Cities are the living labs for the future of Europe

What impact for the EU Urban Agenda?

The EU Urban Agenda[1], as it has been decided at the June 2016 Council meeting and in the „Pact of Amsterdam[2]“, has a genesis with highs and lows, ups and downs throughout the past decades. This history is as long as cities have been demanding to get involved directly into EU policy development, a demand they based on two simple facts. First, evidence shows that about two thirds of the EU population live in cities, towns or urban areas. This provides a deeply democratic argument for direct involvement. Cities are the places where most EU citizens live and work. Second, cities are the hotspots of all major social, economic and political developments – they are the hubs for innovation and growth, it is there where new societal patterns first occur, they are the places with the highest density of people with all positive and negative effects. In brief, they constitute the living labs for the future of Europe. To leave them out of the process is simply ignoring their long time existing expertise in integrated policy making – a knowledge older than the EU itself by far.

Step by step towards the recognition of „urban dimension“ in the EU

The „Pact of Amsterdam“ is the result of a process that started more than 20 years ago. The more important regional policy – and funding – became, the louder cities asked to be involved in the development of programmes directly. We have seen numerous efforts to include an urban dimension in the EU´s regional policy with important conferences and documents like the Leipzig Charta (2007)[3], the Marseille Statement (2008) and the Toledo Declaration[4]. We have acclaimed that the Treaty of Lissabon[5] reinforced the principle of subsidiarity and empowered the Committee of the Regions with more rights and possibilities. In 2013, the European Commission renamed the service for Regional Policy into Regional and Urban Policy[6]. The Member States with their different competences met irregularly on informal political level, which was mainly initiated by “urban-minded” countries like the Netherlands, and have created an “Urban Development Group[7]” in order to follow the processes. Interesting to note that no cities or their European organisations are formal members of this group. They must stay on the observer desk.

„URBAN“ as holistic approach to city development

The first “URBAN” programmes[8] out of the Structural Funds we have seen emerging in my city, Vienna, show the impressing transformation of the belt street around the inner city districts, “Gürtel”, from an unsafe “No-Go-Area” to a hip culture lane. This is an example of what difference can be achieved when funding is concentrated on an integrated urban project that triggers further investment. This was only possible with the involvement of many different levels and organisation, with politics and the economy, with cultural institutions as well as social workers. The overall effect of this holistic investment, though, cannot be seen immediately. Change takes time, even in a vibrant and fast growing city like Vienna. Today, our belt area (the „Gürtel“) is a place to be, with a vivid scenery of pubs and bars, art and crafts, the main library of the city, and it is one of our attractions for young people and tourists.

Better regulation, better funding for cities?

Regarding direct funding for cities, we have since then not really come forward on EU level. Small steps seem to be the normal path to follow, as in the current funding period (2014-2020) still only a very small share of the funds is allocated to cities directly[9]. Another focus of activities of cities, their networks and organisations, however, has always been on the effects of EU legislation on their ability to steer, define and finance the services their citizens need. In this, we have seen the results of liberalisation and privatisation in many areas – not often to the better for our citizens when it comes to quality and security of the services. Sometimes, acknowledged, cities simply felt they had no other choice than to sell of parts of their properties for mere budgetary reasons. This has happened with municipal housing in Berlin, waterworks in Paris, national rail in the UK. In most cases, the quick wins were at the disadvantage of consumers and at the cost of taxpayers in the long run. Vienna and other cities have been joining forces ever since to point out the possible outcome of these measures. Wherever EU legislation opened a door, cities reminded the EU about the principle of subsidiarity – it should be left to the cities and their democratically elected makers, women and men, how they define and manage the services of general (economic) interest of their respective constituency. But we often saw reluctance to accept that integrated city solutions might be better, more cost-efficient,  more practical and in the long run more sustainable in many respects. To introduce this expertise into an organisation like the EU, working along a sectoral rather than a holistic principle, is a challenge for both sides.

An Urban Agenda created by partnerships of cities, member states and the EU

So it was only in 2016 that this eventually led to the creation of a level playing field for cities, Member States and EU-institutions: the “Urban Partnerships[10]” in the frame of the EU Urban Agenda. Along 12 different themes, 12 partnerships will define what should be improved in the regulatory or financial framework of the EU with the expertise of cities. The partnerships shall consist of five cities and Members States, relevant EU institutions and other stakeholders and work with the goal to deliver an Action Plan with concrete results within three years. As it is a completely new format of policy development, some processes still need clarification, and time is needed for all partners to build mutual trust and establish stable cooperation formats. In most areas of concern for the 12 partnerships, cities and their networks have already developed clear positions with regard to EU legislation and funding. This knowledge and expertise is expected to better feed in into  policy development.

