top of page

The challenges of global cities: EU's urban agenda

At the end of March I had the chance to attend Ispi (Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale)’s online course “La sfida delle città globali”. It was a two-day event discussing the new challenges that global cities are called to face, such as social and environmental sustainability, their role in national politics, migrations and integration. Well-known Italian lecturers participated to express their own perspective on the question “What is the future of global cities?”.

But before answering, let me dwell upon what global cities are, and why there is such a fuss about them, even at EU level.

Why global cities matter

Did you know that, according to an UN estimate, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas in 2030? This, in ten years from now, will result in 43 metropolises having more than 10 million inhabitants – in 1990 there were only ten. As pointed out by Tobia Zevi – an associate Research Fellow in charge of the Global Cities Desk at Ispi – it is a very complex reality to analyze, since the concept of “city” concerns most of the world’s population.

Moreover, it is an extremely interdisciplinary field of study. There is no single “city specialist” – Ispi put together political economists, architects and experts on migration to debate about this topic.

One of the first to talk about it was the American sociologist Saskia Sassen at the beginning of the 1990s. In her book “The Global City” Sassen claimed that these entities form as production points of specialized sectors in the world’s economy, which are in turn a consequence of the increasing economic globalization: “The mix of firms, talents, and expertise from a broad range of specialized fields makes a certain type of urban environment function as an information center. Being in a city becomes synonymous with being in an extremely intense and dense information loop.” It is, therefore, a self-generating process. As Marco Simoni, a political economist with experience in government and academia, clearly explained, global cities are innovation hubs that create the right ecosystem to foster further developments and investments.

By now, you should have already understood that global cities play a crucial role in the world’s dynamics, but if you need some more numbers, here they are: in 2018, 70% of global GDP was produced in urban areas. Hence, cities are a fundamental source of the world’s wealth – this, however, comes with its downsides. According to Tobia Zevi, urban areas are a scene of social and economic inequalities and criminality. Many economists have estimated that inequality levels within cities are even higher than those between cities and rural areas. And this, of course, is only one of the many challenges to social life that urbanization implicates.

Global cities’ challenges...

One prominent challenge that has gained much popularity lately is that of environmental sustainability in city centres. And that is no surprise, seeing that, despite occupying only 2% of total land, cities waste 75% of energy and produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. These are frightening figures, but there is good news – while cities represent a major cause of the issue, they are also the best places to come up with possible solutions. An example of this is C40, a network connecting 96 world’s megacities – among them many European ones – committed to reaching the most ambitious goals of the Paris agreement at a local level. Through C40, the cities can collaborate and exchange best-practices regarding the climate change challenge, and have already implemented successful programmes involving air quality, transportation, energy, waste and water.

Another point at issue is that of migration. In OECD countries, 66% of migrants live in cities. They rely on the safety net of other migrants and the opportunities that are offered in global cities, while cities reap the benefits of migrants’ entrepreneurial attitude. In the European Union, only 4.2% of the population is composed of (regular) foreigners, but they are concentrated in urbanised areas.[6] However, the diversified economic background and the high multiethnicity in global cities brings about complex integration issues as well. As pointed out by Matteo Villa – an Ispi Research Fellow working on the Migration Programme – one has to carefully distinguish between economic migrants and refugees. It was estimated that after five years in the EU, almost 80% of economic migrants are employed, but when it comes to refugees the percentage falls below 30%. Moreover, Eurostat found that the average income for non-EU citizens in EU countries was about 15,000€, much lower than the EU citizens’ mean of nearly 20,000€.

Leaving aside the phenomenon of migration, the context of cities gives rise to further economic disparities – those between city centres and the suburbs. If on the one side metropolises are beneficial for national productivity, on the other they feed national inequalities. Although this issue concerns the newly-formed cities in the global south more than Europe’s, it can be observed – on a minor scale – in our continent, too. A joint report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Eurofound (2019) has shown that over the last decades, a greater disparity has emerged between capital city regions and other regions. Although the general trend is that of member states converging to the EU average in terms of GDP per capita, “cities and urban agglomerations have come to replace large firms and the nation state as the central social and economic organising units of our time”.

