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Key Messages of the Series of URBACT Thematic Reports Cities of Tomorrow - Action Today

Edited on

09 February 2015
Read time: 3 minutes

How can cities drive a sustainable economic recovery? How do cities tackle challenges such as carbon targets and growing inequalities? How are an ageing population and migration changing our cities? And what are the policies that will help cities to innovate, to harness local talent and resources, and ultimately to survive the crisis? These are the key challenges tackled by the series of URBACT thematic reports "Cities of Tomorrow: Action Today". The paper "PDF iconDownload URBACT II Capitalisation: Cities of Tomorrow, Action Today - Key messages (1.47 MB)" written by Paul Soto highlights some of the main points of the six thematic reports with a particular focus on those that are relevant for cities concerned with supporting integrated sustainable urban development in the next round of EU programmes.

In October 2011, the European Commission published a far-reaching and quite visionary report called Cities of Tomorrow – Challenges, visions, ways forward (European Commission, DG Regional Policy 2011). The Cities of Tomorrow report leaves open most of the questions about what cities can do to put their potential into practice. This is the task taken up by six "workstreams" launched by URBACT at the beginning of 2012. The end result of this collective reflection was the production of six thematic reports covering the following topics: integrated and sustainable urban development, shrinking cities: challenges and opportunities, more jobs: better cities, supporting young people through social innovation, against divided cities in Europe, motivating mobility mindsets, and building energy efficiency in European cities.

Paul Soto explains that each of the six URBACT thematic reports referred to in his paper contains a series of specific examples, ideas and recommendations about how cities could tackle some of the most important urban challenges in the future. All of them, whether they take the form of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs), action plans for youth inclusion, local labour market plans or strategies for neighbourhood renewal, combined with social mix strategies across the city and energy retrofitting should be high priorities for EU support through integrated sustainable urban development.

"Cities that wish to use the new opportunities offered by the EU in the near future should consider the following recommendations from the URBACT workstreams", advices Paul Soto.

  • Develop an appropriate knowledge base

Many of the problems cities have to deal with are much more complex than they appear at first sight. It is crucial to collect evidence about the real situation and explore the underlying dynamics of development. In order to identify the problems correctly and gain the proper depth of insight, cities should involve stakeholders in the provision and evaluation of data and the ongoing monitoring of the consequences of interventions.

  • Mobilise people and resources around the strategic challenges

Given the scarcity of public resources, it does not make sense to make heavy investments in isolated physical projects that cannot provide evidence that they will make a clear contribution to integrated strategic goals. Human and material resources need to be combined and concentrated on the most important problems and the ones where cities realistically have the most ability to achieve change.

  • Rethink the opportunities

Although they use different terms, all of the URBACT workstreams suggest that this involves a process of participative rethinking or re-envisioning the "opportunity structures" available to cities in the light of a realistic assessment of both short-term and longterm trends. In this sense, cities are ideally Placed to reconnect with local citizens and bring together all stakeholders to ensure a total resource mobilisation more closely aligned with real needs.

  • Build bridges between levels and policies

All workstreams agree that the re-envisioning process must be deepened in at least two ways: firstly, in the vertical sense of reinforcing the linkages between urban, regional and national policies, and secondly, in the horizontal sense of strengthening the multiplier effects between the environmental, social and economic pillars of sustainable urban development.

  • Create clear national and regional frameworks that empower city action

If cities are relegated to becoming the last link in a top-down command delivery system they will never fulfil their potential in dealing with the key urban challenges. In many cases, national and regional policy is the weakest link in the chain. It needs to be reinforced – but in a flexible way that empowers cities to take action and respond imaginatively to local circumstances. There are also cases where national or regional policy is the main cause of problems which appear at city level. In such cases cities have a role to play in promoting changes at higher policy levels.

  • Break down the real barriers

Several of the thematic reports point out that technical solutions already exist but that a series of barriers prevent these ideas being implemented. Some of the barriers are due to market and/or public sector (political) "imperfections", but a large part of the problem lies in the attitudes and mindsets of all of us. Smart city strategies for change need to identify and focus on overcoming the real barriers that have to be faced in each city, and not to unquestioningly follow the latest development fashions.

  • Put people first

People rather than buildings hold the key to dealing with the challenges identified by Cities of Tomorrow. This fact presents a major challenge for the ERDF, which tends to concentrate on physical investments. Therefore, independently of whether the ERDF works more closely with the ESF in the future, there is a need to ensure that integrated strategies for sustainable development have the flexibility to design intelligent combinations of people-based and physical investments that get to the roots of the problems they are addressing.

  • Create spirals of change

While there is a need for emergency measures in many cities, all of the thematic papers agree that the scope for quick, magical fixes is limited. The important thing is to start the ball rolling in the right direction. This requires a combination of "smart" financial support, physical investments and people-based policies which take ideas for change through various stages of implementation to their mainstream adoption.

As a conclusion, Paul Soto explains that "the European Structural and Investment Funds can play an important role in allowing cities to put these recommendations into practice. To do so they need to ensure an articulation between the different types and stages of support they provide. In particular there must be clear bridges between early-stage European Territorial Cooperation (ETC) programmes, innovative actions, research and development, strategies for integrated sustainable urban development and the mainstream axes of the operational programmes." According to him "these recommendations call for a paradigm shift – or at least a change of mindsets – for all stakeholders at every stage of the delivery of urban policy and action. This in turn requires targeted and high-quality capacity building, the exchange of good practices, and a continuous learning culture at city, regional and EU levels. URBACT is committed to working with cities, national authorities and the European Commission to achieve just such a system in the coming programming period."

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