.

In the case of the transfer pilots it also provided an important opportunity for the Lead Expert to meet with all of the key stakeholders at the project’s inception. This enabled her/him to assess the local economic and political climate, and city leaders’ readiness to embrace solutions transferred from outside.

As we have already noted, there were two broad approaches to the transfer process.

The bilateral approach is one where the giving city works separately with each of the receiving cities to tailor the good practice model to their local circumstances. Other partners do not participate in this two way process, on the basis that this would dilute the focus between ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’. Genius Open championed this approach, particularly in the early stages, so that each receiving city had the dedicated attention of the giving city. As the project progressed, they also used multilateral activities, once each city had fully understood the basic concept and a level of trust had been established with the Giving City.

The multilateral approach closely resembles the established model used by Action Planning networks. Here, all of the partners participate together in all activities. Gastronomic Cities and TUTUR followed this model, whilst Diet for a Green Planet, P4C and Healthy Ageing used a hybrid approach, with frequent multilateral meetings. Comparing the two, the external evaluation noted the following pros and cons relating to the bilateral approach:

Pros and Cons of the bilateral exchange model



  • Customised guidance and support for the receiving cities
  • Deep focus on each receiving city’s needs, issues and circumstances
  • Focused and time efficient
  • Time consuming
  • Resource intensive
  • Can limit interaction between the cities

In terms of activities, projects utilised a range as part of their methodology, the most salient of which were:

  • Field visits to the giving city, in order to get immersed in the practice
  • Bilateral visits of city experts to the receiving cities. This involved a variety of stakeholders including policy makers, researchers, politicians and practitioners. For example, one of the most effective visits with the Diet project was that undertaken by kitchen cooks, working with peers to share their techniques in kitchens
  • Peer reviews – where partners had the chance to critique one another’s approaches
  • Hackathons – the Genius Open project, which involves stakeholders in tackling city challenges, involved all partners in one of their own hackathon experiences – which was replicated in the receiving cities

With the possible exception of hackathons, none of these activities are peculiar to the transfer networks, and each is an established part of the URBACT APN exchange repertoire. The most important distinction however is the sharp focus on a very specific piece of practice from the start, which creates a different dynamic to those networks where the overlap centres around a shared problem. Starting with a solution seems to help cities to work within a clear framework from the inception of the project.

Related to the methodology, another important conclusion from the pilots was the importance of flexibility and adaptation. Not surprisingly, few were able to transfer target good practices in their entirety, exactly as they had been established in the giving city. The widely different contexts cities operate within means that this is hard to achieve; lifting a solution and dropping it elsewhere in its entirety is rarely effective.

Rather, the process is one of dismantling the good practice so that its component parts are fully understood. This was frequently as much a revelatory process for the giving city as it was for potential receivers, who were often so close to the practice that they had forgotten why it had evolved that way. This forensic review of the good practice enabled cities to identify and prioritise component parts of it. From this process, projects were able to customise the good practice so that it – or key elements of it – could be transferred across.

Amongst the six transfer pilots, there were good examples of the ways this was done, illustrating a high level of commitment and creativity amongst the cities. Examples included:

  • Mollet de Valles modifying its local procurement rules for public procurement, introducing a 0km criterion for the selection of municipal canteen providers
  • Siracusa adapting the Genius:Open methodology with more direct participation processes with citizens, on account of much lower rates of Internet usage than in the giving city, York
  • Rome promoting small pilot projects to build consensus for the establishment of an agency to co-ordinate the temporary use of buildings, in recognition that this could not be achieved in a single step

So, what were the overall learning points? 5 key messages

1. Successful transfer requires a modular framework

We will measure the success of future projects on the extent to which transfer has taken place between the Giving and Receiving cities. We have learned that a number of factors strongly influence this. One is the need for good practices that meet the needs of many cities and which are relatively easy to adapt and implement. In particular, they must not be prohibitively costly and should not be reliant on specific governance models. Another is creating a space so that all of the potentially receiving partners fully understand the good practice concept, and can assess its transfer potential.

As we have seen, in the pilots, some cities signed up only to find that for various reasons they would struggle to transfer any aspects the model. URBACT is therefore keen to ensure that all ‘receiving’ cities are carefully selected and that they fully understand the target good practice from the start. They also need the option to withdraw if they eventually conclude that transfer will not be possible.

Consequently, a modular process will be adopted. This three –stage sequence is one that has been defined as:

  • Understand: Space to consider and comprehend the practice usually by visiting the giving city to study the practice in detail in its original context.
  • Adapt: Space to customize the practice for use in other contexts where receiving cities prepare a detailed plan for adapting the practice in their cities taking account of the local context
  • Re-use: Implementation of the adapted practice which involves the introduction and testing in the receiving city, usually with coaching support from the Giving City and Lead Expert

2. Giving cities can benefit from being involved

A key question explored by the pilots was whether there was any benefit for ‘Giving Cities’ of being involved in transfer projects. Leading an URBACT project is a significant responsibility, and it was unclear whether the benefits would outweigh the effort required.

