European Parliament MEP, Lambert van Nistelrooij outlines why cities are the engine for economic growth and are integral for the EU Urban Agenda

Cities have the future. While the regions in Europe always had the ‘first’ attention from Brussels, the spotlights nowadays have to be in the cities as well. For Europe, cities are engines for economic growth and employment, the breeding grounds for art, culture and creativity and the perfect platform for innovation and start-ups. Therefore, urban areas also play an important role in achieving the EU 2020 goals due to their concentration of people and economic activity. To fulfil this potential of urban areas, coordinated action at all levels of government is needed. This year, during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we will intensively integrate the cities in Brussels policy. We have to come to an EU Urban Agenda in which cities take the lead.

For years, the European policy for the cities has been fragmented. Instead of fully including cities in the mainstream policies, the European Commission, for example, has come up with initiatives to realise the so called “Smart Cities”, at the same time “Smart Specialisation” has been adopted for regional policies. Those region policies apply to the cities in Europe as well. For this reason, better coordination of EU policies is important. Smart Cities, as well as Smart Specialisation, have been quickly adopted by policymakers and now translated into specific EU policies or initiatives. Both are of relevant importance for the cities in Europe and have to take into account together.

Smart Specialisation is all about making the right choice: a region chooses its priority, uses the benefits and shares the acquired knowledge with other regions in the EU. A Smart City is logically doing something similar. A city that uses its possibilities, that is driven by the strengths of its inhabitants and is reaching an enjoyable and user-friendly place, is doing smart business. We simply cannot create Smart Cities without Smart Specialisation and vice versa. To really fulfil the potential of cities in Europe and to meet the EU 2020 goals, like sustainable growth and more jobs, the 2 smart concepts have to become a combined and excellent one.

The priorities of Smart Cities

That’s the gap in Europe we have to close. The EU Urban Agenda can deliver new possibilities to make this happen. There are eleven priorities set up so far by the European Commission to develop Smart Cities. I will highlight some of them. Above all, citizens have to come first. They are at the heart of the challenges cities daily face and have therefore a say in the creation of a city as an enjoyable and user-friendly place. With a better understanding of their behaviour, cities could make effective policy and adopt citizens in their smart strategies. Cities could also be more attractive and competitive when inhabitants, as well as business people, can travel in an easy and sustainable way. An improved and well-connected public transport system is needed. This will help to meet the EU 2020 goals. With ‘greener’ public transport systems they improve air quality and tackle congestion.

In line with this, cities need to create new and innovative infrastructure networks in their own area, but also across different urban areas. This will include road systems, energy-infrastructures (new ways of lightning) and communication and information networks. A city, therefore, needs technological improvement to be that innovative frontrunner in Europe. This encompasses the use of ICT and the use of collected data. These new techniques are part of new solutions. They could, for example, help to create a more interactive and responsive city administration, but also to create safer public spaces through security cameras on demand. By collecting data, we need to find a way to use this information effectively and wisely. Switching to smart cities requires thus investments and coherent policy.

For creating this coherent policy, a link to the regional strategy for Smart Specialisation is needed. We often do speak about cities self-contained, but in fact we have to speak about urban areas. Cities are not operating alone. Cooperation with their neighbour surroundings will help cities to be successful. By sharing their acquired knowledge, they will create smart, or even excellent, areas together. Therefore, we do not need more policy regarding urban development. It is about time to start this kind of fruitful cooperation. The focus of the EU Urban Agenda has to be on finally creating one policy for this cooperation.

Empower the cities

The EU Urban Agenda will be even more effective when it is not just a declaration, but when it will also lead to an agreement in which cities are empowered. During the Dutch Presidency, this agreement will be set in the ‘Pact of Amsterdam’. The intention of the Pact of Amsterdam is to create a bottom-up approach. A direct commitment between the cities and the European Commission will exist. Cities will have the possibility to express their ideas, their knowledge and their fears. They have also the possibility to bring up their events and initiatives in the EU 2020 framework. Cities, in the end, will be affected by the legislation and do understand best the impact that this legislation will have.

Together we will build a strong European framework for sustainable and intelligent cities. This will be the EU Urban Agenda for the cities of tomorrow with the possibility to agree on “City Deals”: for the moment there is €371m available from the European Regional Development Fund.

Last autumn I have published a booklet about the importance of the EU Urban Agenda. Please find an online version of the publication here:


Lambert van Nistelrooij

MEP – European Parliament


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