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Is Covid a game-changer for the New Leipzig Charter?

Edited on

06 August 2020
Read time: 3 minutes

Expert Eddy Adams asks about the latest developments and impacts of Covid-19 on the renewed Leipzig Charter.

The renewed Leipzig Charter was already in preparation long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Have recent experiences forced the German Presidency of the EU to re-think its whole vision for the future of urban development? Or has Covid-19 only reinforced the need for the principles set out in the draft document? We spoke to Jonas Scholze, Managing Director of the German Association for Housing, Urban and Spatial Development to find out.

 

Background

On 1 July 2020, Germany assumes the EU Presidency for six months. The last German presidency in 2007 produced the Leipzig Charter which became a cornerstone of EU urban policy. Now, at an auspicious moment for Europe, Germany will refresh the Charter during its 2020 EU presidency.

On behalf of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community, Jonas Scholze, Brussels Office Manager and Managing Director of the German Association for Housing, Urban and Spatial Development, has been centrally involved in the drafting of the New Leipzig Charter. He shared his thoughts on the latest developments and the impact of Covid with Eddy Adams, the URBACT Programme Expert who has been leading URBACT’s City Labs as part of the new Charter process.


Jonas Scholze, co-author of the New Leipzig Charter, presenting at URBACT City Lab#4

Eddy: The German EU Presidency has been in planning for a long time. Why did you decide to revisit the Leipzig Charter?

Jonas: Even before this current pandemic, there was evidently growing pressure around urban issues. ‘Fridays for Future’ demonstrations, heatwaves, dealing with refugees, inner-city driving bans, exploding rents and land prices – these all dominated the urban development debate until recently. Not surprisingly, these issues were prominent in the Europe-wide dialogue in preparation for the German Presidency and, within it, the New Leipzig Charter.

Eddy: Then suddenly, the Coronavirus pandemic crashes into all of this. Does it fundamentally alter everything?

Jonas: Well, during the Corona pandemic, content-related themes seem to shift literally overnight. This might make us ask whether we need a Leipzig Charter with completely different objectives and principles. But the fact is that the pandemic has shed even more light on the key urban issues – for example, urban density and city resilience. The current draft version of the New Leipzig Charter already provides valuable answers to such problems. We can see, for example, that an integrated, participatory urban development policy, which is oriented at the common good and, at the same time, balances and links ecological, social and economic goals, is more important than ever.

Eddy: It is still early days, but what do you think has been the impact of Covid-19 on urban development policy?

The crisis manifests itself in the shape of a completely new reality and its long-term effects on urban coexistence are barely predictable. It poses important questions for urban policymakers: Do we need to put aside problems that were relevant ‘yesterday’? What about our proven guiding principles of urban development? For example, will the primacy of density and compactness vanish due to health-promoting urban models, such as garden cities? Will urban-regional supply models gain new significance? A pressing practical question for us is how the New Leipzig Charter whose development process is almost complete should respond to the situation.

Eddy: You spoke about urban resilience. Is the pandemic redefining our understanding of this?

Jonas: Yes. Covid-19 gives a whole new meaning to the concept of city resilience. In this new context, it is closely linked to the triangle of sustainability: communities with a functioning economy, environmentally and climate-friendly ‘green’ solutions and a socially just urban society are demonstrably more robust to crises. Other indicators of ‘strong’ cities are the provision of services of general interest in the social, educational and health sectors as well as digital infrastructures and services. Successful urban development, high-quality green and open spaces, public places that invite people to linger and a proper functioning of neighbourhoods are factors of great importance. Added to this are principles of flexibility and adaptability, mainly supported through urban development instruments.

Eddy: What does this mean for local authorities in Europe?

Jonas: Covid-19 shows once again that in our global, highly networked society the cause and effect of events no longer need to be geographically related. Whole national economies are brought to their knees, showing the vulnerability of societies to external influences. Covid-19 may be spreading worldwide right now - but we have to deal with the virus locally. However, this ‘capacity to act’ of our cities is endangered in many places: even before Covid, many municipalities and cities lacked sufficient financial and human resources. In addition, the collapse in tax revenues that is now to be expected will be of enormous influence.

Cities and municipalities therefore need support - through national programmes and transfer payments, but above all, through European money, for example, from the EU Structural Funds. Their significance for integrated urban development concepts is more important today than ever before. In addition, European cooperation and exchanges between cities might help to deal with crises such as Covid-19. After all, such formats guarantee the strengthening of municipal competences throughout the EU. The EU Urban Agenda partnerships and the URBACT networking programme in particular provide valuable services in this context.

Eddy: So, it sounds like the New Leipzig Charter points us in the right direction?

Jonas: To put it in a nutshell: the results achieved so far in the European and national dialogue process for the drafting of the New Leipzig Charter do not need to be overturned in any way. Both, the old document from 2007 and the emerging New Leipzig Charter, with its integrated, participatory and place-based approach, identify fundamental principles that help cities to become resilient and adaptive to sudden changes.

A core element of the New Charter is also the aforementioned increased power of municipalities to act in order to transform their urban development policy and to orient it towards the common good. This means in particular that public authorities should act for public welfare and provide appropriate services and infrastructures. It also includes active and strategic land policy and land use planning, as well as the shaping of the digital transformation – all for the benefit of society as a whole.

Eddy: You refer to the need for a balanced approach. How do you respond to those who say we need to put economic growth at the forefront of the recovery?

Jonas: The crisis is far from over. Thus, we should have the courage to re-open debates. We should not carelessly throw away proven concepts and objectives of ecological sustainability. Quite the opposite, these principles remain as valid as ever. They should not be neglected in favour of a sole focus on economic reconstruction. In the end, it is these concepts and objectives linked to the triangle of economic, environmental and social sustainability that will help us to develop effective long-term solutions to meet our needs - in light of both the current situation and future challenges.

The New Leipzig Charter will be published in November 2020.

In September, The German Association for Housing, Urban and Spatial Development and the German Federal Ministry of of the Interior, Building and Community will be organising a web series "Europe's Cities Fit for Future", to discuss current and future approaches for a successful integrated urban development in Europe. Find out more about this event and register here.

URBACT has supported the process through a series of City Labs related to the Leipzig Charter principles. Details can be found below:

  1. Participatory approaches – September 2018 (Policy paper)
  2. Sustainable urban development – July 2019 (Policy paper, Video)
  3. Integrated approaches – October 2019 (Policy Paper, Video)
  4. Place-based approaches – (Policy Paper available soon, Video)
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