22 Sep 2020

Creative solutions to urban challenges: Europe’s cities of the future



As we draw nearer to the EAIE Community Exchange, the fourth article in the 2020 Conversation Starter series redirects our attention to our physical environment. No shortage of social and economic challenges are facing the urban areas that are home to increasing proportions of global population, but these same cities can be catalysts for change and key players in forging our creative pathways forward. 

According to a newly adopted definition of cities proposed by the European Commission and now shared by a number of major international organisations such as the OECD, the World Bank and UN-Habitat, an estimated 75% of the world's population live in urbanised areas. While many of today's most pressing issues are compounded in cities – including, of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic – urban centres can also lead the way forward in resolving them. Cities are increasingly embracing innovation and novel technologies and, thanks to the concentration of people, ideas and resources, they are leading the way towards solutions to global challenges beyond their own boundaries. Cities have played a vital role in the development of Europe historically; they will be important focal points for the future of Europe, as well.

How are our cities doing?

The global population is expected to continue growing steadily, but less so in Europe. While 72% of Europeans are estimated to already live in cities, and many challenges faced are related to population pressure, many European cities also have to cope with a declining and ageing population. In fact, over half of European cities will see their population decline in the future.

By 2070, life expectancy in the EU will rise to 88.2 years and the old-age dependency ratio (the proportion of retirees relative to the active population) is expected to almost double. While this 'silver economy' could bring some benefits with it, additional strain will be put on the welfare system, as growing costs for health care, pensions and social benefits will need to be covered by a shrinking labour force. Cities will have to adjust their services in areas such as health care and mobility, as well as public infrastructure, housing and social services. This is an especially tough challenge in a continent where 42% of all buildings were built before 1950 and change often needs to happen in pre-existing urban fabric.

International students seeking housing in Europe's most in-demand cities face significant challenges

Europe’s most in-demand cities have seen sharp increases in housing prices over the past years, affecting their capacity to provide adequate and affordable housing. Increasing foreign and corporate investment in the residential housing market is becoming one of the predominant factors behind this phenomenon. Tourism, while an important source of income for many larger cities, may also drive up housing prices locally. For example, Italy's house prices for 2016 showed a marked positive correlation with tourism intensity at regional level. The impact of short-term housing rental platforms in driving up rental prices is also being increasingly seen in the centres of cities that have high incoming tourist rates, such as Lisbon and Berlin. International students seeking housing in these contexts also face significant challenges. The provision of basic services, including water, energy and food, still results in significant environmental pressure beyond city boundaries, and needs to be drastically improved. Cities generate about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, at the same time, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Transportation in cities also accounts for a large amount of air and noise pollution, as well as congestion and long commuting times.

European cities show a growing polarisation, with increasingly pronounced inequalities within cities, which also result in greatly varying health and well-being depending on where you live in a city. High population densities may also facilitate the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, and the high prevalence of obesity and mental health issues in cities is a recent unsettling trend.

What are cities doing about it?

Cities play a central role in innovation dynamics: creative solutions and new technologies are being increasingly embraced by cities and by citizens. This is in part due to the higher presence of universities and research institutes in urban areas. In fact, people living in cities tend to be more confident about using technology than in smaller towns or villages. New and emerging technologies could help cities improve public services, better interact with citizens, increase productivity, and address environmental and sustainability challenges. In Paris, drones (mostly for delivery services) could account for 20,000 flights per hour by 2035, and 20–70% of vehicle sales are expected to be electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030. However, the use of new technologies also raises several issues, including data privacy and ownership, appropriate and consistent legislation, data sharing and standards, and cybersecurity.

Capital cities, especially, remain major drivers of creativity and innovation. Tertiary education facilities tend to be concentrated in capitals, with some, such as Budapest, Berlin and Vienna, even hosting universities with student enrolments consisting of more than 50% international students. However, favourable conditions can also be found in smaller cities. While capital cities obtain the highest scores on ‘Creative Economy’ in 19 out of 24 EU countries, the exceptions – Linz, Milan, Stuttgart, Umea and Eindhoven – are all home to universities with 10% or more international students.

While cities still have a very high environmental footprint, environmental awareness in the EU on the whole is growing. In several cities, citizens have started collective actions such as ‘energy communities’ pushing for renewable energy and products, and ‘solidarity purchasing groups’ focussing on proximity between producers and consumers, good farming practices and a short supply chain. Sustainable consumption behaviour by citizens is essential to reduce waste. Zaragoza, for example, is a front-runner both in electro mobility and in reducing its overall water consumption. In Denmark, Vejle produced a set of innovative infrastructure and social intervention mechanisms targeting the challenge of sea-level rise via community engagement practices and Sonderborg plans to be a CO2-neutral area by 2029. The cities of the Covenant of Mayors (in total 9261, of which 8800 are in Europe) signed an overall commitment to reducing emissions by 27% by 2020, well above the minimum requested EU target of 20%, and achieving a 40% CO2 emissions reduction by 2030 while also alleviating energy poverty.

