The E.U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?

This week the European Union released a landmark urban strategy, just as global negotiations on the New Urban Agenda are heating up.

A view of Venice. The European Union recently arrived at a new regional strategy on urbanization. (Bacsica/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

ROME — In a time of political crisis for Europe, shaken by fear of the United Kingdom’s possible exit from the European Union and the rise of barriers and tensions against migrants and refugees, cities are not atop the E. U. agenda.

Still, that says more about the severity of the current crisis than it does about the robust cities conversation that has indeed been taking place. Indeed, the results of that months-long discussion has now resulted in key new policy and advocacy frameworks that will almost certainly impact on the urban discussion in the region and well beyond for years to come.

First, this week the bloc approved what’s being called the Urban Agenda for the E.U, or the Pact of Amsterdam. This document, for which member states and European institutions have advocated for years, was presented on 30 May by the Dutch government, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council. It is the region’s first-ever urban agenda, and many see its adoption as historic — offering a prominent point of reference for future urban and regional policies at the European and national levels. (See here for an official infographic on the new agenda.)

Second, the European Union is just beginning to engage in the Habitat III negotiations. These U. N. talks began this month and in October will result in a global 20-year strategy on urbanization — the New Urban Agenda. Importantly, the E. U. delegation traditionally heads a major bloc of developed countries during negotiations at the United Nations, thus further bolstering its already strong voice.

[See: Germany stepping up major engagement in Habitat III preparations]

The parallel timing of these separate but linked European discussions offers a unique opportunity to promote a new role for Europe as a central actor in the global debate on sustainable urban development, particularly thanks to the action of its cities.

Dutch influence

So what will Europe’s recent urban-focused debates bring to the Habitat III process? Key insight to this question comes from a document issued by the European Council on 12 May that outlines the region’s common position on Habitat III. This not only echoes the core elements of Europe’s recent urban debate but also offers several elements that sets it apart from the Habitat III discussions taking place in other regions of the world.

“The E. U. common position underscores four areas in particular. The region prioritizes the promotion of multilevel and inclusive governance. It opposes the negative impacts of gentrification. And it includes unique focus on the role of culture in urban growth.”

The E. U. common position underscores four areas in particular. The region prioritizes the promotion of multilevel and inclusive governance. It opposes the negative impacts of gentrification. And it includes unique focus on the role of culture in urban growth. Core concerns of the European Urban Agenda, these elements are now being seen by Europeans as central to implementing the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Debating Europe’s urban future at the continent’s crossroads]

Over the past decade, Europe has developed some pioneering approaches to inclusive and sustainable urban policies. This includes the three dimensions — the social, economic and environmental — of urban sustainability, as promoted by the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, launched by the German rotating presidency of the European Council in 2007 with the aim of promoting integrated urban development. This also includes the concept of “ville durable”, as promoted by the Declaration of Marseille issued in 2008 by the French rotating presidency of the European Council to promote sustainable, integrated and cohesive urban development in European cities.

In preparing the European Union’s common position on Habitat III, the European Commission in April tabled a proposal that has served as the basis for that stance. While various commission offices are leading this process in close cooperation with the E. U. delegation to the United Nations, the process also gives an outsize role to the Dutch government as the current president of the European Council. This is a significant responsibility for the government of 16 million inhabitants, which has the chance in its six-month mandate (which ends next month) to finalize two documents that will decisively influence European urban and regional policies in the next decades.

Arguably the key Dutch impact on the E. U. position is the bloc’s focus on multilevel and inclusive governance. The Netherlands, after all, is a country where collaboration between the central and municipal level has historically been uniquely strong, and Dutch officials now see this as a critical tool in promoting sustainable and resilient cities.

Dutch cities are regularly involved in consultations by the central government when agendas, priorities or legislation concern local governments. Cities are also at the core of the strategic approach of national policies; the country is currently following a long-term strategy that will see huge investments in infrastructure and the development of a group of 17 cities that will constitute one of the largest megalopolises in Europe.

[See: Habitat III and metropolitan governance: Time to act]

“Encouraging the active involvement of the cities as important actors in the debate is one of our priorities, and it is something that Europe can show can work well to the rest of the world,” said Maurice Van Beers of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “That is linked also to the issue of multilevel governance, which means leaving the decision-making process in the places where it is best addressed and facilitating cooperation among different levels” of government.

All levels of government

The Netherlands is thus one of the few countries in Europe that has included local governments and association of cities and municipalities in arriving at a national position for Habitat III. Further, the country is planning to include city representatives in its official delegation to Quito.

[See: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

The dialogue between the Dutch government and the country’s national association of municipalities (known as the VNG) is being seen by the organization’s leadership as having been particularly constructive. “If we wish the Habitat III agenda to be successful, there should be sufficient attention for the way in which local governments are being included in the implementation,” said Renske Steenbergen, senior project manager for international affairs at VNG.

“Over the past decade, Europe has developed some pioneering approaches to inclusive and sustainable urban policies.”

