Reflecting on the European Week of Regions and Cities

Two weeks ago, we joined many of our allies, partners, Chief Resilience Officers, and other key actors at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels, during the European Week of Regions and Cities. We were inspired and encouraged by so many of our conversations, from those with President Juncker’s Cabinet, to Ann Mettler’s European Political Strategy Centre, Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Cretu’s Cabinet, European Parliament’s Urban Intergroup Chair Jan Olbrychyt, to the European Committee of Regions Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the European Investment Bank and many others.

While the globe is urbanizing at a rapid rate, with over 50% of its population now concentrated in cities, Europe is, by many degrees, the most city-centered region of the world. More than 70% of Europeans live in cities, in some places well over 90%. With cities as the best entry point for interventions that can create meaningful change, the EU is poised to truly harness the power of this potential. By engaging with top leaders in the EU, we were able to convey the importance of resilience in realizing this.

Our EU Prospectus, unveiled in Brussels, provided key concrete actions, and opportunities for partnership, that would enable the EU to support urban resilience.

Together these can catalyze the kind of work we all agreed the EU can and should pursue, namely, integrating social capital into climate change adaptation; coordinating EU programs and breaking down silos; realizing the critical role of the private sector; and understanding the role of regional dynamics and planning on metropolitan scale.

Social Capital & Climate Change Adaptation

European commitment to climate change action continues to be strong and steady. However, integrating social capital into environmental initiatives – a key component of building meaningful resilience – is gaining greater traction after last week. Many European cities already showcase these kinds of interventions, and they can orient current and future programs. One perfect example is Paris’ green schoolyards initiative. One of the densest cities in the world, with minimal green space, Paris suffers from acute urban heat island effect as well as issues of social division. The city found a way to address both through one intervention, a key tenet of resilience. Because the city controls the schools (561 in total) they realized they could convert the paved courtyards of each school into green space that could be made accessible as a gathering point for the community. This innovative intervention will achieve several things: it will reduce heatwaves, mitigate flooding, foster social cohesion by providing a new public space, and benefit the children who use it daily – many studies show improved cognitive ability in children regularly exposed to green spaces. It will also enable new immigrants to integrate more easily into their host city by providing a point of entry into the French communities they are now a part of.  This is critical to Paris’ ability to become more resilient to all its challenges.  Climate change adaptation presents an enormous opportunity for investments that return multiple benefits like these and build social cohesion.

Coordinating EU Programs & Breaking Down Silos

Many in the EU clearly understand that cities provide the best opportunities for realizing concrete change and advancing the EU’s priorities. There are currently more than 80 different initiatives and funding streams aimed at helping cities and catalyzing change through them. The proliferation of these programs is exciting, and indicates a recognition of the role cities are already playing. However, they can be consolidated and coordinated, and the priorities they serve defined and aligned. Urban resilience provides the mechanisms through which the EU can accomplish this in a holistic and integrated way. This is already showing results across our network in regions and cities as diverse as those in the United States, Australasia, Mexico, Japan, China, and many other parts of the world.

The Critical Role of the Private Sector in the EU

EU governance and public policy alone cannot accomplish this. Catalyzing resilience requires new collaborations and partnerships, from all sectors of society. Last week several of our partners from the private sector reflected on their role in the process, and the tangible financial incentives for collaborating with cities on resilience-building projects. Representatives from Siemens, Arcadis, and AT Osborne, joined on a panel with us to discuss their work with our cities. Many other partnerships have formed across our network, providing greater insight into cities’ demands as they form resilience strategies and begin the process of implementing them.

  • Amec Foster Wheeler (now known as Wood Group), worked with Paris to map the entire watershed of the Seine, creating an online interactive tool to identify potential flood expansion zones and vulnerabilities. The city will be using this data to engage with land owners regarding present and future land use.
  • Arcadis has worked with Bristol to bring together municipal, private and financial stakeholders to identify opportunities for coordinating investment in the city to advance its resilience goals. The project resulted in two urban and blue and green infrastructure development recommendations, both of which the city adopted and working on implementing.
  • The IRC has worked with both Paris and Amman to help those cities better understand the challenges associated with absorbing refugee populations, and coordinating the work of various NGOs in an urban context. Both cities have secured additional funding to continue this critical work. Already, this initaitives has alleviated suffering and improved lives, and has led to a new body of knowledge that can be shared with other cities, across the globe, facing similar challenges.
  • Citymart ran a problem-framing workshop with Athens, during which more than 40 stakeholders from all city sectors, convened to investigate and solve for challenges associated with the city’s waste management. The workshop provided a forum for historically disparate parties to come together and understand one another, and resulted in more than 30 recommendations.
  • AT Osborne have been working with Belgrade to advance their ambitious transport masterplan, particularly focusing on the connection between the city’s urban and rural railways, with both above ground and underground systems. AT Osborne was able to share its experience of similar work conducted in other EU cities and made recommendations for Belgrade to structure future work.
  • SwissRe have provided Athens with access to their CatNet hazard visualisation patform. The system allows the Chief Resilience Officer and her team to develop a variety of impact scenarios for natural hazards, identify areas of key vulnerability (schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure etc.) and make evidence based recommendations for risk remediation.
  • Street Plans have been working with Thessaloniki for several months to increase public participation in the public realm design process. The goals of the project are to create safer, more enjoyable spaces for communities to socialise, improve social cohesion, and moreover to develop a framework that city regulators can use to streamline future work in this space.

Regional Dynamics & Metropolitan Resilience

Cities’ role in carrying forward the EU’s priorities continues to grow – they are the innovation hubs and living labs for all of its most pressing challenges.  Increasingly, cities are realizing they must address some of their shocks and stresses on a metropolitan and regional scale. Flooding, endemic poverty, inadequate mobility, unaffordable housing, and many other challenges, do not recognize administrative and political borders. As EU Heads of State and Government look to cities to implement programs that advance the region’s resilience, they increasingly understand this and should continue to encourage this new scale. Some EU cities have already begun to form metropolitan governance structures and inter-municipal collaborations. Paris, Rotterdam, and several other 100RC cities in Europe and elsewhere, have already begun to tackle their challenges through metropolitan-scale planning and cooperation.

Urban Resilience & The Future of the EU

The EU has always recognized that collaboration and coordinated action benefits the region as a whole.  Since its beginnings, it has leveraged its members’ common interests to build resilience amid different crises – economic, political, monetary, and demographic, especially the sudden influx of refugees over the past several years. However, it has also struggled to directly engage with the voices and concerns of its individual citizens. With the uncertainty of Brexit, and the rising tide of other nationalist and populist currents that echo a scary past, the role of cities becomes even more important. Urban resilience and an increasing investment in cities give the EU a new opportunity to overcome this through decisions and policies attuned to the local level and local needs. This is the best chance for building the kind of cohesive communities that are the bedrock of resilience.  Let’s work together to use this momentum and support the European Union in becoming that inspiring bloc for progress around the world.