By Mercedes Bresso - 12th April 2013
Europe’s cities have a remarkable track record and an amazing capacity to find new innovative ways to deal with fast-changing societal, economic and environmental realities
Cities and towns can play a vital part in the development of a smart, sustainable and inclusive Europe, writes Mercedes Bresso.
Urban areas are sources both of challenges and opportunities. Some of Europe’s major problems are indeed concentrated in cities. They are economic, social, demographic and environmental problems that are interrelated and, in some cases, have a severe impact on urban sustainability. And some of these problems have just been aggravated, as many European cities have been hit very hard by the crisis. I’m thinking, in particular, of unemployment and, notably, youth unemployment, but also social inequalities in general.
Cities are also places of opportunities. Europe’s cities have a remarkable track record and an amazing capacity to find new innovative ways to deal with fast-changing societal, economic and environmental realities. Our cities have reinvented themselves many times, thanks to new technologies, innovative urban planning and architectural projects, new kinds of social relations or new economic ideas. Therefore, our cities have a key role to play as laboratories and incubators for a smart, sustainable and inclusive Europe.
At the same time, our towns and cities, together with their regions, constantly need to strike the right balance between the needs of the public in terms of living space, education, training, health and mobility, and the needs of business, as regards infrastructure, support for research and innovation, as a basis for regaining competitiveness. This balance is now made ever more difficult, but also more important to strike, because of budget cuts which require cities and regions to be creative and come up with new ideas.
In this crisis, our towns and cities, together with rural municipalities, constitute the lowest – or should we say the most noble? – level for exercising solidarity: an intergenerational and intercultural solidarity, coupled with guaranteed access to public services and to decent housing and, above all, a rejection of spatial segregation.
The crisis has also shown that our prevailing economic paradigm is not sustainable, neither ecologically, nor socially. The many concurrent crises and market failures experienced during the very first decade of the new millennium – especially including the financial and economic crisis affecting us since 2008 – have proven beyond doubt the case for a new green economy concept.
In a world overexploited by an unsustainable development model, cities have a key role to play in changing our lifestyles, stimulating creativity, attracting talent, helping the unemployed get back to work and building bonds of cooperation with businesses.
In a smart green economy, growth in income and employment should be driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The transition towards a new, sustainable development path requires joint efforts from all of us. The Committee of the Regions is of the opinion that all players, including sub-national and local governments, have a shared responsibility in creating a sustainable society that is responsive to the natural resources available: cities and sub-national governments have an essential role to play in this and are to a large extent the driving forces in the work devoted to bringing about sustainable development, not least due to their proximity to EU citizens.
The transition to a more sustainable pattern of development offers a whole series of opportunities, particularly when environmental improvement and the generation of economic and social value added are considered in terms of potential synergy. These opportunities must be made use of through appropriate measures in the fields of economic policy, education and social change. Training, capacity-building and support for cutting-edge innovation in the field of sustainability at all levels are therefore essential to ensure that this can become a new industrial revolution which will for the first time be inclusive, fair and sustainable.
The Committee of the Regions has on numerous occasions expressed its willingness to take on the major challenges of urbanisation and green urban economy, through initiatives such as the international covenant of mayors and regions, or its support for decentralised cooperation for development by sub-national governments and local authorities, of which we just saw impressive examples during the third conference on decentralised cooperation organised in Brussels in April.
Towns and cities are vital stages in the democratic process and places where ideas are born and discussed, where power is exercised and public policies delivered. In the EU model, their role is recognised, not least in an institution like the Committee of the Regions, and we are ready to play our part in bringing about this change together with our citizens.
Mercedes Bresso is a vice president of the Committee of the Regions