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.