Two-thirds of the EU population live in urban areas where environmental, economic, demographic and social challenges are amplified. The EU has made a strong political commitment to sustainable urban development which is reflected through specific instruments and actions financed in the framework of current and future Cohesion policy.
Challenges and policy responses
Europe is one of the most urbanised continents in the world. According to Eurostat, 68 % of the EU population live in urban areas. Sustainable urban development means achieving “social justice, sustainable economies and environmental sustainability“. Experts argue that economic growth can be accomplished in this context through well-designed policies, including green policies.
However, issues such as unemployment, discrimination and poverty are often amplified in an urban context and the effects of the recent economic crisis are felt more strongly. Urbanisation is also aggravating existing challenges in terms of environmental protection, economic development, demography and social cohesion, amongst which:
- climate change and cities’ excessive reliance on fossil fuel-powered transport;
- uncertain economic growth or stagnation;
- demographic decline and ageing;
- increasing multicultural composition of cities and social polarisation;
- deepening socio-spatial inequalities and segregation (urban sprawl, slums).
The delivery of sustainable urban development across the EU has been promoted through a series of policy documents, including the “Bristol Accord“, the “Leipzig Charter” and the “Toledo declaration“. All of them acknowledged the complex problems accompanying urban development and put forward ideas to tackle them in a sustainable way.
Experts argue that economic development can only be sustainable if it is accompanied by measures designed to reduce poverty, social exclusion and environmental hazards. The integrated approach advocated by the EU in the framework of Cohesion policy pursues precisely these objectives.
Overall, there is consensus on actions which could help achieve sustainable urban development. These include:
- reducing environmental footprint by acting on the consumption of resources;
- combating growing inequalities by reinforcing social cohesion, while preserving cultural diversity;
- allowing greater participation of civil society in local administration;
- ensuring spatial management while developing mobility strategies.
Structural Funds support
Article 17 of the Structural Funds general regulation for 2007-2013 (No 1083/2006) makes sustainable development a binding principle for all funding objectives. Between 2007 and 2013, around €30 billion has been made available for urban development within regional policy programmes. Financial instruments such as JESSICA combine resources from the Structural Funds and the European Investment Bank.
The legislative proposals for 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy foresee that at least 5% of the European Regional Development Fund will be invested in ‘integrated actions’ targeting areas with specific urban challenges. Its management and implementation will be delegated to cities.
Regional Development Committee views
The report on the Contribution of urban development to economic growth in the EU Cohesion policy (drafted by Andrea Cozzolino, S&D, Italy) was adopted by the Committee on 27 November 2012. It praised the positive experience of the Covenant of Mayors in the pursuit of the EU 2020 Strategy objectives and stressed the importance of the local development model, urban regeneration, and the fight against “fuel poverty“.