As we all know, urbanisation is a crucial ingredient of our century and of globalisation. In this perspective, examining the features of European cities can be very useful. As a region of ancient city-dwelling, the Old Continent can provide a paradigm that, far from having to be reproduced as it is, can be the source of precious starting points for those areas of the world that deal with this challenge today, and in a much stronger way. Moreover, this issue is particularly significant today, just a few months after the European election round. The EU’s future appears uncertain, as the difficulties of the appointed Commission show: in this sense, being able to immediately set up a concrete and efficient working plan for the next five years will be crucial. Such an effort should aim to reduce as much as possible the gap between European institutions and citizens - who, the last few years, have been subjected to the economic crisis, migration flows and terrorist attacks – and to improve concretely their quality of life. Therefore, talking about the future of European cities is absolutely useful.
How are European cities?
Speaking of “European cities” is both necessary and misleading. It is necessary because certain characteristics of European cities are shared continent-wide, thanks to a longstanding tradition which can be traced back to Ancient Rome. After military conquests, the ancient Romans engaged in extensive urban and land use planning while building strong infrastructure, some of which can still be admired today. It is also misleading since urban areas in Eastern Europe are very different from those in Western Europe, while Scandinavian cities are much different from those in Southern Europe.
The first element to keep in mind is that Europe is undoubtedly an urbanised continent. Three-quarters of European citizens – a total of over 400 million people - live in an urban context. Statistics diverge on the minimum parameters to consider a residential area as a “city”, but they agree in affirming that Europe is one of the most urbanised areas of the planet. European urban settlement has some specific and peculiar features: first of all, its polycentric and multidimensional characteristics. Small and medium-sized cities are prevalent – thirteen thousand cities have under a million inhabitants. Only two cities (Paris and London) exceed ten million people, and four or five exceed five million. Which leads us to point out an initial original factor: if in the USA 25% of the total population lives in cities with over five million people (not to mention “primatial” countries such as Argentina or Brazil), in Europe this percentage is no higher than 7 or 8%. 23 European cities surpass a million inhabitants, and 345 have more than one hundred thousand; together, these cities host about 150 million European citizens. 38% of the EU population lives in cities which range from five to one hundred thousand residents (data shown is for 2011).
Table 1: Defining cities according to density of the population:
Source: European Union (2011), p. 3
Looking at the geographical localisation of European cities (table number 2), independently from the size, we can affirm that they are widely spread but oriented. As we can see, they are distributed more or less evenly among the various countries, but become more concentrated along a line that begins in southern England, runs from the Flemish Region to the Ile de France, continue along the industrial belt between France and Southern Germany, and ends in the Po Valley, constituting what some experts call the “continuous city”. Many different models have been proposed to represent this European urban axis (blue banana, concentric circles, pentagon), but what should be stressed is that it coincides with the most productive areas of the continent, as a demonstration of the direct (and bidirectional) correlation between cities and wealth production.
Table 2: Population density based on the GEOSTAT population grid, 2011
Source: Eurostat, Population density based on the GEOSTAT population grid, 2011
A third characteristic of European cities is their high density. However, this does not result in them being unbearable: with an average of approximately three thousand inhabitants per square kilometre (always meant in an urban context), Europe is placed above the USA (1600 people per km2) but far below contexts like Latin America, Asia or Africa (which oscillate from four to eight thousand people per km2).
This seems like a positive element: according to experts, at three thousand people per km2 the planning of an integrated public transportation net is not practicable. Therefore, European cities are virtuously affected by the fact they were build prior to the advent of automobiles, while it is clear that the sprawl of North American cities originates from their planning during a motorised era. At the same time, it seems evident that at much higher densities, such those one observed in developing countries, guaranteeing adequate living conditions and environmental sustainability becomes difficult.
