The world’s cities face many common challenges, but Europe’s cities also have features that set them apart. The continent urbanised early, has long-established traditions of city self-government and is today characterised by a dense network of medium-sized cities, many with compact, historic centres developed before the car, generous welfare systems and strong planning regimes.
In more recent years, Europe’s urban centres have gained a new sense of power and purpose – a development aided by the transition to an urbanised, post-industrial economy, a growing expert policy consensus in favour of cities, and, within the European Union, supranational funding and policy support. Though the picture varies across the continent, on the whole Europe’s cities have gained new agency, become better networked and developed an increasingly confident sense of shared identity. Many cities have seen sustained investment in public transport, walking and cycling, public spaces, green infrastructure, cultural and visitor amenities, higher education and, at least in some cases, affordable housing and sustainable urban extensions. It’s become common to hear European city leaders and commentator draw a contrast between the civic, green, cosmopolitan and forward-thinking outlook of their voters with the conservatism of national politics.
But there is another side to the story. Even as European cities appear to have gained in influence and confidence, the challenges they face seem to mount. Many city governments have set ambitious decarbonisation targets, with an increasing number promising to be carbon neutral by 2030. But alongside the radical actions that they will need to take to get on a sustainable footing and adapt to climate change, residents – and national governments – are looking to them to tackle stubborn and often growing inequalities, increase the supply of affordable housing, accommodate and integrate migrant communities, respond to the needs of an aging population, create healthier more resilient food systems, manage disruptive technologies, boost skills and economic opportunity – the list could go on. And all this against a background of limited and often diminishing city budgets, political polarisation and heightened political mobilisation enabled by social media, and the prospect of further health, climate, and other emergencies for which they are on the frontlines.
These challenges can easily feel overwhelming. They demand that city leaders work in new ways, collaborating across traditional government, sectoral and territorial boundaries; deepening relations with citizens and forging new political alliances. This in turn will involve developing new governance capabilities, in areas like behaviour change, collaborative working, digital transformation, public engagement and emergency management.
Against this background, LSE Cities is launching a programme on the future of the European city focused on four broad questions:
- How have European cities and urban governance changed in the last twenty-five years?
- What are the critical challenges now facing Europe's city governments and how are they apporaching them?
- What can European cities learn from cities in other global regions to help them better confront these challenges?
- What support do European city leaders need to meet the challenges ahead and how can this programme help provide it?
Ben Rogers, Programme Lead, Bloomberg Policy Fellow in Government Innovation, LSE Cities
Nuno F. da Cruz, Research Lead, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow, LSE Cities
Catarina Heeckt, Policy Lead, Policy Fellow, LSE Cities
Francesco Ripa, Policy Manager, Policy Officer, LSE Cities
Lucie Charles, Researcher, LSE Cities