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The future of the EU’s small and medium-sized cities should be socially resilient, inclusive and sustainable

Ioannis Vardakastanis, EESC member and president of the Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion, Florian Marin, EESC member

The multiple crises that our cities are currently facing have affected their development and their paths towards sustainability. COVID-19, inflation, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, climate change, natural disasters, energy prices, water scarcity and population ageing are just some of the crises our cities are facing and will continue to face in the future, in a context in which crises overlap or tend to become permanent. The challenges are more difficult to tackle in small and medium-sized cities, since the impact of the crises is asymmetric.

Given that the majority of EU legislation is implemented at local level, involving small and medium-sized cities in implementing EU policies is both crucial and a challenge. Participating in the urban agenda for the EU and in the thematic partnerships under the Ljubljana Agreement and implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights and the long-Term Vision for Rural Areas require creating new dedicated competencies, which, in some cases, need to be created, along with the willingness, motivation and allocation of the dedicated human and financial resources.

Neither crises nor solidarity knows any border. The success of the green and digital transitions therefore also depends on a successful social transition, which is a challenge for small and medium-sized cities. Building social resilience is a challenge for these cities given the lack of investment and economic opportunities. In a context in which inequalities are increasing and development is not territorially balanced, the role of small and medium-sized cities and the opportunities they offer are important, especially taking into account rural and urban linkages. In this respect, the role of organised civil society is crucial in mitigating social and economic inequalities.  

Another important challenge is that of institutional capacity, particularly capacity to respond to crises. Lack of financial resources and human capital, and weak public institutions are common issues for small and medium-sized cities. The focus on partnership, multilevel governance and a multistakeholder approach alongside participatory approaches requires involvement, trust, knowledge and expertise in ensuring a fair relationship with stakeholders and civil society partners, all of which represent challenges for these cities.

Balancing the interests of different groups, especially vulnerable groups, in the decision-making process and in implementing place-based approaches is a constant priority’.  

Given that the majority of EU legislation is implemented at local level, involving small and medium-sized cities in implementing EU policies is both crucial and a challenge.

The problem of the territorial distribution of economic opportunities, access to innovation and best practices remains a constant challenge for small and medium-sized cities. Solutions such as twinning are important and welcome, but they are not enough to help small and medium-sized cities accelerate the green and digital transitions, especially when it comes to spreading knowledge and building the required social resilience.

Ensuring access to capital and funds to finance the twin transitions and build resilience is a cross-cutting challenge. Proper funding, adapted implementation mechanisms and dedicated financial instruments for small and medium-sized cities, and private–public partnerships are a necessity when dealing with the level of diversity and complexity in these areas and with their social challenges.

However, financial resources are not the only issue at play; it is also very important to direct funds to vital projects that do not neglect social aspects.

A specific example is social conditionalities that can be applied to investments in the development of small and medium-sized cities, especially in the case of projects financed using EU funds. Greater attention should be given to implementing the competition principle under the European Structural and Investment Funds and to assuring fair competition across all kinds of cities when building their resilience, especially for isolated and marginalised cities and their vulnerable populations.The support and involvement of national and regional governments and civil society are crucial in this regard.

Reducing poverty is a challenge that exist in all urban areas and one that is more difficult to tackle in small and medium-sized cities. It is a constant priority, alongside access to inclusive education, social services and healthcare.

Reducing the number of vulnerable city residents and placing more focus on the social inclusion of elderly people, people with disabilities, minorities, immigrants and refugees remain important challenges for small and medium-sized cities. Financial inclusion – alongside social inclusion, better access to high-quality jobs, equal opportunities, living wages and career predictability – is an important milestone when it comes to stabilising the labour force and building social resilience.

Τhere are also major new opportunities emerging in small and medium-sized cities: good conditions for renewable energy sources, and energy communities can be a great solution to the issue of sustainability for citizens in these cities. 

The much-desired integrated approach remains a challenge because of the high level of knowledge, institutional organisation and managerial resources required. Such an approach is often missing in small and medium-sized cities. Implementing all SDGs in a synergistically coherent and integrated way remains a huge challenge for small and medium-sized cities.

On the other hand, there are also major new opportunities emerging in small and medium-sized cities: these territories offer good conditions for renewable energy sources, and energy communities can be a great solution to the issue of sustainability for citizens in these cities.

The future of the EU’s small and medium-sized cities must be socially resilient, sustainable, balanced and inclusive. Therefore, no Green Deal can be implemented without a social deal. 

This article appears in the Small cities - big expectations Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the Small cities - big expectations Issue of TerritoriALL