Urban agenda: EU must give power to the cities

There is no doubt the future lies in smart cities, say MEPs, but it is now up to EU policymakers to give urban authorities the means to succeed.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

27 Apr 2016

Europe's cities are home to over 70 per cent of the continent's population, accounting for around 80 per cent of Europe's energy use and up to 85 per cent of its GDP. 

Cities are where most EU legislation is implemented, in areas such as mobility, air quality and energy efficiency. Yet cities currently play a limited role in shaping this legislation, and it can sometimes be difficult for them to access funding.

The problem, according to Monika Vana, Greens/EFA group shadow rapporteur on the urban dimension of EU policies, is that "in many cases, cities have specific needs that are not considered at EU level."


The EU urban agenda, currently under development, sets out to change this. It has been a long time coming - the fruits of 20 years of discussions, claims ALDE group shadow rapporteur Matthijs van Miltenburg - but it has gained momentum in recent months after the Dutch EU Council presidency made urban policy one of its priorities.

One of the main themes of the urban agenda is 'smart cities'; a term which encapsulates, as GUE/NGL group shadow rapporteur Martina Michels puts it, "the city of tomorrow; a city that, with the help of modern digital technology, promises solutions for sustainability, high quality of life and efficient use of resources."

Andrew Lewer, negotiating on behalf of Parliament's ECR group, adds that the aim of smart cities is to establish technology-based solutions that will allow citizens to "live, work, travel, communicate and create in a clean and healthy environment."

In Barcelona, for example, a smart traffic light system calculates the approximate route emergency services will use and changes all relevant traffic lights to green until they have passed, to allow for smooth running and safe traffic.

Monika Vana sees the smart cities concept as important for many aspects of city life, including technology, housing, transport, social services and green spaces: "I truly believe that all European cities are very 'smart' in their own unique way. This is a strength that we must harness", she says. 

As well as improving the lives of urban populations, smart cities could also "rise to the challenge of global emerging economies", says Ivan Jakovčić, who sits on Parliament's regional development committee. 

He explains that, for the past 50 years, his native Croatia has seen substantial depopulation of rural areas as people increasingly concentrate in a small number of towns and cities. Yet despite this shift, "very little has changed in the basic concepts of urban development."

It is therefore important, he says, for countries like Croatia, to "successfully embrace the smart cities trend." 

Some of the country's cities - Zagreb, Split, Pula and Rijeka - are participating in EU-funded smart cities projects. Pula, for example, was the first Croatian city to introduce electronic document circulation in its civic administration.

However, as exciting and full of potential as smart cities may be, they are not, points out Martina Michels, the answer to all the problems faced by urban areas. 

"Today, in addition to deep socio-economic divides, most cities, urban areas and the surrounding rural areas suffer problems in 'traditional' public infrastructure and services such as public transport, energy efficiency, and skyrocketing rents for flats. They also face problems such as the closure of community centres and increasing shortage of manpower in municipal public services."

She acknowledges that technology could help, "increase transparency and lower barriers to political decision-making", as well as deliver useful applications in the health and education sectors. 

However, the German deputy also notes that this will require, "universal - that is, affordable - access to required technology and network infrastructure and protection of personal data instead of perfect surveillance."

So, what else would MEPs like to see in future urban policies? Improved funding and a 'bottom-up' approach would be a good start. 

Monika Vana explains; "The Dutch presidency launched the urban agenda this year to improve cooperation between the EU and its cities in the fields of finance and legislation. This is a good first step, but more measures will have to follow. We must guarantee that the urban agenda becomes a bottom-up process, or else it will fail to deliver. Cities need greater investment, room to manoeuvre in terms of their finances and finally, a say in the EU."

Matthijs van Miltenburg adds; "The thematic partnerships that have been launched are an important instrument to realise the goals set. These need to be accompanied with more accessible European funds for urban authorities."

"In addition, adequate financial resources need to be available not just for the pilot and learning phases but also for the long-term and structural policies."

Andrew Lewer, however, sees the agenda, "not as a legally binding document creating remote, supranational structures, but rather as a flexible, voluntary tool supporting genuine localism and innovation through multilevel partnerships, including industry and universities."

The British deputy also advocates a bottom-up approach, as long as it is, "networked internationally and supported - not dictated - by intergovernmental approaches and backed by effective financial instruments, facilitating investment that ferments the kind of innovation to boost EU jobs and growth for the long-term."

This, says Lewer, is an agenda he could, "potentially see some value in, as long as it does not demand additional funding or create red tape."

Currently, explains Jan Olbrycht, who chairs Parliament's urban intergroup, "While EU cohesion policy does not provide direct funding for smart cities - because it assumes that intelligent solutions relate to different thematic areas are supported by structural funds - some elements of support for smart cities can be found in the Horizon 2020 programme and the Juncker plan."

So, what's next? Matthijs van Miltenburg is cautiously positive. "Although history has too often shown us that talking about an urban agenda does not always lead to concrete results, I now feel a certain optimism. All stakeholders are on board; under the Dutch presidency, we can start elaborating and implementing a true European urban agenda."


Read the most recent articles written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli - MEPs vote against beginning negotiations on updating EU copyright laws