Debating Europe’s urban future at the continent’s crossroads

The Habitat III regional meeting for Europe took place 16-18 March.

Martin M303/Shutterstock

PRAGUE — The contrasts between West and East that have defined Europe for centuries were on prominent display in the Czech capital last week. They shined through during European Habitat, the continent’s regional meeting in advance of Habitat III, the U. N.’s every-20-year conference on urbanization.

Look at the distinctions between the capitals of, for instance, France and Bulgaria. The Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, is a more opulent edifice than the parliament buildings of many countries. Its grandeur speaks to the city’s centuries of self-rule and the kind of confident and competent local government that makes for a world city.

Some 2,000 km away, Sofia struggles to overcome the endemic corruption that has plagued the Bulgarian capital since the end of the Cold War. The country is ranked 69th in the world for corruption by Transparency International — the worst score in the European Union — and is home to an NGO dedicated to reforming local government.

[See: Corruption: The New Urban Agenda’s elephant in the room]

Some cities, however, are thriving at this crossroads. Prague is perhaps the city that best synthesizes the stitching together of East and West that has been taking place since the fall of the USSR and its satellite states almost a quarter-century ago.

A lovingly maintained historic centre has become a tourist and student magnet — perhaps to excess — drawing visitors from across Europe thanks to a combination of cheap airfares and visa-free travel within the Schengen Zone. At the same time, the Czech Republic maintains its own currency rather than adopt the euro, and the country remains relatively affordable at a time when Western European capitals can approach astronomical prices.

The continent’s integration project has undeniably hit recent bumps in the road, particularly around the mass influx of migrants and refugees from strife-torn countries over the past year. But for three days last week, the continent came together in an effort to craft a common vision on housing and urban development from Portugal to Poland.

Four-letter word

Many have suggested that the role of local government in a political system is at the heart of Habitat III. “We need a compact between the cities and the states,” French diplomat Henry de Cazotte said on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Europe isn’t yet at a high level [of engagement in Habitat III], but we’re starting to wake up.”

Henry de Cazotte
French diplomat

[See: Localizing the Habitat III agenda]

On this front, Europe certainly offers a strong history. Flourishing cities, after all, came long before modern nation states on the continent — from the Hanseatic League in what is now Germany to the Italian city states such as Florence and Venice that ruled small empires. These cities are confident asking their capitals for more local autonomy, and oftentimes get it. Federalism, for example, has a long history in Germany and has served the country very well in the post-war era — it’s now the leading economy in Europe.

As a result, “Western Europe has cities with hundreds of years of management experience,” said Rolf Alter of the Organization of Economic and Cooperative Development, a grouping of industrialized democracies. But “In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, that’s not the case at all,” he noted.

Instead, these countries are still navigating experiences such as collecting tax revenue for the first time, something they could never do under centrally planned economies. “This tradition needs to be made,” Alter said, calling it “a very long process.”

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

For many, the answer to this lopsided political structure is to devolve power from the central to local governments. But as one Western European diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “In some of these countries, decentralization is a four-letter word.”

Nevertheless, there are recent examples of territorial reform across the board, from France’s new experience with metropolitan governance to Albania’s “less is more” consolidation of local jurisdictions.

Housing hopes

Habitat III is in part a housing conference, and this is a sector that presents wide diversity across the continent. In some parts of Europe, urbanites are living in cooperative utopias as a hedge against rising costs in the world’s booming cities. In others, they are struggling to get a decent roof over their heads.

Co-ops are a “non-market alternative to close the gap between availability and demand on the housing market” according to Co-operative Housing International’s Guido Schwarzendahl. They are exactly the kind of socially minded housing model that advocates seek to showcase through an international forum such as Habitat III, and Europe is a prime example of such experiments put into practice at scale. Germany, for example, is one of the world’s largest co-op housing markets, with over 2.8 million people living in such arrangements. In the Swiss city of Zurich, 20 percent of all dwelling units fall under the co-op model.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Present in every country in Western and Central Europe, co-ops have yet to make inroads in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Schwarzendahl admits. There, the housing needs are more basic. “We have lost control of the model of development,” lamented Gjergji Islami, a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Tirana in Albania. “Our first goal is control of the territory in the face of illegal construction.”

Albania’s neighbour, Montenegro, feels similarly. In her take on the Prague Declaration, the meeting’s outcome, the Montenegrin diplomat Bosiljka Vukovic-Simonovic complained, “It needs more specific language on informal settlements.” (The draft declaration is available here.)

This argument, she said, is “related to conditions on the ground, because one of the most serious problems our country is facing — and throughout the Balkans region — is legalization, solving it through land management and social housing.”

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Common position

Ultimately, the Prague meeting was largely a sounding board for ideas for the New Urban Agenda — the outcome strategy from Habitat III, which will inform global efforts around sustainable urbanization for the next two decades.

“Western Europe has cities with hundreds of years of management experience. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, that’s not the case at all.”

Rolf Alter

When it comes to actual negotiations on the agenda, which will begin at U. N. Headquarters in May, the 56 countries of the U. N. Economic Commission for Europe officially represented at last week’s meeting will surely not align themselves. Instead, as is customary at the U. N., the European Union will draft a common position that its members will probably stand behind, while the Russian Commonwealth states are likely to join up with the Group of 77, the bloc of developing countries.

A major stumbling block will probably be the ongoing refugee crisis, as countries on the front lines disagree with those further away from the stream of newcomers. Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos called migration — as the Prague Declaration refers to it — a “hot issue”, saying, “Here, it’s relevant, and probably will continue for a period of time in a more globalized world.”

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

One hint that the E. U. members may fall in line came from Hungary. That central European country built a border fence last year to stem the flow of migrants, claiming that the European Union was acting too slowly. But when it came to the diplomatic arena in Prague, the Hungarian representative was more chaste, noting that his country has a position on the topic but that for the sake of a political commitment toward Habitat III, Hungary would look beyond its borders.

The draft Prague Declaration, meanwhile, accepts migration as a reality. It states: “Migration has led to increased diversity in many cities, a process that boosts social innovation but brings along challenges for social cohesion. Corresponding policies need to be developed to address this situation.”

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

‘Waking up’

Perhaps the larger concern, however, is the extent to which European leaders are taking Habitat III seriously in the first place. There were no European heads of state or government in Prague, one diplomat noted, pointing out that this was in contrast to the African regional meeting that took place last month.

[See: African governments offer common vision on urbanization]

At the same time, four European countries — the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and France — are serving on the Habitat III Bureau, the small executive committee of U. N. member states guiding the process. France is also co-chairing the conference, along with host country Ecuador.

Elsewhere on the continent, Sweden was an active champion of Goal 11, the “urban” SDG. De Cazotte, the French diplomat, also cites Belgium, Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain as countries to watch.

Most importantly, on 12 May, the European Council is expected to release its common position on Habitat III, which will guide E. U. negotiators and European diplomats during the coming negotiations around the New Urban Agenda.

With that common position due in less than two months, de Cazotte thinks that Europe is indeed coming around to the importance of Habitat III. “It’s true that Europe isn’t yet at a high level [of engagement], but we’re starting to wake up,” he said.

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