European cities are rich, because their population contributes to the continent’s GDP and its overall employment at a higher rate than non-urban populations. Between 2000 and 2013 the GDP of European cities has increased twice as fast as the European average, thanks to investments in services, knowledge and innovation, while employment has increased by 7% at the same time as it decreased in the non-urban areas. Furthermore, some urban areas represent broader economies compared to various nation states. However, they are still deeply unfair: although far from the peaks of segregation of North American cities, it is worth mentioning that in Romania about nine hundred thousand people in urban areas have an available living space that oscillates between three and three and a half meters (according to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture of the European Council, a detainee needs at least 6m2). This unfairness extends beyond the former Soviet Bloc: in its last study on the issue, Eurostat explicitly referred to an “urban paradox”, highlighting among other things that cities with a particularly significant share of people whose income exceeds of one third the national average one (150%), also have a higher number of unemployed people compared to the national average.
European cities are overall safe, since the homicides rate has decreased by 40% between 2002 and 2014, but the perception of insecurity remains high and in fact tends to increase because of the migration flows, an aging population, the sense of loneliness – to which, in Theresa May’s unfortunate British Cabinet, a specific ministry was dedicated to –, petty crime, the worsening of socio-economic conditions and the geo-political instability.
European cities are increasingly multi-ethnic, since the majority of migrants looking for jobs concentrate here (there are some exceptions in which migratory flows are more evenly distributed, including Italy).
In any case, the continent’s cities keep being appreciated by their own citizens, who positively respond to opinion polls on this matter: as the Eurobarometer’s surveys show, the majority of European urban citizens are happy with their city as well as with their existence, and consider access to an adequate sanitary system, education and the job market priorities, while they see safety, access to a home and air quality as less essential.
Deeply unequal inside, as we saw, the cities are also extremely different from one another: many capitals, for example, have brilliantly overcome the crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, when industrial decline often led to a significant reduction in the population. They converted back to services, culture and tourism centres, attracting an increasing number of visitors (like in non-capital cities such as Barcelona, Milan and Hamburg). If in some extreme cases the inflow of tourists has even been considered excessive, the condition of a large number of smaller European cities is very different, which we can define as declining. Small and medium sized industrial hubs which never managed to redefine themselves after industrial decline and the consequent depopulation, without a new vocation, languish in a crisis which turns into social malaise.
When the season of the great projects and of the top-down illusions ended – the one which saw as protagonists the urban visionaries between the two wars and in the Post-war – planning capabilities varied drastically: London had already shaped its future at the end of the 1990s, asking a panel of multidisciplinary experts to plan its expansion; a decade later, Paris did the same, taking on the Olympic challenge of 2024 and beyond; Stockholm, Stuttgart, and Vienna built a profile based on liveability, technology and sustainability. In many other European cities bound to a XX century development model, this has not happened yet, and perhaps never will.
Finally, European cities are environmentally friendly, especially if we consider Western Europe and compare it to other contexts. As is known, Europe has long taken a strong stance in the fight against climate change, in both Kyoto and Paris. There are countless examples of best practices and virtuous administrators, regarding mobility policies, energy saving and urban planning. On the basis of this, it is fair to say that if these ambitious goals in terms of the reduction global warming and climate change mitigation and adaptation are met, the example provided by European metropolitan areas will have played a key role.
The cities in the European Union
Having described these characteristics, it is time to move to the next topic. How have EU institutions addressed these urban issues in the recent and distant past? Which place does this topic occupy within the continental architecture?
