Twenty years ago, the United Nations (UN) approved the so-called “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) initiative, which set eight ambitious targets to improve the world and make it healthier, and more ecological and equal. Surprisingly, the word “city” was not included in the Agenda. Urban systems were neither considered as important actors within that global challenge, nor as crucial elements for the success of the plan. To be honest, the UN had taken some steps in previous years: starting in 1976, with the conference of Vancouver, and then again, in 1996, in Istanbul, the international community had devoted a specific Agency (“UN Habitat”) and a periodical conference to metropolitan development in an “urbanizing world”.
In 2015 a New Agenda was defined: 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) to build a more peaceful and prosperous planet by 2030. This time cities gained a relevant position, since Goal no. 11 states : “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. One year later, in Quito, Ecuador, a “New Urban Agenda” was established, involving 167 States, 40 UN’s Agencies and more than 1,100 NGOs and social actors in the preceding public negotiate. This plan was based on a simple observation: it is impossible to achieve any of these global Goals without the contribution of cities. In fact, despite them covering just 3% of the Earth’s surface, they currently host 55% of human beings, and are responsible for about 60% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of solid waste, while consuming around 70% of global energy.
In the same year (2016), European nations managed to approve the “European Urban Agenda”, a comprehensive program that ranges from poverty reduction to mobility, from housing to circular economies, from climate change to the integration of immigrants. It is worth underlining that – mostly because of their long history and gradual dimensional growth – European cities are in general more sustainable, green and just than those in other continents which urbanized more recently . However, it took almost two decades forEuropean institutions and States to reach an agreement on such an important issue, bearing in mind that nearly three quarters of European citizens live in urban systems. As Agostino Inguscio explains in his article, the EU’s institutions are not directly responsible for urban policies like they are for regional ones, and this causes a deep continental fragmentation while promoting urban regeneration and development.
Suddenly, at the beginning of 2020 the COVID 19 pandemic spread all over the world. Europe has been strongly hit by the virus and the subsequent social and economic crises. The debate on the future of cities is useful in order to analyze the necessary changes of perspective and to set the priorities in next years. The President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen mentioned a “New European Bauhaus” in her first State of the Union Speech, a vast plan to regenerate urban areas, defeat COVID 19 and fight against climate change in the framework of the “European Green Deal”. While at nearly the same time, the German Chancellor and temporary Chairman of the European Council Angela Merkel is organizing an Informal Ministerial Meeting on Urban Development in Leipzig, where the purpose is to adopt a “New Leipzig Charter” (after that of 2007) to design livable and sustainable cities during and after COVID 19 (different European countries’ policies on urban regeneration are analyzed in Silvia Rovere’s contribution).
This new ISPI Dossier focuses on urban regeneration in Europe and aims to analyze different practices and laws in this sector, as they were implemented by European countries in the past decades, within the aforementioned global process and debate. COVID-19 forces us to imagine new categories and paradigms for our cities, and therefore it is crucial to learn from previous experiences, through trials and error. Urban regeneration is not just about energetic efficiency or demolition of old buildings: it is more about a new perspective of urban life, where social inclusion, environmental protection, digital innovation and democracy are part of the same transformation and progress.
In this respect, we can learn some lessons from the past:
- Urban renewal interventions need to be designed with a parallel top down and bottom up dynamic. Many French neighborhoods (as Federica Daniele explains in her article) have not improved despite a significant public investment. The reason is that you need to share and elaborate the project of change together with local dwellers and actors. Many banlieues have maintained a bad reputation and low quality of life since the spatial and physical innovations were not supported by social and cultural progress.
- Regeneration needs to involve private actors working together with national and local governments, but it must not be completely market-oriented. The risk of gentrification and social exclusion is evident when we look at the UK (particularly London, here portrayed by Caterina Padoa Schioppa), where many ambitious and successful interventions had bad consequences for a relevant portion of the local population.
- When a city changes international visitors increase. The management of tourism – although we still do not know how and when this market will recover after COVID 19 – requires a deep understanding of the often-problematic clash between locals and tourists, as we clearly saw in growing cities like Barcelona and Lisbon, studied in this dossier by Eva Garcia Chueca.
- As the Dutch case shows (in Marco Lanna’s contribution) creativity plays a crucial role in improving areas and cities: there is no one size fits all fix it model to “mend” cities (as architect Renzo Piano defines this operation) but tailor-made, and good or bad, solutions.
- The quality of public space is a key component of urban regeneration, as Roy Nash says about Milan. Moreover, it is important to remind that cities are not islands within an empty ocean: they are part of a wider territory that links urban systems, suburbs and rural regions. We need to think at the big picture when we plan to renew a single neighborhood or a city’s portion.
Finally, we must be aware that COVID 19 will not disappear in the shortterm . That is why we need to make our cities healthier now to prevent other disasters in the future: what we can state for sure is that segregated, polluted, old cities and ones where citizens do not take part in participatory processes will never be healthy. That is why we are facing today an exciting and difficult challenge, not just for us but for the future generations of urban dwellers as well.