Europe has a long-standing tradition of urbanization and urban regeneration. Interventions in this domain range from social inclusion to the recovery of historical neighborhoods, from migrants’ integration to green energy and efficiency, from smart mobility to public-private partnerships and investments. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing cities worldwide to re-shape their model and re-think their priorities if they want to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” as spelled by the SDG no. 11.
National and European policymakers have put together an exceptional fiscal response to the coronavirus crisis. The Next Generation EU (NGEU) fund, together with a reinforced European budget (MFF) for 2021-2027, should be one of the main tools to shape and boost the bloc’s recovery. In particular, the establishment of the Recovery and Resilience Facility within the NGEU is a major step in this direction.
Figure 1: How the NGEU spreads its grants around
In March 2020, the European Commission and the High Representative presented a draft for “Comprehensive strategy with Africa”, deeming the continent a top priority for the EU. The document proposed a renewed Euro-African “political alliance” built around five pillars: green transition and access to energy; digital transformation; sustainable growth and employment; peace, security and governance; migration and mobility.
Growing tensions between the US and China have challenged the rules-based international order. Despite tense transatlantic relations over the last years, the US remains Europe's strategic ally while economic ties between the EU and Beijing have deepened. The election of Joe Biden as US president could become a game changer to face global challenges and relaunch transatlantic relations.
The crisis generated by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the immediate future represents a social and economic disaster of global reach. Combining it with the precarious circumstances which affect Italy makes it extremely difficult but truly significant to consider this drama an enormous opportunity for rethinking the cities and the entire urban-territorial system of the country.
The most recent European policies promoted by the current Commission, and the opportunities arising from the availability of the Next Generation EU recovery instrument of €750 billion, have put the topic of urban renewal back in the spotlight of continental and national debates. This isn’t surprising at this point in time because since the end of the XIX century urban renewal practices have been master tools on which to boost the economic performance and social sustainability of a community by enhancing the urban fabric and buildings
Covid-19 has certainly had a harsh impact in many fields, such as public health, employment, housing or inequalities, to name only a few. But it has also brought about some positive changes that cannot be ignored. A shift in urban policy-making seems to be taking place in several regions of the world, where we find some city governments advocating for ideas that were unimaginable before.
One of the dimensions of rising inequality in developed countries is the growing divide between urban cores and peripheries, with the result that urban regeneration is back in fashion. In France, however, it never really went out of fashion. Starting with the first wave of riots in the banlieues in 1981, a little more than a decade after the death of the famous French-Swiss architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, the politique de la ville (French for urban policy) has been part of the social protection system policy toolkit.
When, in the late 1970s, urban science began addressing the physical decay of urban and peri-urban areas and underused infrastructures, the United Kingdom led by Margaret Thatcher (prime minister from 1979 to 1990) put in place a program of urban regeneration that reflected a general political agenda of liberalization and privatization. In the British urban policies of the 1980s, focused on land-use efficiency and housing market renewal in urban slums, economic interest prevailed over social concerns.
Over the last decades, the growth of urban centres has led a new phase in world development that focuses on the enlargement of densely populated areas known as megalopolises. It has generated a debate on the renewal of built heritage, especially in Europe. The rebirth of cities, which until yesterday was an exceptional phenomenon thought to be uncontrollable, has now been reconsidered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It brings with it an even more significant theme, i.e. sustainability in its broadest meaning and the quality of life and resilience of the places we inhabit.