Dorthe Nielsen, Executive Rirector of Eurocities

Dream, act, and lead for a better urban future

Headshot photo of Dorthe Nielsen

What do we want our cities to be in the future? Many of us might immediately dream of places which are greener, cleaner, and fairer places to live, and combine accessibility, affordability, and employment opportunities for all with a dynamic cultural offer. In other words, places where the quality of life is good.

To inspire the thinking about future cities, some 30 European cities participated in an innovative Future Mentors programme this spring, initiated by the Finnish city of Espoo. It saw young people coach local politicians to shape policies better informed by the concerns and aspirations of the next generation. The input revolved around tackling climate change, employment opportunities and digital connectivity. Most of all, the future mentors were dreaming about much stronger participatory mechanisms, involving young people in the design of their cities.

City action

Using the power of imagination to shape a desirable future for the city is an important first step towards it. EU leaders might not have had cities in mind when they agreed on the climate neutrality goal by 2050 for Europe, but reaching this goal relies heavily on how effective cities will be in the coming decades in transforming their urban systems.

So how can cities become climate neutral, while also becoming better places to live, work and play for all in the next 10, 20 and 30 years? How do we develop the right pathways for an urban transformation which leaves no one behind?

A new months ago we saw the launch of the EU Mission 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. The group of cities, which includes Bristol and Glasgow, are at different stages in terms of dramatically reducing CO2 emissions, but they share a goal and a toolbox. They will develop climate city contracts and action plans while also seek to attract significant investments for implementation. To deliver, they will be working in partnerships with local stakeholders, regional and national governments as well as EU policy makers. The Mission cities will shed some light on the possible pathways and other cities can capitalise on the experiences made and lessons learnt, speeding up progress across Europe.

At the same time, we know that there are essential issues related to financial resources, delegated powers and legislative frameworks that define cities’ ability to act locally. In Eurocities, we work to ensure that the EU framework related to the European Green Deal and beyond reflects local urban needs. Currently, efforts are focused on achieving a level of ambition for reducing CO2 emissions from vehicles and buildings, which can support cities in their efforts. Also, the emerging European framework for digital transformation must empower cities and citizens to develop solutions, which boost actions towards climate neutrality. 

City leadership

While these efforts will shape EU and consequently national frameworks in the long run, ambitious city leadership will make a big difference in the meantime. City leaders can do things that national government cannot. City authorities are the level of government closest to people. They can bring people together around common goals and build coalitions for change at local level. They have leadership of place, with responsibilities for extending benefits to the areas surrounding their cities as well. 

Many cities are already or will have to revisit their governance systems to better tackle the complex and intertwined challenges related to climate change, digital transformation, and social inclusion. This concerns for example ensuring adequate skills to steer the energy transition locally. It also concerns breaking silos in the city administration for effective policies. Also, the ability to successfully involve citizens in local policy making is increasingly essential when implementation depend on changes in our habits and behaviours.

By dreaming, acting, and leading, it is possible to imagine an attractive future for cities, rally people and stakeholders around it and start shaping it. Cities can act locally, but there is a lot of inspiration and solutions to harvest from other cities and when looking beyond national borders. Copying small and big solutions from each other every day accelerates transformation across urban areas. It helps cities reach the future they want.