(Infographic via European Commission)

Europe’s present and future is increasingly urban: by 2050, 80 percent of the continent’s residents will live in cities. The trend toward urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the concentration of resources in cities supports economic growth and innovation. On the other, the same conditions carry a high potential for economic degradation and social conflict.

To address these challenges, the European Union is developing the European Urban Agenda, through which stakeholders will work together for a “sustainable, innovative, and economically powerful Europe that offers a good quality of life.” The EU Urban Agenda methodology involves forming limited (two- or three-year) partnerships among Member States, municipalities, and the European Commission to examine issues related to regulation, financial instruments, and knowledge exchange.

We recently met with  Pedro Campos Ponce, of the Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations, who is heading the effort to institute the EU Urban Agenda. We talked to Ponce about the future of European cities and their inhabitants, and about the role the European Union can play in promoting urban development and social justice.

This article is the continuation of a series produced by LabGov and Shareable highlighting public policy supporting sharing in cities and the urban commons. See a previously-published interview with Renato Galliano of Milan Sharing City here.

Francesca Spigarolo and Christian Iaione: How did you become involved with the EU Urban Agenda?

Pedro Campos Ponce: I’m a city boy. I was born and raised in The Hague and I’ve been living for almost 20 years now in Amsterdam. My parents are from Chile. They are political refugees who came here in the 1970s. I was born here, so I’m Dutch, but with Chilean blood.

I’ve been working for the civil service for ten years. I started at the Ministry of Health [before moving] to the area of urban policy. Before that, I studied political science and international relations.

I started working with the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment [now part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment] eight years ago. For the first five years I worked on national urban policies on a broad range of issues. I wrote national policies for urban renewal, I worked on a national policy for depopulation, and I also worked on deprived areas.

In 2013 I got the opportunity to work at the European level, when the first ideas for the EU Urban Agenda (originated with my former [ministry head] Mark Frequin) were beginning to emerge. The first two years of my work on the Agenda mainly consisted in lobbying and getting support for the idea, while the last year and a half have been more focused on the concrete process of forming the EU Urban Agenda and on the Pact of Amsterdam.

How does the EU Urban Agenda differ from previous approaches to European urban development?

I think the most important thing is to look at all the different political milestones you can see in European urban development. I refer here to the Toledo Declaration, the Leipzig Charter, various declarations of Member States, and the actions of the European Commission. The EU Urban Agenda builds on those milestones, but it is a concrete action-based agenda.

This is what has been missing in the discussion about [urbanization] in the last years. We have talked a lot about what is important in urban development in Europe, in particular about an integrated approach and about the importance of multilevel governance. But now, for the first time, we are putting it into practice.

We are building a multilevel governance [structure for] the EU Urban Agenda, where Member States, the European Commission, and cities work together. They will jointly choose the EU Urban Agenda’s themes and actions, which is something new. For the first time these important actors will be at the same table discussing urban development.

Second, we have partnerships that focus on twelve themes—twelve urgent urban challenges. These partnerships will produce concrete results and [thus will show] what the added value of the EU Urban Agenda is.

Collaboration among the [European Commission] Directorates-General is a [key feature of the new EU Urban Agenda]. For instance, more than one Directorate-General (such as DG-REGIO, DG-ENV, DG-GROW, and DG-RTD) will be involved in the partnership theme of air quality.

For the first time, we see [municipal representatives] at the table with both Member States and European Commission partners, discussing their ideas concerning the problems existing in cities.

What particular challenges is the Urban Agenda intended to address?

There are a couple of challenges. First, we want more power for the cities, a voice for the cities of Europe, since at the present moment in the EU the actors calling the shots are the EU institutions and Member States. The cities play a very marginal role and through this Urban Agenda we want to give them a bigger role. This is something that for some Member States is new and scary, particularly for those Member States where cities do not play a big role in policy development.

In the Netherlands we have a tradition of involving local authorities in [policy-making], but this is not always the case. But the situation is changing. Member States are accepting a bigger voice for cities.

A second element to work on is the role of the European Commission. As you know, nowadays the EU is not very popular among citizens in some Member States. Every initiative that seems to be an expansion of EU competences is perceived as negative by some of them. This is especially the case for Member States, such as the Netherlands, that traditionally do not want to see the EU enlarging its competences.

We want to ensure that the EU does those things that matter the most. So we have to write the role of the European Commission in a very secure way, not to give the impression that we want the EU to have new competences. We do not want a bigger EU; we want a better EU. We want the EU to improve its core qualities and also, when it designs new policies, to make them better by engaging cities in policy development.

A third challenge is to ensure transparency in local processes. The partnerships, for example, will consist of 15 partners: five member states, five cities, relevant Directorates-General of the European Commission, and other stakeholders like the European Investment Bank or health, education, and housing [officials]. But we also want to ensure a broader movement; we want to engage other actors who can make useful contributions. We [intend to] design a platform [to collect] good examples from cities or [city residents].

