A new sense of power and purpose
In 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 and the conservatism of national politics.
Challenges, ambitions and expectations
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.