Whether it be through media discourse, policy orientation, or academic engagement, to name but a few, the question of the urban future is currently receiving a significant amount of attention. On the 17th and 18th of February, the European Commission hosted a conference entitled ‘Cities of Tomorrow: Investing In Europe’.
The aim of the conference was to widen discussion and debate around the development of a European ‘urban agenda’ (albeit, accepting that a form of ‘urban agenda’ has existed for a long period; e.g: Leipzig Charter or earlier documents from the Commission). The program covered a wide variety of topics and sub-topics related to the urban challenges facing Europe, including smart cities, green growth, the role of business, and social inclusion.
Somewhat predictably, perhaps, the context was set through the mantra of the importance of cities for the future of humanity, both at a European and Global scale. During the plenary discussions, the need to conceptualize cities in a manner that goes beyond their official boundaries was made. This was outlined both in terms of the relationship between cities and their regions by the Mayor of Venice, Georgio Orsoni and the European and global context by Benjamen Barber. On one level, throughout the conference, there was a recognition that as well as being sites of prosperity cities were also sites of a myriad of social problems. However, there was little discussion about the potential contradictions and tensions between a competitive city approach and challenges of achieving social inclusion.
The main sessions of the conference seemed to uphold the notion that social inclusion and prosperity will be offered through new fixes, whether they be business-oriented or through the implementation of a smart city agenda. That ‘cities and business’ was deemed worthy of its own session with little scope for interaction from the floor and little by way of critical discussion, is perhaps itself reflective of these wider issues. Instead delegates heard from a number of figures, such as Martin Powell from Siemens on technology and Chris Vein from the World Bank on how the business world can influence the running of cities. Topics that might need some urgent discussion, such as impact of speculative investment in real estate, remained absent from the debate.
It wasn’t until one of the later parallel workshop sessions that we heard any significant form of critical engagement. Jan Vranken’s presentation on the ‘urban dimension of inclusive growth’ gave a timely reminder of the shortcomings of the notion that growth reduces poverty. More detailed case-studies also illustrated the stark challenges facing cities. The discussion within The New Urban Development Network session by Yaron Pesztat of how the unemployment rate in Brussels of 20% had been brought about by a mismatch between job creation and the available skill-base is a case in point.
The desire to promote ‘best practice’ became a dominant feature of discussion in the conference. This call for agreement on certain guiding principles was referred to by Commissioner Johannes Hahn as a ‘consensus of the willing’. While on one level there was a discussion of the role of democratic engagement, there was little by way of discussion of how we define ‘best practice’ or what the transfer of policies from one place to another might actually mean for democracy, both at the urban regional and neighbourhood level. Although the need to combat low-density settlement patterns was emphasised by Juan Clos, there is a danger that a form of density=sustainability mantra becomes the end-goal of European urban policy. Such perspectives highlight the need for an understanding of how different political and economic structures influence such ideals and how these differ between different places.
Cities often reveal the particular social and political struggles of society, yet there is a tendency to perceive particular representations of the city as being somehow apolitical. In reality, the manner in which particular ideals of urban transformation are selected is strongly influenced by the motivations of those with greater levels of influence within society. The current trend for the regeneration of former industrial parts of cities into high density living and consumption spaces might be deemed as representative of best practice. Yet, there also needs to be a recognition of how, depending on the political and social context, such developments might just as easily be a perceived as symbols of exclusion for many. Seeking to select ‘best practice’ to be emulated in different places needs to be conscious of such factors.
The development of an urban agenda should not, therefore, seek to be an exercise in ‘getting everyone on board’ an already-defined set of ideals, but should instead seek to engage in the relationship between the multitude of factors which serve to shape contemporary urban society in Europe. There seems to be a dual challenge here. One the one hand, as discussed above and as already recognized by previous documents, such as the Cities of Tomorrow report from October 2011, there is a recognition of the social challenges facing European cities. Yet there also seems to be some form of expectation that these can be solved without fundamentally altering the structures that serve to produce and reproduce such problems in the first place (such as, for example, the stark differences in income within and between cities in Europe). If, as was argued during the Cities of Tomorrow conference, cities are to be given more power to retain the wealth they generate, there is also a need for debates about what is done with such wealth and how it is distributed amongst the wider urban population. The formulation of an urban agenda needs to get beneath the surface and seek to advocate structural solutions to the severe challenges now faced by European cities.
Recordings of the different sessions are available here