“We advocate for a specific status for local governments to negotiate on the agenda and its implementation, both at the U. N. level as well as at the level of different member states. This should also mean that the national governments would need to include representatives of local government in the delegation to Quito,” Steenbergen said.

[See: Citizens are telling cities and national governments to cooperate]

This concern with the role of cities in the Habitat III process is part of an ongoing and at times divisive global discussion. And in that, European voices have been featured particularly strongly. “As [cities] will be those implementing the international agreements in their territories, so they must be involved in the negotiations from the beginning of the process,” said Marlène Siméon, policy officer at CEMR-CCRE, a major grouping of European local authorities.

“In the U. N. system, cities are considered as ‘other stakeholders’, but in fact we are a different group,” she said. “We do not only implement but we contribute to the policies, so cities should not be only considered as part of the civil society.”

During the first round of intergovernmental negotiations on the New Urban Agenda that took place in New York last month, the European Union urged that explicit reference be made to the active involvement of cities in the decision-making and implementation of Habitat III. Yet according to Steenbergen, what is still missing “is a formal structure through which cities have been associated [with] the formulation of the E. U. position.”

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

Indeed, the E. U. position was formulated thanks to the input of experts sent by the member states — but there were no hearings for cities or other direct involvement by local government. It is also not yet clear how many European countries will officially include cities in their Habitat III delegations. But to date, the deep cooperation that took place between national and local governments in the Netherlands has almost certainly been lacking in other countries.

Zero draft

The Netherlands has not necessarily dominated Europe’s recent urban discussion, which has seen particularly strong engagement from France, Germany, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden. That said, there has been remarkable agreement among European states.

“Encouraging the active involvement of the cities as important actors in the debate is one of our priorities, and it is something that Europe can show can work well to the rest of the world.”

Maurice Van Beers
Dutch Foreign Ministry

Evidence of this convergence could be seen during the Habitat III discussions that took place at the United Nations last month. There, the E. U.’s statements have centred particularly on issues such as housing, transport and mobility, with recommendations drawn directly from the European experience.

[See: What characterizes the urbanism of the Global North?]

For instance, the E. U. delegation urged a clear commitment to including priorities around social mixing and cohesion — linked to the French concept of the mixité sociale, under which urban areas are created with an eye to how people from various backgrounds can coexist with equal access to urban services. The bloc also focused on transport planning as a tool for decreasing the rate of urban sprawl.

The delegation also expressed doubts about some elements in the current draft New Urban Agenda. This included some issues that have been seen as symbolic touchstones of the Habitat III conversation, such as the “right to the city”. The European Union has urged that the New Urban Agenda be a rights-based document, and has proposed that the final text includes a commitment to the realization of human rights for all, without discrimination of any kind.

[See: Four storylines to watch in the Habitat III negotiations]

Some of the most concrete aspects of the E. U. position on Habitat III involve the question of how to finance the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. The European delegation is asking for an “enabling, innovative and effective financing framework for cities” that coordinates all possible resources and firmly embeds them into national legal and policy frameworks. For instance, in New York the E. U. noted that the importance of both domestic and international private business and finance is not sufficiently highlighted in the draft New Urban Agenda, released 6 May.

Thematic programmes implemented thanks to the European Regional Development Fund, such as exchange and cooperation among cities and the newly launched Urban Innovative Actions initiative, can be powerful examples for other regions of the world on fostering local development not only through “hard” investments in infrastructure but also by investing in governance and the participation of residents.

European inspiration

Several signs suggest that European policymakers do see Habitat III as an opportunity to reinforce the importance of an urban focus in global cooperation in the coming years. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the attention of urban policymakers and experts is focused primarily on the European Urban Agenda, which will have far more influence on future E. U. legislative frameworks. As such, the Habitat III debate on its own has received relatively weaker attention in Brussels and in most E. U. capitals — even less than in the rest of the world, say observers.

“Habitat III seems to get more attention outside Europe than in Europe,” said Wouter Boesman, policy adviser for Platforma, the European Voice of Local and Regional Governments, a network of 34 members. “That is something that we are trying to contrast. Our members are active in international cooperation but also engage with their citizens to show that we are interdependent and that investing in international cooperation is decisive also for the future of our cities.”

Still, European cities can be decisive actors in the global municipal movement, particularly around the sharing of knowledge and practices for implementing the New Urban Agenda. It is likely that a particular push will be made in this regard around fostering access to financial tools for sustainable urban development and in promoting good governance and management.

[See: How Europe’s industrial cities bounced back from the brink of ruin]

“I think that the E. U. could take on that role of sharing positive experiences of decentralization and subsidiarity,” Boesman said, referring to the principle that decisionmaking should be dealt with at the most relevant level of government. “European cities should be facilitated to share positive bottom-up practices and to learn from other parts of the world. It can never be a matter of imposing anything.”

Indeed, many examples of social innovation and resident participation that continue to see success in Europe — for instance, participatory budgeting — are in fact inspired by countries from the Global South. But a push to make these part of a coherent, integrated and strategic policy framework for sustainable urban development can be still one of the main contributions from Europe and its cities to Habitat III and beyond.

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Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.