Responding to urban pressure

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Series Details 24.01.08
Publication Date 24/01/2008
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Europe’s cities are confronted with some of the EU’s most acute problems, writes Simon Taylor.

Cities are at the sharp end of several of the most difficult policy challenges facing the EU. They have to run efficient public transport while reducing energy consumption and minimising pollution. Europe’s richest cities - the likes of London, Paris and Hamburg - also contain some of the worst unemployment and poverty hotspots in the EU. Waste management is a major issue and it is in cities that the challenges of inter-community relations are at their most acute.

Cities are also at the forefront of developing policy responses to these pressing challenges. Across Europe, cities are pioneering new, integrated approaches to these issues which are closely interlinked. Well thought-out urban transport schemes can reduce pollution and cut journey times, making cities more attractive business locations. Lower energy consumption can help contribute to greenhouse gas reduction targets while simultaneously lowering pollution, which has health benefits for urban communities. Small community-based projects can offer new opportunities in economically blighted urban centres, taking advantage of new technologies like high speed broadband.

Catherine Parmentier, chief executive officer of Eurocities, a network of 115 of the EU’s largest cities, says: "Cities moving together could change the face of Europe."

The organisation that she runs divides its time between communicating with the EU institutions to ensure that the voice of the cities is heard on the enormous range of issues where cities have a role, spanning transport, healthcare, education and integration. The other half is spent sharing best practices between cities.

Parmentier points out that cities have been behind many interesting initiatives including mobility week, a regular feature in the EU’s calendar, which now involves more than 2,000 cities worldwide and has moved beyond its initial focus on car-free days to promote non-polluting modes of transport. Parmentier says that her organisation is looking at ways to encourage cities, as major consumer of goods and services, to move into responsible consumption and ensure that fair trade principles apply when cities are sourcing items such as building materials or uniforms and working clothes for staff.

The next major challenge for Eurocities and its members is climate change. According to Parmentier, EU cohesion policy should reflect climate change’s importance in the Union’s thinking by focusing more on sustainable, non-polluting transport solutions and energy efficiency. Traditionally, cohesion policy has provided billions of euro in aid to build new roads because of the perceived need to accommodate rising traffic levels.

Parmentier says that EU cohesion policy has made progress in paying greater attention to the urban dimension which is now integrated in the current programming period 2007-13. In the past, cohesion policy has focused on reducing economic divergences between regions and has only gradually developed policies and programmes to tackle the disparities within cities themselves.

The Eurocities chief executive says that she hopes that this trend will continue. In particular she would like to see a "better balance" in the EU’s budget and addressing the "heavy weight of the Common Agricultural Policy".

While cities’ relations with the EU institutions are good, she stresses the need for national, regional and local authorities to be in "close consultation" to ensure that resources are directed where they are most needed and then used as effectively as possible at local level. "When decisions are taken in the Council [of Ministers] cities are very much absent from the frame," she says.

Europe’s cities are confronted with some of the EU’s most acute problems, writes Simon Taylor.

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