Well-designed public and green spaces can improve air quality, provide microclimate regulation and enhance safety and social integration

Cities are taking steps to reduce the use of cars and their related emissions in favour of more efficient public transport, shared and active mobility, and new working patterns. On average 14% of people in cities in the EU telework, up to 32% in Denmark. Capital cities tend to have the lowest rates of car use, going down to as low as 10% in Paris. Forty percent of trips made in Copenhagen, Helsinki, Amsterdam and Vienna are on foot or by bicycle. Cities are also pushing forward measures to reduce vehicle emissions, with many cities already restricting car access to their city centres (eg Milan and Gent) or encouraging the use of public transport, for example by making it free (eg in Tallinn and Dunkirk, and most recently country-wide in Luxembourg).

Forty-four percent of Europe’s urban population lives within 300 metres of a public park, and the greenness of European cities has increased by 38% over the last 25 years. Public spaces make up between 2 and 15% of land in city centres, and the design and use thereof is being optimised, including the introduction of multifunctional spaces and regeneration of abandoned areas and buildings. Well-designed public and green spaces can have a multitude of benefits: improving air quality, providing microclimate regulation and enhancing safety, social integration and public health. An example is the Benthemplein in Rotterdam, a public space which also acts as a water capture site when needed (similar interventions are being developed in Mexico City, Surat, Bangkok and New Orleans). A further example is the conversion of neighbourhoods to ‘superblocks’ in Barcelona, re-routing traffic and reclaiming pedestrian areas.

Today cities are doing more than ever to engage with citizens and enterprises and actively take steps towards resolving age-old issues in new and creative ways

Many cities already have strategies in place to improve the well-being of their older population, including Barcelona, Manchester and Edinburgh. There is an increasing number of projects addressing the well-being of ageing populations, for example the ‘well-being parties’ in Turku and Tallinn, the global organisation Cycling without Age that started in Copenhagen, or intergenerational living projects.

Cities are taking action to combat the recent rise in housing prices, and the importance of social housing is increasingly recognised. In some cities social housing already accounts for a large share of homes – for example in Vienna, some 62% of residents live in social housing. There is also an economy of scale in the provision of healthcare services in cities, including screening, vaccination and information campaigns.

…So what now?

The scale of illness presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the healthcare systems of cities around the world, and presents serious threats for “the economy and social fabric” of many urban centres. Indeed, the current crisis has brought to light in an even more emphatic way the need for change in the way our urban areas function. The need to respond to these various and interlocking crises will likely present major challenges to cities for some time.

However, while it may be the case that necessity is the mother of invention, cities also provide an environment where there is space for interactions that go far beyond the necessary and spark creative solutions. Concentrations of populations with tertiary-level education may contribute to such developments; indeed, 'smart cities’, which are defined as “those which seek to address public issues via ICT-based solutions involving multi-stakeholder partnerships”, are “generally characterised by very high concentrations of people having completed a higher education”. The city may also provide the right scale at which to tackle many issues which may seem daunting at the regional or national level. In fact, today cities are doing more than ever before to engage with citizens and enterprises and actively take steps towards resolving age-old issues in new and creative ways.

It cannot be denied that cities are succeeding in initiating real and tangible change for the better

Urban governance has gained a central role in global development efforts. There is a trend towards the strengthening of urban governance in the EU, leading to the recent establishment of a wide range of new governance bodies and arrangements across EU cities. In recent years a multitude of city networks have been formed in Europe and globally, addressing a wide range of issues and in general contributing to a wider recognition of the role of the city and its citizens. Examples are Eurocities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, the International Council for Local Environment Initiatives (ICLEI), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), C40 and Metropolis. Best practices are exchanged, cities learn from each other, and partnerships are forged beyond national or regional constraints. In this sense, the internationalisation of city relations may offer the potential to yield creative, workable outcomes.

While the correct and most efficient level at which to act on specific issues may be under heated discussion, it cannot be denied that cities are succeeding in initiating real and tangible change for the better. Universities and the international populations that are drawn to them also have a key role to play in providing the next generation with the right tools and mindset to be able to come with innovative, creative and practical solutions to urban challenges. This will be especially vital in advancing post COVID-19 recovery in the coming period, across Europe and around the world.

Questions for reflection

  1. What emerging trends do you see in your city? What is the most important challenge faced?
  2. What could European cities learn from approaches taken by cities in other continents?
  3. What role can international education play in working towards the longer-term sustainability of urban areas?