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Metropolitan areas after COVID-19: a driver for a territorially balanced and green transition

The ongoing pandemic crisis has very clearly exposed some of the weaknesses of our territories, showing that, when governance and institutions work well, territories are more reactive. This is especially true of metropolitan areas, which have been more than other areas at the epicentre of the spread of the virus. In the post -COVID-19 context, the EU has an important opportunity to further promote cooperation in metropolitan areas.

As an ESPON study on the territorial impact of COVID-19 suggests, the pandemic was easier to keep under control when metropolitan cooperation worked well. A coordinated and targeted response beyond administrative boundaries meant less disruption to the delivery of critical public services, which contributed to minimising the impact on citizens' lives.

Institutions were important in responding to the crisis, but it was also their collective behaviour that led to it. By polluting the air and practising intensive agriculture, for instance, they facilitated the spread of the disease. With a more strategic approach, including at metropolitan level, we can change and minimise their harmful im pact. In the context of the pandemic, cities have become much more aware of and vocal about the importance of good urban planning for compact, healthy and liveable cities.

It is not surprising that cooperation in metropolitan areas is now of growing interest to leaders and policymakers, and is seen as a crucial level of EU multilevel governance and an enabler that can help us grow stronger in the face of new crises for a territorially balanced and green recovery.

Our European partners are already at least partially recognising the crucial role metropolitan areas can have. For more than a decade, they have been an important driver of the recognition of metropolitan area governance across the continent. The ESPON METRO project brings new evidence on how EU cohesion policy has strengthened metropolitan cooperation, and the benefits that come with stronger involvement of metropolitan areas in the preparation and implementation of cohesion funds.

pandemic was easier to keep under control when metropolitan cooperation worked well

It tells an important story of how in the previous programming period the EU promoted innovative tools to implement EU funds locally, such as in the case of integrated territorial investments (ITIs). In some cases, this directly contributed to the establishment of new institutional and cooperation frameworks at metropolitan level.

Moving forward, it will be crucial to maintain the level of ambition and upgrade the involvement of metropolitan authorities in the 2021-2027 programming period to further mainstream metropolitan cooperation. This will help Europe to 'build back better' and to deliver new and inclusive services in the post -COVID-19 context while delivering on the European Green Deal locally.

“From our perspective, we see an important window of opportunity to further institutionalise metropolitan cooperation in new growing sectors”

From our perspective, we see an important window of opportunity to further institutionalise metropolitan cooperation in new growing sectors related to the circular economy, for instance by changing the way we produce food or travel, and to develop new ways of managing natural resources and delivering ecosystem services. The transition Europe seeks to promote will remain a chimaera without stronger cooperation and new partnerships between core cities and surrounding municipalities, and between urban and rural areas. The resources provided by Next GenEU, and the EU budget at large, can help exactly to scale up cooperation and investments at these levels.

Looking at the farm to fork strategy, the new urban mobility framework, or even the new European industrial strategy, it is clear that to deliver on the European Green Deal these legislations need to better target and recognise metropolitan areas. EU territorial strategies, such as the rural vision for 2040, the New Leipzig Charter and the Territorial Agenda 2030, are already partially doing this, and they could all benefit greatly from more systematic recognition of metropolitan areas in their implementation.

Cohesion policy remains the main investment tool at EU level to bring these strategies jointly forward locally, but cities are looking positively at other EU initiatives such as the New European Bauhaus and the Horizon Europe Mission on Climate Neutral and Smart Cities. These could act as testbeds and promote experimentation with innovative cooperation frameworks in new sectors at metropolitan level.

As the New European Bauhaus suggests, innovation at metropolitan level can be a catalyst for change. By promoting it, Europe will build more beautiful, sustainable and inclusive cities that are in tune with nature and their surrounding areas.

This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL