Challenges and opportunities for urban and regional development in Europe
Experts discussions at ARL Online Conference
The ARL Online Conference on "Cities and Metropolises in France and Germany" took place on 14 March 2023 and was hosted by the International Affairs Team at the ARL Headquarters. The event was organised as part of a French-German collaboration that has recently resulted in the publication of a research report of the ARL. In the book, the authors compare the current situations of cities, metropolises, and small and medium-sized towns in both countries. The book is available in French, German, and English. For the event, experts from different European countries were invited to broaden their perspective on converging European spatial and urban development policies.
Nearly 60 participants, mainly from various European countries, attended the four-hour online event. The authors of the book led different sessions of the program and invited experts to provide exciting talks. Prof. Christophe Demazière (Université de Tours) introduced the book project as one of the editors. A comparison of key findings presented by two of the authors, Prof. Didier Paris (Université de Tours) and Dr. Patricia Feiertag (TU Dortmund), followed the introduction. They discussed the similarities and differences in regional development policies between France and Germany, both of which face challenges such as post-industrial change, shrinking cities, rapid growth, urban sprawl, climate adaptation, and the need for (more) sustainability.
In the following session, Prof. Valeria Fedeli (Politecnico di Milano) from Italy and Prof. Maroš Finka (AESOP – Association of European Schools of Planning) from Slovakia gave reflections on the book regarding their respective countries and European issues. They raised questions about the role of cities in the public agenda, the need for more or less urban policy from the state level, the importance of citizen participation in shaping urban policies, and the role of regions in relation to cities.
Following a brief lunch break, participants gathered in four distinct groups to address the challenges of urban and regional development in Europe, with each group focusing on a different aspect.
The first group focused on crisis management in urban development. They debated the importance of shared solidarity and changes in governance during times of crisis in the French-German border regions and explored the possibility of applying these changes to a regional context. The group also discussed the hypothesis that small and medium-sized towns may have an advantage over larger cities in creating pathways for crisis management and resilience in the long term.
The second group focused on sustainable settlement structures and discussed the challenges of implementing sustainability policies. They emphasized the importance of participatory governance in promoting sustainable development and stressed the significance of involving local communities in the decision-making process. However, the group also acknowledged the difficulties in implementing participatory governance and highlighted the emergence of new initiators of sustainability policies such as academics and developers, making this process even more complicated.
The third group discussed mobility issues and highlighted the lack of public transportation in rural areas as a significant challenge, especially with COVID-19 causing people to move away from city centers. They also called for a change in culture to encourage biking and walking and suggested regional railway transport as an alternative. Although the group recognized the challenges of punctuality, they discussed financial incentives like toll coding strategies and electrification of transport.
The fourth group delved into the topic of smart cities and the gains and losses associated with them. The group explored a variety of topics, including data silos, collaboration across age groups, and the role of education in preparing future generations for digitalisation. They also addressed issues around accessing data and the challenges this poses for researchers.
The event concluded with a panel discussion where Prof. Rob Atkinson (University of the West of England), Véronique Menez (ANCT – L’Agence nationale de la cohésion des territoires) and Mariona Tomás (Universitat de Barcelona) raised the issues addressed during the day to a European level.
The speakers emphasised the significance of cultural and diversity factors in addition to economic factors in the EU Cohesion Policy and highlighted the often underestimated role of small towns, as they are home to approximately one-third of the EU population.
They elaborated on the idea behind the EU's Cohesion Policy, which aims to promote growth, development, and employment by bridging economic gaps between regions. The policy supports various topics such as sustainable urban mobility, water management, energy efficiency, and natural and cultural heritage. Additionally, the speakers discussed the challenges of establishing politically strong metropolitan governments in Europe due to the lack of clear definition, varying political recognition, and limited competencies, fiscal autonomy, and direct democratic representation of metropolitan institutions.
Overall, the contributions and discussions have shown the importance of sharing knowledge and experience across borders to find solutions to the challenges cities and metropolises as well as small and medium sized towns all across Europe are facing. The book project should serve as a stepping-stone towards continued collaboration for similar purposes in the future.