Housing, Integration, Air Quality and Urban Poverty on top of the agenda

The first four pilot partnerships started late 2015 and mid 2016 under the Durch EU presidency. They are covering important policy areas for cities: Affordable Housing, Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees, Air Quality and Urban Poverty. The choice of issues naturally reflects the most urgent areas for improvement. Many of the big European cities are growing, and affordable housing is a key to social cohesion and sustainable development. Cities are the backbone of the integration policies, as not only migrants, but also refugees move to cities and towns. Air quality is a major issue, with a clear bias to climate policy, mobility and health. Urban poverty, especially of children (and their single mothers in many cases), is of relevance to many cities where social and geographic fragmentation is strong, thus leading to enormous challenges for public authorities.

When looking at those issues, one can easily identify the expected impact on cities and their services or their public companies: from a city perspective, things should become easier to steer on several levels. This means that cities who have taken in a high number of refugees and welcomed a lot of migrants should have better – i.e. direct – access to EU funding in the next period, e.g. in the ESF or ERDF. It also means that cities who have a need for housing do not have to fear legal complaints by institutional investors on the basis of the existing state aid rules and get to room to manage their housing policy without interference. It also means that cities want to adress the core causes for air polution, as this creates problems for health and the environment.

12 partnerships in a new setting of multilevel cooperation

The next four partnerships decided in the Slovak EU presidency started working in 2016 and deal with another set of important issues: Jobs and skills in the local economy, Urban mobility, Circular economy, Digital transition. They started their work already as well, building confidence in a new setting of multilevel cooperation, exploring the scope of their work and defining their working formats and strands of deliveries.

The last four partnerships will be decided under the Maltese EU presidency, and they will tackle another set of crucial fields: Climate adaptation, Energy transition, Sustainable use of land and Nature-Based solutions, Innovative and responsible public procurement.

The complete list reflects the major issues of a good life quality for all citizens: healthy, environmentally and socially sustainable, inclusive cities that remain able to react to new developments in a globalised economy. It also shows that the partners in the urban agenda are aware of the two major challenges that frame current policy making – the need to overcome the financial and economic crisis and to combat climate change. The future legal and financial framework of the EU must give cities more room to manoeuvre.

Good governance and transparency

Very often, the issues of the partnerships are interconnected, and there is a big task of coordination and exploring overlapping or missing fields ahead of all actors. Cities and their organisations, like EUROCITIES[11] and the CEMR [12] have already set up structures in order to liaise back with their members, to let them know what is going on, how findings connect (or not) to existing positions and make work transparent. Some of the stakeholders have done this as well. Transparency will be a key factor for a successful process, and needs to be guaranteed throughout the whole duration of the partnership.

In some cases the EU agenda setting will cause the need to deliver quick results, as in the case of the State Aid issue in the housing partnership, where a revision of the current package is foreseen in the legal basis for 2017, or with the circular economy partnership, which will have to react to the announced Waste-to-Energy proposals of the Commission. It would be a good sign if the partnerships could contribute to this already at an early stage. gaAin, the common findings of the partnerships should be communicated in an open process, and there must be clarity about the process for the endorsement of their proposals by the steering bodies of the 12 partnerships.

In order to gain credibility, the composition of each partnership must be comprehensive. A variety of cities and Member States is desirable, stakeholders must be representative and competent. Each member is accountable to a body, be it cooperative or public, be it local or European. In fact, as it is an effort in investing resources to participate for the partners, accountability both towards the respective organisations and the partnership as a whole is vital.

Multilevel governance, revisited: Multilevel democracy

As this is a new working method, of course flexibility is needed. Organisations involved work with different rhythms, and they need to give themselves the time to play the same tune in order to get the most out of the orchestra. Expectations and hopes are high, and all parties need to overcome their usual routines and rituals. It will be an important step already if we can achieve that cities´ expertise is naturally accepted by the European Commission. This goes beyond the usual consultation and listing of good practices. This means a real change in attitudes, aknowledging the important role of cities for the quality of life for all. Giving cities a strong voice in Europe is not a question of respect. It is crucial to create true ownership of Europe for all its citizens.


[2] Pact of Amsterdam; decided at the General Affairs Council on 24 June 2016

[3] Leipzig Charter:

[4] Toledo Informal Meeting of Ministers for Urban Development on 22 June 2010

[5] Article 5(3) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and Protocol (No 2) on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

[6] See speech of Commissioner Hahn on 12 December 2013:

[7] URBAN I Gürtelsanierung – also see

[8] ITI also see

[9] More on the UDG see here:




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