25 October, 2016

Cities leading the way to a better future? EU launches new ‘State of European Cities Report’


photo by Evan McDonough (PhD candidate, University of Luxembourg)

During the European Week of Regions and Cities in October 2016, the European Commission presented a much awaited new edition of its ‘State of European Cities’ Report. By assessing and comparing demographic, economic, social and environmental trends at town and city level, the comprehensive report entitled ‘Cities leading the way to a better future’ reveals a series of key challenges and opportunities for European cities. It also introduces a new methodology for more accurately defining, quantifying and comparing degrees of urbanisation. When preparing the report, the European Commission collaborated for the very first time with the United Nations Habitat Programme.

Key insights
One of the main insights emerging from the report is that European cities are generally relatively small with only two megacities over 10 million inhabitants (Paris and London). With an average urban density of approximately 3000 inhabitants/km2 cities in Europe have, however, a healthy basis and a good starting position for coping with future urban challenges. Second, the report shows that European cities attract new residents coming both from within and outside of the EU. The main reasons for such migration flows are related to education, employment and quality of life. As a result of absorbing these new citizens, cities often face issues regarding the provision of more affordable high quality housing, the expansion of public services, the fight against discrimination and social exclusion and the bridging of the gap between training offers and job opportunities. Third, the comparison of city performances throughout Europe reveals that innovation and economic growth are generally higher in cities than in rural areas. This performance, however, requires high-quality research, good connections with the private sector and an excellent business environment. Fourth, cities are well placed to support non-motorised and public transport due to their high levels of density. Huge efforts are still required by cities to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings and to further reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Fifth, the report encourages cooperation between municipalities and good urban governance across the various policy levels. Cities should be granted sufficient autonomy and be given the necessary resources to exploit their urban advantages. 

EU Urban Agenda and Habitat III
The provision of data on the performance of European cities encourages cooperation and the transfer of best practices between cities inside and outside Europe and provides valuable input for the future development and implementation of the EU’s new Urban Agenda, consisting mainly in improving EU regulations, elaborating workable financial instruments and enhancing the knowledge base. The idea is to launch new forms of cooperation between cities, Member States, EU institutions, NGOs and businesses. These partnerships will focus on 12 key urban challenges with a European dimension such as air quality, housing, migration and poverty.
The State of the European Cities Report constitutes also an important contribution from Europe to the third United Nations Conference in Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III) currently underway. It particularly addresses the 2030 urban Sustainable Development Goal which aims at making cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable. The analyses in the report show how European cities are forerunners with regard to adopting new courses of action to tackle economic, social, environmental or governance issues.

Cities as a more general subject of interest of global policies
The current interest in cities and urbanisation is far from being limited to the aforementioned actions taken in the framework of the European Urban Agenda or the UN Habitat initiatives on Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations’ World Cities Report published earlier this year demonstrates that current urbanisation models are generally rather unsustainable and that they need to be changed in order to better respond to today’s challenges. UNESCO, in its turn, has issued a Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development. Based on an analysis of several international study areas, the report explains for instance the vital role of culture as a tool for poverty reduction, increased cultural diversity, resilience and sustainability. At this point, it seems also promising to look at the recent Flagship Report published by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), which addresses the urban issue as well. This study assumes that cities have a ‘transformative power’ that needs to be unlocked in order to provide global sustainability.
In sum, all of these reports support the view that developments in cities are crucial for a more sustainable development of our world, while some even carry a notion of enthusiasm (or positivism, to say the least) by claiming that cities are not the problem but rather the solution. All of them, however, provide much inspiration to think cities and regions further. With respect to these initiatives, it is safe to say that urban development will remain high on the global political agenda for the years to come.

Tom Becker
Research Assistant
University of Luxembourg

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