2016 seems to be the turning point for the cities from a multilateral standpoint. In fact, in October, the ONU conference “Habitat III” was held in Quito and set forth the “New urban agenda” (NUA). In light of the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) approved by the international community twelve months earlier, the agenda defined the characteristics of sustainable development at an urban scale, and a series of periodic checks to test its global implementation was planned. On 30 May of the same year, the so called “Treaty of Amsterdam” was approved at the Community level, signed by the Ministers for Regional Affairs of the EU countries with mandates for urban development or by their colleagues in charge. A first element is immediately clear: the countries are speaking on behalf of cities, as opposed to cities setting goals for themselves; the regional institute remains at the centre of the scene, the lens through which to observe the phenomenon. However, the agreement raised hopes, in part because it arose from a debate developed within European institutions over the course of a couple of decades. Thanks to the Treaty, the “European urban agenda” can be finally determined, and it revolves around twelve main challenges: 1) local economic development and job creation; 2) overcoming urban poverty; 3) access to decent housing; 4) inclusion of migrants and refugees; 5) sustainable exploitation of the land and solutions based on nature; 6) circular economy; 7) climate adaptation; 8) transition to renewable energy resources; 9) efficient, public and sustainable urban mobility; 10) air quality; 11) digital transition and technology innovation; 12) transparent, innovative and responsible assignment of public contracts. Thematic partnerships are expected, which should involve cities, directly or through urban networks – first of all “Eurocities”–, the European Commission and the member states, which unfortunately do not seem willing to participating. Four of these partnerships start immediately (migrants, air, accommodation and poverty), each one coordinated by a state with the exception of the one on migrants, which has Amsterdam as a leader. Then, during the following three years, the active partnerships would become eight (the added ones are circular economy, digital transition, employment and mobility), and this time all of them with at least one city as a leader.
Even though the effort is significant, there are nevertheless doubts about its real efficiency. The last three years may have been disappointing regarding some expectations, and the European elections are too recent to let us forecast the next five years. Therefore, to comprehend the scenario in front of us, it might be useful to recall how the debate on cities has evolved within EU institutions in the past, in order to capture its most significant traits, and get the information to reshape it usefully in the future.
It must be first be clarified that the responsibility over urban planning lies with the member states, who have decided to confirm the subsidiarity principle. This approach reveals itself as symbol of an obsolete concept of urban issues, relegating them to a “local” matter, and ignoring the connective and transnational contribution that urban centres radiate, as bolstered by the data. Consequently, the urban programs that followed one another over the decades had to insert themselves in EU investment and financing programs, particularly the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Development Fund (EDF). It should not be forgotten that the Union’s institutional architecture confers enormous importance to regions, which receive and distribute significant amounts of money. After all, the unit which with urban affairs throughout the EU is an office inside of the Directorate General for regional policies. Moreover, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the only formal body where cities gather with other stakeholders, although just a few actively participate and regions are always at the head of the whole process.
Among the many possible reasons for this situation, a form of “anti-urban prejudice” of the EU’s ruling classes cannot be excluded: first of all, they considered the rural areas as more important for Europe’s future and perhaps also more manageable from a political point of view; furthermore, they wanted to keep a firm control over the state’s nerve centres, starting from their capital; lastly, in the case of the least developed countries, the fear was that the EU’s urban policy could have been the Trojan horse with which redirect resources destined for cohesion from the poorer countries to the richer ones. Anyway, these trends have become particularly problematic today. One figure is sufficient: 70% of EU legislation is implemented at an urban level.
The structured interest of the Community’s institutions towards cities dates back to the late 1970s, and especially to the Commission chaired by Jacques Delors. In the following decade, on the basis of the French, English and Italian experiences of recovering urban areas, dozens of integrated projects were activated at the level of individual cities, in an attempt to reduce inter-continental disparities, to make neighbourhoods more environmentally sustainable and, gradually, to face the crisis of urban neighbourhoods that had been destined to industry or logistics and were by then largely underused. In the 1990s, this method brought about the institutionalisation of the programs URBAN I (1994-1999) and then URBAN II (2000-2006). These provided specific and circumscribed interventions, and were subsequently replaced by so called mainstreaming policies, which aim to frame interventions within a single normative, operative and cultural framework, with an approach that turned out to be more rigid and not necessarily more efficient. The financing sources stabilised: besides the ERDF and the EDF, other instruments such as JESSICA (Joint European Support for Investment in City Areas, founded in 2006 by the Commission, the European Investment Bank and the Council of Europe Development Bank) and JEREMIE (from 2006, conceived first of all for small and medium enterprises) were launched.
