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Special Report - Launch of URBACT Training for Politicians on Sustainable Development

Edited on

09 February 2015
Read time: 3 minutes

When it comes to driving sustainability in urban development, the focus is usually on technical experts. But what about elected representatives? How can politicians become more involved when their city is a partner in an URBACT project? To answer those questions, URBACT has developed a pilot training scheme for elected representatives. We look back at its opening seminar, held in Brussels from April 8-10.

Elected representatives clearly have a key role to play in the sustainable development of European  cities. What is less clear, though, is how they can develop their skills and practical knowledge in the field. To meet that need in the context of URBACT partner cities, a pilot training programme has been drawn up with the support of the European Commission. As Charlina Vitcheva, a Director at the DG for Regional and Urban Policy, explained: "Our Commissioner Johannes Hahn thought it was extremely important to involve the elected representatives in the whole process because firstly they have the power of being elected by people, and secondly they are very close to the local development theme. This training is part of the local capacity building that we intend to strengthen for the next funding period."

Delivering Knowledge and Tools on Integrated and Sustainable Development

The aim of the scheme is to give representatives a better understanding of European urban policy, an insight into what integrated and sustainable development involves, and the practical tools needed for project management.

Not only will this help to inform their decision-making, it should also improve the quality of URBACT Local Action Plans and help to develop Local Support Groups. The benefits were summed up neatly by Beata Stepaniuk, a university lecturer and councillor in Lublin, Poland involved in the EUniversities project. "I hope this programme will help me to be a better politician in my city," she said. "There is a lot of detail in urban development and this is an opportunity to find out more about technical skills and putting that knowledge into practice."

The scheme comprises three sessions over the course of 2013, with a second seminar on developing a participative approach with stakeholders in September, and a third on sustainability and change in December. Attended by 30 mayors, deputies and councillors from 15 countries, April’s seminar focused on how to develop an integrated approach to urban development. Day One, which included some ice-breaking time for people to introduce themselves, was devoted to the basic concepts. A series of talks by experts, presentations of participants' Local Action Plans, and peer reviews/discussions came together as a series of common threads. And the crossovers were clear from the outset.

Learning about Long-term Urban Development

Ivan Tosics, a principal of the Metropolitan Research Institute of Budapest and URBACT Pole Manager, delivered a case study on integrated development approaches in the Hungarian capital, where much of the social housing stock has been privatized. He also highlighted the challenge of matching shorter-term funding to longer-term planning.

These are precisely the challenges now facing Riga councillor Jānis Mārtiņš Zandbergs in Latvia. "One of our problems is that everything has been privatized and now we find we need social housing," he explained. "There is EU funding for city development, but in Riga there’s no coordination or long-term vision. What I see this training doing is enabling us in the autumn to sit down and work out a 4 to 10-year programme for this city." As a partner of URBACT's USER project, Jānis Mārtiņš Zandbergs is particularly looking to make better use of open spaces in Riga's old town. "At the moment, it's a mish-mash and we want to make it more coherent, but we don't have a background in solving these kinds of problems. So we want to get ideas and see what other cities are doing. This is a problem solving opportunity for us."

Confronting the Urban Development Issues

Anticipating that need, Day Two of the seminar was almost entirely devoted to problem identification and analysis. It began with an overview of the integrated approach from an EU policy perspective, given by Corinne Hermant from DG for Regional and Urban Policy. Luis de Carvalho and Willem van Winden, consultants from seminar organizers UrbanIQ, then delivered two presentations on the tools – such as the problem tree technique – for dealing with problems, notably in the kind of collaborative environment found in urban development.

Learning from leading European experts was undoubtedly a vital part of the seminar, as was the field visit on Day Three to look at development projects in Brussels. However, it was also important for participants to take the floor and to exchange ideas and experience. A stimulating series of group discussions followed a presentation on integrated development by Oriol Nello, Professor of Urban Geography at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Meanwhile, there were peer reviews after a presentation by Dr. Lutz Trümper, Mayor of Magdeburg, on how to use a Local Support Group to develop a new science quarter – based on his city’s experience in the URBACT project REDIS.

Setting out Local Action Plans

Such feedback was equally important when it came to presenting Local Action Plans. Ákos Hegyi, a councillor in the Hungarian city of Pécs, a partner city in the URBACT Markets project, found it a stimulating experience. "Even as I'm saying the words of my presentation, new concepts and ideas come into my mind; and I write them down immediately so I can share them with fellow politicians or decision makers when I get home," he said afterwards. "As for the feedback; what would take months of exchanging emails, you get in minutes." For Pécs, which is clear about the business model for creating two new city markets but is seeking guidance on how to integrate a Local Support Group, the pilot training is invaluable. "We now know what we want to do, but we don't know how," Ákos Hegyi said. "And that’s what I'm here to learn."

Building for the future

Part of that learning has to involve a willingness to share experiences - both good and bad. Here, participants struck the right note from the first morning, as two partners of the URBACT Sustainable Food project readily testified. Gus Hoyt, a councillor in the Bristol city cabinet, was clear about his aims in attending. "Essentially it's finding out what works and what has failed in the other cities. Most people are being very honest and not trying to sell too much. It looks like a really great arena for sharing knowledge."

In many ways, Francoise Rivoire, Deputy Mayor of Lyon, summed up the value of the pilot training. "We need new policies and projects for our city and I've come here for ideas," she said. "What I've really enjoyed is the diversity of the elected representatives from so many different countries and different levels. I think we're complementary. We're all putting our difficulties on the table and looking to doing things differently, so that we can construct things differently afterwards."

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