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Urbanisation

The Planet of Cities: Has the world left Europe behind?

Greg Clark is an urbanist and writes here in a personal capacity. He is Global Head of Future Cities at HSBC and Chair of the Connected Places Catapult. He also holds thought leadership roles with UCL, Strathclyde University, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Land Institute. In this month’s column, he looks at the emerging and profound differences between continents on how cities can lead the way out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Greg Clark, Urbanist
12 February 2021

As I wrote in my Planet of Cities column Business Districts as Usual? in October 2020, different parts of the world are in distinctive cycles with the pandemic itself. Whereas some are largely free of COVID-19 and their city centres active again, others are still in full lockdown. In certain places, leaders are taking proactive steps to stimulate and marshal a return to urbanised life. Elsewhere, it has been left to the market. Whether the metropolis will eventually be “unbundled” by the combined effects of platform technologies and the multiple, uncoordinated individual choices of employers, workers, consumers and tourists, is being left to chance.

I think we all know which countries are responding in which ways. For an urbanist, it is always a surprise to observe the actions of the ‘city agnostics’. They dissent from the view that the city creates and fosters public goods through its sharing systems and platforms, and thus should be nurtured and protected. This sense of surprise leads me to ask an obvious question. If Asian cities are decidedly on the comeback trail, and North American cities very much still in the grip of the virus, what is the position and role of Europe’s cities?

To my mind there is an over-shadowing problem that we need to address first. For perhaps a decade, Europe’s cities have been characterised as suffering from a series of structural problems that render them increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. In summary, this narrative alleges that Europe’s cities are simply too small, and are home to ageing populations. Weak enterprise climates, burdensome bureaucracy and fragmented governance structures slow and stifle the adoption of new technologies. And whilst Europe’s cities remain charming in many respects, they are these days rarely more than university towns, open-air museums or holiday destinations. They are not serious forces in the global map of decision making, innovation, and influence.

For perhaps a decade, Europe’s cities have been characterised as suffering from a series of structural problems that render them increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. This narrative alleges that, these days, they are rarely more than university towns, open-air museums and holiday destinations.

By contrast, Asian Cities are bigger, better managed, and benefit from major investment – often with the direct support of proactive national governments. North American cities may not enjoy the same levels of government backing, but they have other weapons. Their populations are young and mobile, and their enterprise systems run deeper. They also tend to adopt and utilise new technologies faster and more comprehensively than their European counterparts. While these views are largely unspoken here in Europe, they are commonly held, and often explicitly voiced, around the world.

But are they accurate?

Certainly, when it comes to the size and demographics of Europe’s cities, there is no doubting the numbers. The accusation of fragmented governance also rings true. But does the whole picture amount to a permanent disadvantage? I am not so sure.

COVID-19 is a tragic health crisis that has triggered a severe economic shock. It has magnified the pervasive injustices of our societies. But it is also proving to be an agent of change. A strange kind of catalyst, it has both accelerated and derailed trends that were in train. It has proved an active ingredient in innovation, triggered new forms of agility, and created a space for rapid invention. Most crucially, it has reinforced a series of critical imperatives: embrace wellbeing, invest in sustainability, tackle structural disadvantage, rebuild citizen trust and spread knowledge. It has compelled us to reimagine and reignite our cities based on a revised equation between people, place, and planet. Many of the changes underway would, to borrow a phrase, “not usually be possible in peace time”.

We are entering into a new cycle of scalable experiments. These have already included the rapid conversion of buildings into temporary hospitals, and the adaptive use of sports facilities and religious sites for health screening and vaccine administration. We’ve seen mobile phones become virus tracking devices, public spaces reshaped to enable safe-distance human contact, and the reorientation of roads and streets to prioritise active travel. Most profoundly, the requirement for social distancing has led to new ways of sequencing the city to rotate workers, passengers, and school students. Each of these examples of urban agility demonstrates new ways to optimise the city that will trigger a longer-term reconfiguration.

In this context, Europe’s cities are not laggards. In fact, they have a singular advantage. Such examples of agility, experimentation and reform are only possible at scale in places with high social capital and trust. They require more than simple popular consent; they call on citizens to be active agents in the process of change.

Europe’s cities have, by some distance, the highest social capital of any continental grouping. It is perhaps because of this that Europe’s cities have for several decades led the agenda on climate, resilience, placemaking, public and active transport, affordable housing, culture and identity. Social capital is reinforced and reproduced by the sense of belonging that is fostered by cultural institutions, accessible public space, shared transport systems, heritage protection, neighbourliness and civic life. It is in the DNA of Europe’s cities, most of which pre-date nation states and have centuries-old trade and cultural relationships that extend far beyond national borders.    

Social capital is reinforced and reproduced by the sense of belonging that is fostered by cultural institutions, accessible public space, shared transport systems, heritage protection, neighbourliness and civic life. It is in the DNA of Europe’s cities.

This is not to say that Europe’s cities have achieved any kind of perfection – there are very many ailments to be remedied and deficits to be repaid. But when it comes to social capital, Europe’s cities are more abundantly supplied than their Asian and North American counterparts – though the gap may be narrowing.

This, then, is the role of Europe’s cities in the global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. They must lead the world in the re-creation and reconstruction of the social capital and trust necessary to rebuild citizen confidence, and reverse the pernicious inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.