In the EU’s most recent financial report for 2014-2020, the so-called cohesion policy for the first time expressly takes into account cities, considering a share of at least 5% for integrated sustainable development actions at the urban level. This number should be confirmed by the recently elected EU parliament. In a not so forward-looking way – at least in my personal opinion – that share excluded small and medium cities, which, on the contrary, should deserve a specific and privileged focus. Naturally, the Community’s institutions are also active in the support of partnership activities (URBACT program, urban Forum), in the diffusion and promotion of culture (European Capital of Culture, now also Green Capital), and in monitoring and analyzing (urban audits, periodic analyses, surveys).
The international networks are, above all, supporting the cause of the cities, starting from the “Eurocities” network, founded in 1986 and which today represents over 140 European cities as well as 45 partner cities, for a total of 130 million citizens in 39 countries. This network expresses itself at a political level on many crucial issues: environment, migrants, innovation, and social equity. It participates in high level meetings and partnerships, publishes periodic studies and organises international conferences, always with an urban focus. Instead, for the medium sized cities, there is the network “Eurotowns”, which today represents 17 towns. Besides these two, there are also other realities, including the more traditional and established “Council of European Municipalities and Regions” (CEMR) and the “Urban Development Network” (UDN).
Some studies have traced the long story of the first networks of this type, which date back to the beginning of the twentieth century and the interlude between the two wars. Organisations such as “Union international des villes” (UIV, 1913) or the “Garden Cities and Town Planning Association” (GCTPA, 1913) were born to promote solidarity among populations and with the highest consideration for a technical approach to urban problems. Therefore, it is not shocking that the leaders were mainly representatives of the socialist parties, of the Freemasonry, and technicians of the various European municipalities. And at the same time, it is not surprising that with the advent of dictatorships these organisations were attacked and had limitations and sometimes even prohibitions imposed on them (the National Association of the Italian Municipalities, ANCI, which still exists today, was founded in 1901 and then banned by the Fascist regime in 1925). As already explained, a “politicised” aura is consolidated around the theme of cities, translating into a constant commitment from the EU Parliament, which much more active than the Commission. Significantly, even in the legislative authority this topic will often be a prerogative of political leaders on the left.
Going back to the networks, it has to be pointed out that some cities – often the most dynamic ones in a broad sense - are particularly active in these organisations: Barcelona, Zagreb, Milan, Stuttgart, Vienna, Lyon, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. Although it may seem obvious, it must nevertheless be reiterated that being active in these meetings produces an advantage on various levels: in signalling difficulties in the implementation of a specific EU measure or norm; in improving their ability to access EU funds; in perfecting continental policy on issues that interest them. Nevertheless, many Italian cities, for instance, still fail to grasp this and continue to consider international relations or EU policy departments as luxuries that drain resources from more immediate and apparently more useful activities, and do not make the crucial investments in human capital that are needed (starting with the linguistic skills required to participate in an international meeting).
Before moving on to the policy proposals in a strict sense, an overall consideration seems useful: the historical prudence of EU institutions regarding urban matters may have had various and more-or-less commendable origins: while the need to strive strongly for continental cohesion, for example, may be understood, the desire to protect the principle of subsidiarity seems to be less justifiable in this arena, in a Europe that is already too inter-governmental.
But regardless of these developments, it is necessary to realize that today we are in a completely different phase: the European Union faces an enormous credibility crisis, due above all to its inability to provide answers to citizens regarding inequality, poverty, immigration and security. We need concrete policies and proximity interventions. And it is in this perspective that a more democratic and far-sighted Europe cannot do without the contribution of the cities, and the cities cannot do without a more committed support from Community institutions.
Policy proposals for the European Union
Trying to be clear on the objectives, I will point out some general goals and then some possible ways to implement them:
- In light of the declining consensus around European institutions, and the crises that have shaken the continent in recent years, it is fundamental to attribute a new centrality to urban areas. If Europe wants to get closer to its citizens, effectively improving their existence in crucial areas, cities are essential: social inclusion, environmental sustainability, technological innovation, integration of migrants and refugees. All these challenges play out primarily at the local level.
