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The German Presidency conference ‘Europe’s Cities Fit For Future’

Edited on

01 December 2020
Read time: 5 minutes

Subjective notes by URBACT Expert Iván Tosics on this input event for the New Leipzig Charter.


The German Presidency conference on cities and on the New Leipzig Charter (NLC) had to be organised online. The digital webinar sessions were spread across three weeks in September 2020, starting with a half-day discussion about challenges and possible approaches, continuing with a full day on innovative city approaches in economic, environmental and social fields, and finishing with a half-day political discussion about implementation.


All the links to the recordings of the five sessions and all presentations and supporting documents are available on the official event website.


Overview of the event and key topics


This was a large conference: over 500 visitors followed the conference on YouTube on the first day (the popularity of the thematic sessions was lower, at close to 100 participants). My personal interest to follow the 13.5 hours of conference discussions was based on my curiosity to get answers on the following questions. What is the novelty of the NLC? How did the main messages change as a consequence of the pandemic? To what extent can it help cities to achieve a greater role in EU policies? Besides, I was also interested in the selected innovative city approaches.


The first two questions were quickly addressed at the beginning of the conference. According to Tilman Buchholz (Deputy Head of Unit, German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community) one of the unique selling points of the NLC is the idea of urban policy for the common good, addressing the fact that resources are not infinite. Participation and co-creation became stronger and there is a focus on implementation – a whole chapter deals with empowerment of cities.


Silke Weidner (Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus – Senftenberg) addressed the new, and for many people controversial, topic of digitalisation, which has been given a large weight and put as a cross-sectoral dimension to the NLC, additional to the three main pillars: just, economic, green.


The original ideas of the NLC have been modified in the light of COVID-19: besides densification and inner cities, also other issues have to get higher importance. However, there is no suggestion in the document that social distancing should become the major principle: it is still integrated development that is the focus and digital tools can help to avoid gentrification and urban sprawl.


As Jonas Scholze (Managing Director of the German Association for Housing, Urban and Spatial Development) explained in a recent interview with URBACT: “Covid-19 gives a whole new meaning to the concept of city resilience … it is closely linked to the triangle of sustainability: communities with a functioning economy, environmentally and climate-friendly ‘green’ solutions and a socially just urban society are demonstrably more robust to crises. Other indicators of ‘strong’ cities are the provision of services of general interest in the social, educational and health sectors as well as digital infrastructures and services.”


A dynamic opening half day


The introductory half day of the conference brought a surprisingly dynamic three hours to the listeners. The tone was set by the disruptive keynote of Niklas Maak (book author and writer for the F.A.Z. feuilleton), who painted a radically different future, which will need different solutions. In his view the Coronavirus has highlighted the contradictions and inequalities of urban development and in this light we have to completely rethink how we live in cities.


There is a threat that cities will lose shops, offices, and even cinemas. Although smart city planners have ideas how to reform the cities, in Maak’s opinion other ideas are needed. Cities should be rebuilt on the ruins of the previous uses: millions of square meters become vacant, giving opportunity to bring back affordable housing, small shops, new functions into the heart of the city, functions which were kicked out when plot prices were enormously high.


New public living rooms might be developed like museums, new, more inclusive ways of education can be developed. Europe has chances to develop a third way (based on innovative, new understanding of cities), opposite to the market and state-dominated systems. Digitalisation might make middle and smaller towns attractive again, instead of forcing rural residents into small and expensive flats in large cities.


In order to achieve radical changes, politicians have to take back power - market reactions cannot address these challenges. Public control of land has to dominate, pushing back private interests and unlimited speculation. In the digital age, the collective ownership of data (instead of expropriation of data by tech giants or authoritarian states) is of crucial importance. Digitalisation will ensure more return on economic activities and this money should be distributed in a more just way, compensating those people who still have to work in physical or service jobs.


The inequality issue was also addressed by Anna Geppert (University Paris-Sorbonne). People not able to home work, would not only need compensation, but a decent life based on increased work-related wages – otherwise large protest will change the present status quo. She supported the NLC in giving greater importance to the functional urban areas and regional policies, thus bringing the problems of neighbourhoods into the right spatial scale.


Wolfgang Teubner (Regional Director of the European Secretariat of ICLEI) talked about the choices and conflicts in the different dimensions of transformation, such as technological aspects, socio-economic challenges, and spatial restructuring. He suggested decarbonising energy systems, changing mobility systems (with lower number of cars); and addressing the big divides in the job market with strong social compensation systems (people in precarious jobs are preparing and delivering parcels to people sitting at home in home office). He challenged the view of Maak regarding territorial restructuring: to move away from large cities would either lead to sprawl or to destroying the original character of the small and medium cities by densification.


Innovative city approaches


Three consecutive workshops on innovative city approaches were moderated by URBACT experts, highlighting the cases of 3x4 cities in the economic, environmental and social fields, through presentations, panel discussions and Q&A sessions. (For more direct experiences of hundreds of cities inputting into the New Leipzig Charter, see the content and outcomes of the URBACT City Labs.)