The transfer pilot experience suggests that it is worthwhile and that for Giving Cities there are clear benefits. The most frequently citied of these were that:

  • Giving cities learn a great deal from the process of explaining and demonstrating their good practice to others. Teaching is often the best way of learning, and the process requires giving cities to revisit, refine and improve their own methodology. York, Dun Laoghaire and Sodertalje all reported a deeper understanding of their own practice through documenting, codifying and explaining it to others.
  • Giving cities gain kudos and EU-level recognition from being identified as good practice cities in their fields. They report that this has led to increased profile and an enhanced reputation at the EU level.

3. Receiving cities need to be in the right space – Enthusiasm trumps resources

An important message coming from the pilot exercise is the need for receiving city stakeholders to have the right set of attitudes and behaviours in order to fully benefit from the experience. Committed leadership and enthusiastic stakeholders have been an important combination in those cities which have gained most from the pilot transfer experience. Equally, where this is lacking, cities have struggled. Linked to this, we have seen that some cities with extensive infrastructure and resources can make less progress than those with fewer resources but stronger commitment. In summary, enthusiasm trumps resources.

In many respects, this reinforces the lessons from established URBACT networks. It highlights the importance of selecting partners carefully and also of the key role undertaken by URBACT Lead Experts at the baseline study stage. Here, they have an opportunity to meet directly with key stakeholders and to gauge the commitment levels of city decision makers.

4. The value of sharing and learning by doing

The transfer pilots have also underlined the value of ‘learning by doing’, where city stakeholders can acquire knowledge from a range of exchange tools – peer review sessions, coaching activity etc. This is complemented by programme level opportunities to reflect on the experience and to share the emerging lessons by coming together with peers involved in other exchange projects.

URBACT has a growing reputation for creating these cross-city sharing and learning platforms, which include its Summer Universities and the City Festival held in Riga in May 2015. During the transfer pilots there was an opening event that brought all cities together, as well as a specific session focusing on measuring and recording outputs. Cities reported that these were valuable shared learning opportunities.

During its Mayors Challenge process in Europe, the Bloomberg Foundation curated a number of active learning and sharing events with its shortlisted cities. Feedback from cities indicated that these events were strongly appreciated by city practitioners as it gave them the opportunity not only to network and learn from one another, but also to be exposed to some of the latest techniques and theories linked to city learning. The city bootcamp session, held in Berlin during spring 2014 was especially well received.

Consequently, we envisage that space for practical shared peer-to-peer exchange will be an integral feature of the transfer project model.

5. The power of trusted relationships and the added value brought by Lead Experts

A final lesson from the pilots confirms one that URBACT has long understood, but which cannot be overstated. It is the value of structured platforms bringing cities together to share experiences and to transfer practice based on trust. In these peer-to-peer exchanges, no-one is selling anything. City practitioners have time to connect with and to build trusted relationships with their peers in other cities. They have a unique opportunity to walk in the shoes of colleagues doing the same work as them day in day out – whether they are city mayors, policy advisors, managers or front line staff.

Our pilots found that, like the established URBACT networks, the transfer pilot city relationships enabled cities to get really get inside the practices. Practitioners gained a deep understanding of what had been developed, whilst ‘Giving’ cities had the benefit of seeing their own practice afresh through the eyes of others. Curiosity and a commitment to learn are at the heart of this process, whilst trust is the glue that holds it all together.

At URBACT we understand and appreciate the importance of the project leadership role in creating this kind of culture within projects. It does not happen automatically, but rather has to be nurtured and encouraged. Lead Experts, working closely with the Giving cities, are instrumental in creating this culture, willing to morph between the role of leader, critical friend and coach. 

What happens next ?

While we agree that good practice is not an end in itself, URBACT sees scope to improve the way it is shared and transferred across Europe. Doing this requires a rigorous approach to identifying and validating those practices, combined with practical input to support and improve the transfer process. This is not alchemy, nor the simple business of copy and paste. Effective transfer is about effective analysis, rigorous scrutiny, creative adaptation and targeted implementation. It is also about measuring results and impact.

This is why URBACT will launch a new suite of networks at the front end of the new programming period. This will involve a call for good practice projects, followed by one for the establishment of cohort of transfer projects. The latter will take place in early 2016, so keep track of URBACT developments via the website and social media channels if you are interested in getting involved.

Eddy Adams

Thanks to the pilot evaluators, Tako Popma and Pascal Chazaud for their contribution to this piece and to Raffaele Barbato for his wise words on the earlier draft




[1] WHO

(2008). Guide for Documenting and Sharing “Best Practices” in

Health Programmes