- European institutions are also confronted with a demand for democratic legitimacy, being seen by many as separate entities, useful above all in perpetuating a class of bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg. In this sense, reinvigorating the nearest democratic institutions, favouring the exchange of experiences, and the implementation of policies can strengthen the idea of a more democratic and less top-down Europe.
- Cities must participate in all opportunities for debate in community forums, in particular by contributing to the planning and decision-making phases of EU institutions.
- The European urban network presents itself as demographically sustainable and balanced. This condition must be preserved as a specificity and as an objectively positive element: in this sense it is necessary to dedicate a special effort to small and medium-sized cities, those hardest hit by the post-industrial era, but the most capable of virtuously rooting themselves in the surrounding territory, whether peri-urban and / or rural.
- Within the framework of widely shared priorities (again: social inclusion, environmental sustainability, technological innovation, integration of migrants and refugees), we must focus above all on the redevelopment of suburban areas, which, in addition to triggering segregation, feed the perception of insecurity. Remember, in this regard, the successful formula of the Italian Government in the aftermath of the Paris attacks: for every euro spent on security, one euro must be spent on culture (integration, sports, public spaces, communities, etc.).
- Cities must be placed at the centre of European institutional architecture. As proposed among others by the "Eurocities" network, the appointment of a Vice President of the Commission with responsibility for urban affairs would seem useful, formally untying - even with a view to effective coordination - the urban challenge from regional policy. Moreover, such a figure could encourage emulation by the Member States, which often lack one: even at the national level, this is what the supporters of the Urban Agenda demand.
- Establishment of a High-level Committee on Urban Affairs, which allows for horizontal coordination and transversal policies.
- Regular discussions at the leadership level, with the involvement of local actors and civil society, to develop a necessary and non-ritual debate, and to submit to public opinion the effectiveness of the actions taken by the EU institutions and by the Member states. This discussion will necessarily have to maintain a connection with what happens in the other multilateral organisms that deal with the matter, starting with “UN Habitat”.
- Appointment of a renewed intergroup of the EU Parliament to coordinate and draft legislative proposals with urban relevance, and verify their implementation, involving political leaders and elected officials.
- Incentives for European cities to increase their participation in various partnerships, including through the acquisition of specific skills: in the case of Italy, for example, a considerable investment is needed in the post of diplomatic adviser in municipal administrations, as well as in the offices in charge of management of European Affairs.
- Destination of a growing fixed portion of the 2020-2026 Budget for urban development, with particular reference to medium and small cities, regardless of the regulatory framework and the instruments adopted. Identification or refinancing of other tools that support cities in creating partnerships and elaborate integrated development plans.
 Eurotowns, Eurotowns position paper on medium-sized cities in cohesion policy, (last retrieved on 23 August 2019), p. 2.
 European Union, Cities of tomorrow. Challenges, visions, ways forward, Brussels, 2011, p. 2.
 L. Dijkstra, The State of the European cities 2016, Brussels, European Commission, 2016, p. 11, https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/sources/policy/themes/cities-report/state_eu_cities2016_en.pdf.
 Eurotowns (2019), p.2.
 European Union (2011), p. 24.
 M. Kotzeva, Urban Europe. Statistics on cities, towns and suburbs, Brussels, European Union – Eurostat, 2016.
 Dijkstra (2016), pp. 15-6.
 Eurobarometer, Quality of life in European cities, Brussels, European Union, 2016.
 A. L. Boni, “L’Agenda urbana per l’Unione europea. Un nuovo inizio per le città?”, in Urban@it Background Papers, 2016, p. 5.
 O. Gaspari, Reti internazionali di città e tecnici delle città nella prima metà del Novecento: il caso italiano, in L. Grazi (ed.), Le città e l’Unione europea, Bologna Il Mulino, 2012, pp. 101-29
 Boni (2016).