One last challenge is that of the political relevance of global cities. Because of their growing economic relevance, cities seek to play an active role in national and international politics too, but their relationship with central governments can be arduous. For instance, cities often complain about the lack of environmental or integration policies at the state level and decide to implement them autonomously. To try and tackle this issue, several network connecting mayors of global cities were created, to find collective solutions to common problems like those of social violence, terrorism, and protection of the minorities. An example of this phenomenon is EUROCITIES, a network of 140 large European cities and 45 partner cities founded in 1986. Its principal aim is that of increasing the awareness about the role of local governments, as well as allowing mayors to share knowledge about the above-mentioned urban challenges. EUROCITIES also collaborates with EU institutions to find solutions to common issues of European citizens.

...and possible solutions

The international debate about global cities began in 1976 with the first UN Habitat conference held in Vancouver. The outcomes of the debate were collected in a series of 64 recommendations for national action and an “Action Plan”. Since that date, the summit has been repeated every twenty years, with the last meeting – 2016 Quito Habitat III – leading to the adoption of the New Urban Agenda. The New Urban Agenda “represents a shared vision for a better and more sustainable future – one in which all people have equal rights and access to the benefits and opportunities that cities can offer” and “lays out standards and principles for the planning, construction, development, management, and improvement of urban areas”. Another milestone achieved in 2015 is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, whose 11th goal is specifically oriented towards cities, in order to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

The European context

And why should the EU care? In 1900, five out of the ten biggest cities in the world were in Europe (from the most populated: London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Manchester). In 2030, the estimate is that not even one European city will get a position in the ranking, with Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai leading the way. This certainly makes European cities easier to manage, and perhaps less affected by the problems described above. However, due to its long history, our continent is highly urbanized, mainly along the imaginary London-Milan axis. In 2016 Eurostat estimated that the share of the population living in urban areas will rise to just over 80% by 2050. Moreover, 73% of jobs (as of 2016) are based in European cities. Therefore cities, towns and suburbs not only are the key drivers of European economic growth, but also constantly face challenges related to segregation, unemployment, and poverty. In such a polycentric structure, a strengthening of the cooperation concerning territorial and urban policies was deemed essential to deal with the social, economic, cultural and historical diversity of urban areas across the EU.

With the Pact of Amsterdam of May 2016, the EU ministers for urban matters agreed upon the Urban Agenda for the EU. Its scope of application followed the three basic pillars of EU policy-making: better regulation, better funding and better knowledge. The first one aims to achieve a more efficient and less costly implementation of the existing regulations and directives, avoiding excessive legislative burdens on member states. With the second pillar, the EU concretely commits to facilitating the access to funding sources such as the European structural and investments funds, to support the implementation of the above-mentioned policies. “Better knowledge”, instead, promotes the exchange of ideas and best practices about urban policy-making, encouraging the use of public sector information and big, linked and open data.

The main objectives undersigned by the EU ministers are the following: realising the full potential of urban areas in order to reach the objectives of the Union, adopting a more coordinated approach to policies and legislation which are likely to impact urban areas, and involving Urban Authorities in the design and implementation of policies – all of this without issuing extreme legislation or transfering competences to the EU level.

The Pact of Amsterdam created twelve groups of 15-20 experts from the Commission, member states, cities and stakeholders - the Partnerships - to deal with likewise topics regarded as the priorities for European cities. These include, amidst others, circular economy, climate adaptation and sustainable use of land, as well as inclusion of migrants and refugees and urban poverty. [15]

The first results have been positive. The EU Commission’s 2017 report declared that EU cities showed that they are capable of getting involved in policy-making, in particular collaborating with the EU Parliament, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Investment Bank.

The future of global cities

So what is the future for global cities? As the figures from the above-mentioned studies show, this is just the beginning of their ascent. Every second 2 to 3 people in the world move to cities and the challenges briefly described in this article are not something that we can ignore. Concrete policies are needed to make our cities sustainable all around, from a social, environmental, cultural and economic point of view.

It might be rationally argued that European cities cannot be compared to other global ones such as Tokyo, which is projected to become home for over 37 million people by 2030. In our continent, cities are chiefly small and medium-size, with only Paris and London having more than 10 million inhabitants. However, Europe is one of the most urbanised areas of the planet, and 57% of its population lives in urban contexts.

Thus, as Tobia Zevi once again stressed, more concrete and effective policies are needed to support the expansion of European cities. The first key element to achieve this is a high level of citizens’ awareness about the challenges of today, to make the solutions of tomorrow more accessible. And the second one is putting cities at the centre of political debates, just as they already are the centre of the EU’s economic development.

Cover image by: Fabio Polosa

Recent Posts
bottom of page