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Addressing policy challenges in urban and spatial planning through EU cohesion policy

Efthimios Bakogiannis, Secretary General of Spatial Planning and Urban Environment in the Ministry of Environment and Energy in Greece, and Assistant Professor, National Technical University of Athens

The value and importance of urban areas for human well-being and development are indisputable facts. They are actively discussed at all levels, nationally, in the EU and internationally, in relation to the ever-increasing and specific emerging challenges such as climate deregulation, the rise of pandemics, the energy crisis, waves of migration and refugees, and the overall degradation of urban living. 

Climate change seems to be – apart from the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 in the last two years – the most talked about topic internationally. The devastating effects of climate change are reflected all over the planet as the extensive burning of fossil fuels, alongside other human activities, intensifies the greenhouse effect and global warming, leading to increased drought, hotter temperatures, forest fires, melting of the ice caps, extreme weather events, destruction of natural ecosystems and painful consequences for humans and other species. 

Therefore, climate neutrality has become a top priority of the United Nations and the EU and of resultant policies (such as the European Green Deal). At the same time, cities, being at the heart of human activity, face the challenges arising from the fourth industrial revolution, with ever-increasing changes in business, development and prosperity. 

Achieving climate neutrality is a pressing but tough task. It requires radical changes in the way energy is produced and consumed, going against common practices and habits. Managing to achieve net zero emissions means emitting less carbon dioxide and absorbing more. It includes reducing energy consumption, reducing electricity production from solid and liquid fossil fuels, gradually replacing natural gas with renewable gases, especially in transport and industry, expanding the penetration of renewable energy sources based on the best available technologies, increasing the energy efficiency of public and private buildings and businesses, and promoting zero-emission vehicles. As well as the difficulties, climate neutrality also entails significant opportunities in terms of economic growth, such as new business models and markets, new jobs and technological development.

Local, regional and national bodies should be involved through a common programme for urban, social and economic development

In addition to the above, the recent war in Ukraine and the emerging energy crisis pose new challenges and pressures on Europe, changing the economic and social landscape. These challenges and pressures are directly reflected in urban areas. However, the progress of many cities and the stagnation or dysfunction of many others depend largely on the initiatives and policies implemented, as well as on their planning and organization, which are directly linked to the availability of skills, funds, political strength, networking etc. 

Policy objectives at EU level aim to realise the full potential of urban areas and their contribution towards achieving the objectives of the Union and related national priorities with full respect for subsidiarity and proportionality principles and competences. The urban agenda for the EU strives to involve urban authorities in the design of policies, to mobilise urban authorities to implement EU policies, and to strengthen the urban dimension of these policies. In addition, it contributes to making EU policy more environmentally friendly, effective and efficient.

Moreover, the urban agenda will not create new EU funding sources or unnecessary administrative burdens, or affect the current distribution of legal competences and existing working and decision-making structures, and will not transfer competences to the EU level (in accordance with Articles 4 and 5 of the Treaty on European Union).
In the above context, with an emphasis on the issue of urban resilience to address new challenges, the following should be considered.

Achieving climate neutrality requires radical changes in the way energy is produced and consumed, going against common practices and habits

Regional development policies must take balanced territorial development into account so that they genuinely benefit urban areas.
National urban policies need to become more proactive and forward-looking.

Urban policy objectives differ between countries and depend on the different challenges faced by cities. However, urban policy is a multifaceted urban development strategy aiming to face problems and provide solutions for serious socioeconomic issues within numerous urban districts, environmental actions linked to sustainability and economic objectives, economic revitalisation of historic centres, exploitation of technological advantages, inadequate land-use planning, traffic management, abandoned industrial sites and other relevant issues.

To this end, urban and spatial policies should activate and combine all levels of governance. Local, regional and national bodies should be involved through a common programme for urban, social and economic development. Urban policy should have the following functional dimensions: urban regeneration and resilience (focusing on areas and places within cities), competitiveness/diversification (focusing on networks between cities) and regional development (focusing on relations within city-regions’). 

These should be integrated in a comprehensive action plan for territorial and urban development, with an emphasis on sustainable development and urban resilience, focusing on the area of coordination policy and adopting an integrated approach. This action plan should be based on the diagnosis of existing territorial and urban constraints and challenges. Obviously, it is important that this action plan will be linked to all potential national and European economic resources.

In conclusion, let us note that a European and/or national urban policy is a coherent set of decisions resulting from a deliberate process of coordination by the state, which brings together various stakeholders to share a common vision in order to promote more resilient, productive and inclusive urban development.

This article appears in the Stronger together Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the Stronger together Issue of TerritoriALL