One of the starkest signs of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the now familiar – but still eerie – sight of empty cities. In the early days of Covid-19’s spread across Europe, observers could almost find solace in the immediate effects of the containment policies on the urban environment, with foxes, boars and porcupines commonly spotted even in daytime. That phase is long gone. Now, one of the questions that lingers concerns what the future of our cities will be.
Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, is among many social scientists fearing that “the prominence of the city, and particularly city centers, will decline”, struck by the safety need to reduce density and the possibility of working remotely.
Certainly, the current crisis will mean that cities – like many other features of our society – will undergo a process of deep transformation. However, as Elena Granata reminds us in her recent book – “Biodivercity” – one of the most important gifts of our cities is precisely their capacity to evolve, find solutions and thrive in surprisingly – “ unexpected ” – ways.
The EU certainly does not seem to believe that the current crisis will mark the decline of European cities. On September 16, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made her first State of the Union speech. She did so in the midst of one of the most difficult moments in EU history, with a resurgent wave of Covid-19 spreading across the continent and an unprecedented economic recession.
In her speech, one of the new proposals that attracted the most attention concerned the regeneration of European cities. The president launched a “new European Bauhaus”, which focuses on sustainable building and cities. The goal of the European Green Deal – to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 – depends also on the proposal – adopted last week - to unleash a “Renovation Wave” for energy retrofits and energy efficiency. The expected scale of the transformation in building stock - as much as 2% of the continent’s building stock every year - could indeed spell an opportunity for an aesthetic regeneration of European cities as well, which the proposed “European Bauhaus” wishes to channel “to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic — to match style with sustainability” – quoting the president’s speech.
Another milestone for urban regeneration at the EU level will be reached this month. The German Presidency of the Council of the European Union planned the adoption of the New Leipzig Charter at the Informal Ministerial Meeting on Urban Development in Leipzig in November 2020. The Leipzig Charter was originally prepared in 2007 to achieve the objective of sustainable cities. One of the key objectives underlined in the New Leipzig Charter is the concept and use of common goods to safeguard the liveability of all European cities.
The planned adoption of the New Leipzig Charter could serve as a pointer to illustrate the particular nature of EU policies concerning urban regeneration. Towns and cities are home to nearly three quarters of the EU's population, and most EU policies concern them. At the same time, there is no legal basis for urban policy in the Treaties (as opposed to regional affairs). Therefore, discussions of urban development at the EU level take place within the framework of intergovernmental cooperation. Ministers responsible for urban development have negotiated and reached a consensus on specific objectives for urban areas through documents such as the 2007 Leipzig Charter on the sustainable development of cities, the 2010 Toledo Declaration, the 2011 Territorial Agenda and – most importantly - the Pact of Amsterdam in 2016, establishing the European Urban Agenda.
Such policy objectives have been advanced through a number of policy tools, most importantly the cohesion policy framework. European Structural and Investment Funds address diverse development needs in all EU regions and cities, with a budget of € 351.8 billion – accounting for roughly for one third of the EU’s total budget between 2014 and 2020.
The ESIFs include the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Cohesion Fund (CF) for development and structural adjustments of regional economies, the European Social Fund (ESF) for employment, social inclusion and education, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) for competitiveness of agriculture, sustainable management of natural resources and territorial development of rural communities, and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for sustainable fishing and coastal communities.
Let us consider the largest of these funds. The ERDF – with a budget of nearly 200 billion euro for 2014-2020 - focuses its investments on several key priority areas (known as 'thematic concentration'): a) Innovation and research; b) The digital agenda; c) Support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); and d) The low-carbon economy. Furthermore, the fund gives particular attention to specific territorial characteristics.
Europe's urban areas are home to over two-thirds of the EU's population and it should not be surprising then that roughly 50% of the ERDF resources are invested in urban areas. Moreover, ERDF action is designed to reduce economic, environmental and social problems in urban areas, with a special focus on sustainable urban development. To achieve this, at least 5 % of ERDF resources are set aside for this field, through ”integrated actions” managed by cities. This translates into around 10 billion euros from the ERDF directly allocated to integrated strategies for sustainable urban development.
Italy is the second largest recipient of ERDF funds – after Poland – in the current funding cycle. As an example of the impact of this funding on urban areas, of the more than 30 billion euros invested, 1.6 were destined specifically to clean urban transport infrastructure.
Another important funding stream for cities comes from Urban Innovative Actions and from URBACT. The first initiative provides urban areas throughout Europe with resources to test new and unproven solutions to address urban challenges, with a total budget of 371 million euros for the period 2015 to 2020. During the current funding cycle out of the 86 projects funded across 20 countries, 13 are taking place in Italy.
URBACT is a European exchange and learning programme that promotes sustainable urban development. Over the period 2014 to 2020, URBACT III had a budget of 96.3 million euro.
These resources are expected to grow in the next EU budget (2021-2027). Sustainable urban development has been confirmed, with, among others, a provision requiring member states to earmark 6% of their ERDF resources for investments, up from the current 5% allocation. In addition, various initiatives running in the current programming period will be combined within the European Urban Initiative (EUI), a new initiative with a total budget allocation of 500 million euros.
Furthermore, cities have access to financial means at the EU level to achieve their objectives of regeneration through a number of alleys, such as the European Structural and Investment Funds, the Connecting Europe Facility, the European Framework Programmes (Horizon 2020 and its successor Horizon Europe), the Just Transition Fund, the mechanism for Important Projects of Common European Interest, InvestEU, the Next Generation EU instrument – with its Recovery and Resilience Facility - and other EU funds.
As an example of the resources that cities can receive from these programmes, it could be useful to consider that under the next EU Research Framework programme - Horizon Europe - one of the five new research missions proposed will focus on making 100 European cities climate-neutral by 2030, with the goal of developing role models that could be followed by other metropolitan areas. 
The negotiations on the next seven-year budget and on the Next Generation EU instrument – which were agreed in principle last July in a potentially historic European Council – are still ongoing. However, more than one third of the total value of the investments to re-launch the European economy are earmarked for climate actions, including the previously mentioned building renovations. Reducing the energy consumption of buildings is critical to fighting climate change, considering that building operations and construction together account for some 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Beyond this aspect, the regeneration of European cities is bound to play a much broader role in achieving the European Union’s objective of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. It suffices to bear in mind that cities cover about 3% of the land on Earth, yet they produce about 72% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are also the places where innovative solutions are proposed every day; they are hubs where decarbonisation strategies for energy, transport, buildings, industry and even agriculture coexist. Crucially, in these challenging times, they have proven through history their resilience and their capacity to adapt.
 Elena Granata, Biodivercity, 2019
 On the Climate Neutral Cities Mission see https://sciencebusiness.net/framework-programmes/news/paint-town-green-horizon-europe-moonshot-draws-fast-and-radical-plan; on the concept of Mission approach under Horizon Europe see https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/mazzucato_report_2018.pdf