If Juncker wants a stronger, more united Europe, he should listen to its cities

EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivering his state of the union address. Image: Getty.

With the next European parliamentary elections just around the corner, European Commission president Juncker used his annual state of the union address to call for a more united and stronger Europe.

Of course, he is right to do so, and he laid out a vision of how he hopes to get there. But a plan that focuses on external threats and the global picture must also recognise that these challenges are connected to people, and the places, the cities where they live.

One might say that Mr Juncker’s mandate at the European Commission has been ‘hijacked’ by any number of turbulent events: terrorist attacks, an unprecedented flow of refugees into the EU, potential assaults on the rule of law and trends towards nationalism, and, of course, Brexit. But many of these European challenges are concentrated in our cities. And cities have repeatedly shown leadership, and a desire to act, without an adequate recognition of their role and contribution.

Take climate change. The Covenant of Mayors is proof positive that cities can think ‘big on big things’, and are increasingly prepared to work together on global challenges. More than 6,000 local climate and energy action plans have been adopted across Europe, with an agreed average CO2 reduction of around 27 per cent expected by 2020. In other areas – such as providing cleaner air, establishing cleaner water and tackling waste – cities are at the forefront of global change.

On migration, it is cities that have been left to deal with the reception and integration of refugees since the peak ‘crisis’ year in 2015. We are no longer dealing with those kinds of numbers of new arrivals – so rather than focus on securing Europe’s external borders, we should focus on integrating people who are already here, which means providing greater investment at the local level.


Cities are also striving for a more social Europe. Last year EUROCITIES members made a commitment to provide ‘social rights to all’ ahead of the EU’s social summit in Gothenburg, where cities were left out of discussions. Our work this year to localise global and European agendas, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, aims to enable every citizen to participate in society.

We need to strengthen the urban dimension of EU decision making by involving cities as strategic partners on issues from migration and climate change to a more social Europe. I understand Juncker’s sentiment of being more ambitious on these big issues – but ambition must go hand in hand with ensuring impact at the local level. This can be done with the involvement of cities. 

Temporary solidarity is not good enough

The Urban Agenda for the EU has demonstrated that different levels of government can work together on common issues. The various commitments made by cities through the urban agenda partnerships, and our work in other areas such as those mentioned above, are testament to cities’ ability to uphold the founding values of European cooperation and solidarity.

Europe won’t be able to stay united and show solidarity if it doesn’t demonstrate results that matter to people. This is why the next EU budget must maintain a strong cohesion policy – the EU’s main source of regional investments – and reflect not only the top goals, but also see cities as strategic partners. This means listening more to citizens. Cities have the experience of working with citizens and ensuring that decisions taken at EU level work on the ground. EUROCITIES’ Cities4Europe campaign is engaging with citizens to find new ways of doing politics – and we look forward to presenting these outcomes to president Juncker and the member states at our second mayors summit on 21 March 2019 in Brussels.

People are calling on the EU to change. Where better to start than at the local level, in our cities, where people are most likely to see results? As Mr Juncker said last year, that is how we will get the wind back in Europe’s sails.

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES, an umbrella group representing European cities. The network includes 140 of Europe’s largest cities and more than 40 partner cities that between them govern some 130 million citizens across 39 countries.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.