The Productive City workshop included:


  • the Urban Innovative Action (UIA) BRIDGE project from Rotterdam South (NL): linking the youth of a deprived urban area with local growth sectors through innovation within the city administration and co-creation with society.
  • the URBACT good practice of Preston (UK), recognising the power of public procurement in the local economy. Aiming to locate more spending in and around Preston, contracts are divided into smaller lots which are more attractive for local entrepreneurs – and local anchor institutions are approached to expand the procurement basis.
  • Mouans-Sartoux (FR) has an interesting story of a tiny city fighting the large international food industry. Their URBACT good practice, ‘food sovereignty’ started with school canteens, supplied with affordable, locally sourced organic food. The implications became significant, in terms of governance, planning and the local economy, preferring close-by producers and reducing food waste.
  • The UIA funded Aveiro (PT) Steam City project aimed to change the post-industrial (ceramics) city into one of Portugal’s first digital hubs, through innovative Tech Labs in schools, providing talent for the city’s growing tech industry base and encouraging the city’s best qualified citizens to stay in the area and boost the local economy.

The Green City workshop focused on the following innovative city cases:


  • In Umeå (SE), a unique project aimed at halving the use of energy in a housing estate through: photovoltaic cells on the roofs; 137 new sustainable apartments with high energy efficiency; 405 renovated apartments; nearly fossil fuel-free district heating; and individual metering. With the help of the University, options were evaluated on how renovation could be completed as sustainably as possible while not increasing the rents more than 10 percent.
  • Ghent (BE) introduced a large car-free city centre, carefully selecting and communicating the precise narrative: not against all cars users but against those who use the city centre without having a destination there. Six sectors were designed and directly crossing from one to another was prohibited. A citizen council of 150 citizens was formed which judged the options and developed compromise solutions.
  • Wroclaw (PL) made innovative investments towards climate change adaptation. In a poor inner city area, where most buildings are privatised, but courtyard areas remained in municipality ownership, efforts were taken to green the courtyards with nature-based solutions. The interventions were planned together with the residents and, as a result, 90% of rainwater is kept within the area.
  • Stuttgart (DE) has an innovative planning and co-funding scheme for the development of green infrastructure in the Stuttgart Metropolitan Region. Some 160+ projects have been implemented throughout the region, covering all aspects of green infrastructure. Through a 1.5 million EUR regional fund, municipalities can get 50% co-financing for development of open spaces, allocated competitively.

The Just City workshop introduced the following innovative city examples:


  • In Brussels (BE), CALICO is an intergenerational and intercultural co-housing project to preserve some neighbourhoods from gentrification through a partnership of eight organisations. Based on land owned by the Community Land Trust of Brussels, the land is safe from speculation, provides housing for lower-income families, includes Housing First units for homeless people, housing units for poor and single women, a community-oriented birth and end-of-life facility, and a community space open to local neighbourhood initiatives.
  • Athens (EL) launched the SynAthina platform to bring together the large number of diverse bottom-up initiatives. Over 450 community groups participate, and from their examples urban innovation prototypes are created, such as new ways of cleaning streets and empowering refugees (Co-Athens) – a contemporary art project in a physical space which is mostly inhabited by migrants.
  • In Barcelona (ES), Fundació Hàbitat3 manages 520 properties that provide adequate housing for 1 400 people at risk of housing exclusion. Fundació is acquiring and renovating empty homes together with local social enterprises which train and employ socially excluded people. Different types of subsidies by city councils are combined: private people lease to them the empty flats slightly below market price, while municipalities give allowances to people to pay the lower rent.
  • In Gdańsk (PL), many participatory tools are used to involve citizens in decision-making and co-creation processes. Citizens’ Assemblies are organised, Neighbourhood Houses are established, five million EUR budget is devoted to participatory budgeting and Thematic Councils are set up to monitor the implementation. The city acts as a broker on the basis of a new way of governance, a new profile of civil servants and improved relationships between public city administration and different city players.

Closing sessions of the conference


The closing half day of the conference dealt with implementation issues. Susanne Lottermoser (German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community) mentioned the Urban Agenda of the EU as a potential vehicle for the implementation of the NLC. There are, however, changes needed, such as a secretariat to monitor and assess partnerships and more legal expertise for partnerships to work on better regulation and financing. The dissemination of outputs has to be improved by dissemination hubs in all Member States (national contact points).


Wenke Christoph (Permanent Secretary for Housing, City of Berlin) argued for giving higher political importance to the Urban Agenda. In this spirit, the European Recovery Initiative should involve cities, not to repeat the mistake of the European Semester in which cities are not involved directly.


Normunds Popens (Deputy Director-General for Regional and Urban Policy at the EU Commission) was convinced that the urban dimension should get stronger through Functional Urban Areas and urban-rural links. In the new EU programming period, cities will be supported by thematic calls. For the first time ever there will also be a territorial priority objective: if PO5 is part of the national strategy, direct work with urban authorities will be possible. However, he could not give any positive answer on how local municipalities could manage to be involved in the process of national recovery planning.


In the final political debate, the main message that was formulated was that a true translation of the principles to the ground is needed, which is up to politicians at all levels. The NLC should become a leading document for the next decade – allowing for local and regional politicians to be able to go to their national politicians and ask them why they do not implement these policies.


My conclusions

This conference nicely ‘unpacked’ the main principles of the New Leipzig Charter, while interesting and thought-provoking keynotes showed how important these principles are for the future. The 12 city cases shown during the three thematic workshops proved the usefulness of good practices, if applied in a correct way.


While the Urban Innovative Action (UIA) programme helps pre-selected innovative ideas to develop fully, the URBACT Transfer Networks help to spread and adopt good ideas in a progressive way. All these principles and practices are needed to address the mounting urban challenges of the future.