The challenge of transparency [was the topic of] a conference last April in Amsterdam (within the framework of the series New Amsterdam–City in Transition, organized by Pakhuis De Zwijger).

How, specifically, do you hope the Urban Agenda will impact the future inhabitants of European cities?

The EU Urban Agenda starts from an idea of cities made by citizens, local businesses, and local authorities. We want these city-makers to be supported in the best way possible by national and EU policies.

Through the partnerships, we hope to identify bottlenecks in EU policy and implement concrete regulations through which European citizens can better address their challenges.

There are different ways to achieve this—for example, [making it] easier for cities to apply for funding from the EU. EU cities will [thus] be able to face their challenges in a more efficient way.The projects the cities implement thanks to a better [funding] policy [will in turn benefit the citizens themselves].

In ten years, there should be a concrete list of improved EU policies and a concrete set of changes to EU funding. It is not about more funding for cities, for now, but it is about better funding, more accessible funding for cities.

You mentioned air quality as among the themes the partnerships will address. What other specific issues will Urban Agenda participants examine?

An important [theme] is the inclusion of migrants, which is one of the first partnerships, coordinated by City of Amsterdam in collaboration with the European Commission (DG-HOME). This is a very interesting construction, where the European Commission works directly with the city in coordinating the partnership.

[Migrant inclusion] is a [timely] subject. It concerns the challenge of helping cities cope with the migration issue, and it reflects on how we can integrate these new inhabitants of Europe into cities. Now there is a lot of finger pointing taking place in the EU, discussing whether this or that does not work on the issue of migrants. I think these partnerships might be a way to show that the EU has a role [in migrant integration].

It will be very interesting to see what specific recommendations and improvements these partnerships propose, when it comes to EU policy. I’m guessing it will be something similar to more direct funding for cities. The process is complicated: the funds for asylum and migration are coordinated by Member States, and thus it will be challenging to come to [agreement] on this issue.

Some of the other themes are very broad. One is how to deal with urban poverty, an important issue following the crises that have taken place in Europe. [Because] this is a very broad aim, we have to understand what we really want to tackle and we have to identify where an Urban Agenda can generate the most added value.

Tell me more about the partnerships. How is a partnership established? How can other individuals or groups support partnership activities?

The first partnerships are pilot projects. They are formed in the following way. We have a forum of Member States, which [appoints] the Member States that will take part in the partnership. Then the cities come into the process. We asked the umbrella organizations of the bigger cities to nominate a city. We asked the Committee of the Regions to nominate a city; we asked CEMR to nominate a city; we asked EUROCITIES to nominate a city; we asked URBACT  to nominate a city. A participating Member State can also nominate a city or metropolitan region.

The European Commission decides who will participate on their side. Then we have the other stakeholders. The core participants of the partnership decide on the expertise they are looking for. For instance, the European Investment Bank might be invited for their expertise in financial instruments. Or if there is a lack of knowledge in civil participation, the partners can invite a representative who is an expert on this issue.

We aim for the system to also function as a platform, where the partnerships report on their findings and concrete actions. Other interested parties can also contribute their ideas, which the partnerships can bring to the board and discuss.

We have a group of 15 pioneers. We need a bigger group of interested parties around the partnerships. These can include any organizations [able to make] concrete contributions to the partnerships. In the end, it is all about engagement. Everybody who is in the partnership should have an interest in bringing something to the table and also taking something from the table.

How many partnerships are already underway? How can outside organizations interested in supporting a partnership learn more or get involved?

Four partnerships have already started. The first one is on urban poverty, the second on air quality, the third on inclusion of migrants and refugees, and the fourth on housing. A colleague of mine is [working to complete] other partnerships, to make the participation as integrated as possible. We still have eight other themes to address.

The first four partnerships are more or less complete, but if someone is interested in contributing, they can either go to the European Commission or email the Urban Agenda team at my ministry through and describe their interest.

We’re interested in the idea of the commons. How do you understand the concept? Can it serve as a design principle for the cities of the future and/or their governance?

I think there might be some similarities between your idea of the commons and what we are working on doing at the European level. At this level, in fact, we are trying to deconstruct the old way of working in the EU by giving the cities a bigger voice.

I think the commons is, in a way, also trying to give citizens a bigger voice in local development. I see a very important parallel between the two. When I connect this with the EU Urban Agenda the question is, as always when we talk about the Urban Agenda: How can EU policy better facilitate or support the actions on the ground through regulations, funding, and knowledge exchange? If you look at the commons in Bologna and in other Italian cities, do they need something from the EU? Is there something in EU policy that is making life more difficult for them? Or could EU policy make life easier for the commons? That’s an interesting question for us. If there are conflicts, the idea would be to address them at the EU level, through the partnerships.

What partnership would best fit the idea of the commons?

I see the commons as a form of good urban governance, and good urban governance is one of eleven cross-cutting issues identified by the the EU Urban Agenda [as worth attention] from every partnership.

