In the media

Unlocking the potential of cities in Europe

By Alex Ryan

Open Access Government

22 June 2022

This article was first published in Open Access Government

Cities in Europe are hotbeds for testing, trying and executing game-changing resilience – let’s make sure they can access generous European funds.

Cities are hubs for innovation, and their governments can be forces for urban advances, with huge demand to create resilient and connected systems within them – something which has never been more crucial following the profound shock and fall out of the pandemic. A resilient system can absorb and adapt to these shocks and stresses, without disrupting the actors and stakeholders embedded within them, whilst also allowing such stakeholders to thrive.

The European Union is backing the Member States through a range of generous funds to help ensure this and to realise the immense potential of human ingenuity. However, municipal governments often struggle to influence and access European funds as current structures mean national governments play a far more important role in defining where the money goes and on what it is spent. For example, for the Member States to access some of the €800 billion from Next Generation EU, each had to develop a National Resilience Recovery Plan (NRRP), which were almost fully dictated by national governments, meaning municipal governments were not able to strongly influence the plans.

Are cities central to the comeback?

As of 2020, approximately 75% of EU Residents live in urban areas, significantly higher than the global average. Logic, therefore, suggests that any fund looking to maximise return on investment (economic, social, environmental) should tap into city networks and help remove barriers to effective capital deployment direct to municipalities and their local system partners.

Furthermore, during times of shock and disruption, progressive and innovative policies are fundamental to not just recovery but building a better society; and the local knowledge of municipal governments must be drawn upon to understand where positive impacts will be most felt and who is best placed to deliver inclusive policy and projects. Such projects need to be held to standards, such as the urban resilience standard ISO 22371 or the British Standard BS 67000 for City Resilience published in 2019.

Solutions for cities

Coordination between supranational, national and municipal governments is tough: different actors, different agendas, different ideas. Trust is crucial; those holding the purse strings need to trust those with the local context and have the ability to implement spending where it will make a difference – for digital infrastructure, usable spaces, health and education.

There are examples of better coordination between the different levels of governance, including the upcoming National Resilience Strategy for the UK, which embraces a “whole of society approach” to resilience, delivering on the need for more joined-up thinking and partnerships across industry, academia, government and communities.

Non-funding organisations have a role to play too. The private sector is famously agile, inventive and adaptive, and utilising these traits will allow for the effective delivery of robust, inclusive and resilient outcomes.

Mechanisms are needed to allow for similar levels of engagement between the private sector and municipal governments as already exists between the private sector and national governments. These could be in the form of joint tenders, put out by supranational organisations and municipalities, which allow for project financing and delivery models akin to those between the private sector and national governments.

City networks and NGOs are also critical, they have a deep knowledge of urban issues and the solutions to such challenges. Organisations such as Resilient Cities Network, C40, ICLEI, Rebuild by Design and MCR2030 are well connected within municipal governments, the private sector and supranational organisations and can act as the glue between stakeholders to deliver resilient and inclusive policy and projects.

A great example of this is the collaborative work seen in Rotterdam in efforts to incorporate water into public spaces. A delivery consortium from different levels of government, private sector and NGOs combined to deliver Benthemplein, a multi-use plaza that, when dry, is a meeting space and used for sports and events, but when wet can be used as a reservoir with three basins retaining water from surrounding land and buildings, stopping floodwater rampaging through dense residential neighbourhoods.

Trust cities, they know what to do

Cities’ ambitious and inclusive nature means they are well placed to meet the European Commission’s recovery effort. The urban-rural population balance continues to tilt in favour of city dwellers, which provides an opportunity for European institutions to realise far greater benefits and economies of scale for each Euro invested – political leaders and funders have the opportunity to put their trust in cities and enable them to be building blocks for positive change.

Eurocities insight into social care systems

At the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum in May this year, insights on the challenges faced by social care systems were shared, as well as committing to investing in inclusive services. “Care is an important work as it sustains life as it involves childcare, elderly care, education, healthcare, social and domestic services,” Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights comments. “And all of these have a strong local dimension.”

Cities in Europe have adapted their care systems at great speed and established plans to settle and welcome refugees from Ukraine. The Eurocities caring cities statement insists that more support and measures should be put in place for all refugees and cities. Indeed, many cities have gone down the path of local social care reforms. Other cities engage in national debates about reforming social welfare policies, for example, Stuttgart adopted a ‘Pact for Integration’, spending €77 million from municipal budget annually for social integration measures to welcome refugees.

The last word goes to Bianca Faragau-Tavares, Policy Advisor at Eurocities who provides a compelling insight on social inclusion in the cities in Europe: “Cities’ actions have reached the hearts and minds of EU leaders, standing as a clear example of commitment, inspiring national policy reforms and providing the needed impetus to push social rights forward. Social inclusion starting with children is an antidote against attacks to our social system and cohesion – and cities are fundamental.”

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