These cross-cutting issues are always to be considered in relation to the content on which each partnership is working. For example if you talk about poverty, the commons is one of the instruments to combat poverty in a town or in a city. But it also encounters difficulties, where the EU can be of added value.

How do you see the development of the sharing economy impacting the future of Europe’s cities? Is it an opportunity or a threat?

I think it does have an impact. I’m living in Amsterdam and I see the impact of Uber and Airbnb around me. I use Uber a lot in Amsterdam and in other cities, and I see Airbnb tourists in my neighbourhood. At the moment, public authorities are struggling to [define] their relationship to these new initiatives.

I think it is basically a positive development. But at the same time, I see the [destructive potential of the new services], which means that current regulations are not well adapted to the new reality. It remains to be seen how the sharing economy will relate to new policies, and also how EU policy can foster these developments while maintaining the legal severity of the regulations.

I think [the sharing economy] is another issue that can be dealt through the EU Urban Agenda as it develops further. I’m not sure if it would be a theme in itself or a cross-cutting issue. For example, it could be connected to poverty, or to housing, as the sharing economy approach is something that could help improve urban housing management.

If you were to incorporate the sharing economy into a broader urban development program, where would you start—at the local, national, or EU level?

For sure it has to be at the local and at the national level. I’m sure that there are regulations at these two levels that do not fit with the trend of the sharing economy.

Because we are living in a context of [skepticism toward the EU], the EU [would have] to make clear why EU action is needed when we talk about sharing economy. You should start with evidence of the sharing economy’s [positive] value and how it can contribute to urban development in Europe. Secondly, we have to see how we can facilitate sharing initiatives, how we can take away bottlenecks.

It is very difficult for the European Commission to take initiative on their own. It is possible for them to do so, but they are much stronger when they take up an initiative pushed by Member States and other EU institutions or stakeholders.

You could also start from the EU Parliament and the Committee of the Regions, by getting a bit of financing to [make a concrete, evidence-based case for intervention on the sharing economy]. You have to make clear to the policymakers why they should change their ways in order to facilitate these initiatives.

I think this is the way of doing it: through the European Parliament, through the Committee of the Regions, maybe also through the European Economic Social Council, through the Member States and cities, and through umbrella organisations such as EUROCITIES.

Say more about the “bit of financing” to make a case for EU intervention. Who should get the money, and from where?

For example, you could use the URBACT network. URBACT is a program from which cities can get financing for sharing knowledge about certain issues. I know the sharing economy is an issue they address well. There you can get some money to produce reports, but also to share experiences between cities.

The good thing about URBACT is that, according to their working method, you also have to involve the local community and local businesses in your network.

Going back to the big picture, what would you identify as the main drivers for urban development and social justice? What are the primary threats to the same?

One threat is that we as public authorities are letting go a bit too much. I think it is correct to let go in a way, by giving citizens more power in the decision making process. Moreover, I think, the narrative of decentralization, of giving power to local governments, could be a good one. But as political authorities, we should have an idea of where urban development is going.

I think, maybe, a lack of strategy is a threat. By giving power to citizens and business, in a way we privatize [government functions] and then we act as if this was not our business. I think that in national governance it is always important to have a strategy, to take a position, give guidance and not let go; to [make room for other actors], of course, but also to have your own position on urban development, and to give support to cities and their development according to it. I think this could be a threat, in particular considering the [trend of] budget cuts to national governments.

A fundamental point here is the integrated approach. All the sectors will [otherwise] remain in their own silos and will not cooperate with other sectors. I think decentralization can be good, but we have to be aware of our own position and we have to remember the role we play in national governance and also local governance. We always have a role to play and we shouldn’t give too much away, because citizens and business need us. It is all about finding the right equilibrium.

What about the drivers? What is missing from the conventional approach to urban development that the EU Urban Agenda could help to correct?

I think that most things have already been said, in a way, if we are talking about good urban governance, and about working together to build better cities. I don’t know if there is something new to add. What I think is we have been talking about a lot of things but we never do it.

We talk about a triple helix or a quadruple model, but I don’t see it happen too often in cities in practice. I think we have some good ideas—we have a lot of ideas that are sensible. I think political apathy doesn’t allow them to be realized at this moment.

So what is missing—practice?

Yes. Because we already have great ideas about how we can work in an integrated way with all the actors involved. We have been talking about it for about ten years; we all know that it is a great idea, but we have not been able to make it happen as much as we wished to.

If I look at the Netherlands, here we have a few, but not a lot of, examples. In my opinion, it is really time to put into practice the ideas of civic participation, of civic involvement, of the commons. We have to do it now, without being afraid of the possibility of failure.

We, as political authorities, are always afraid to fail. Of course, we are spending public money. But I think we should try being less risk averse. I hope being less risk averse will lead to more action, to a real implementation of these ideas into practice.




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