November 29, 2023

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Developing green and liveable cities in the European Union and beyond – Regional Policy


Green&Digital Europe


Rapid urbanisation is one of society’s most pressing issues, impacting communities, economies and, of course, the environment. During its participation at the World Urban Forum (WUF11), the EU renewed its commitment to supporting sustainable urban development through a broad range of policies and initiatives.

Ahead of WUF11, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said: ‘Be it improving living standards, transitioning towards a net-zero carbon economy or developing other areas essential for the future of Europeans and of the world, our cities are at the forefront. We support cities in being bold and innovative and in implementing global objectives and structural changes.’

Many of tomorrow’s innovations and investments will take place in cities, so in a sense, urban areas are where our sustainable future starts. They are also where most citizens will reside in the years to come.

This logic is represented both in the EU’s regional and urban development policies and in its cooperation with third countries. Policy instruments such as the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD+), the New Leipzig Charter, the Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, and the New European Bauhaus – to name but a few – are helping to make cities cleaner and more liveable.

The Commission is actively engaged, alongside Member States, in promoting sustainable urban development, and in implementing the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda (NUA), notably in the framework of the European Green Deal. The NUA acts as a guiding frame and an accelerator for implementing the urban and territorial dimensions of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in a localised manner.



Investing in urban environments

Within the EU, Cohesion policy is the main investment instrument to support Member States, regions and cities to adapt to global challenges. The policy’s sustainable urban development dimension has been reinforced for the period 2021-2027. This will mobilise substantial investments in urban areas and result in projects that are appropriate to each territory (whether city, neighbourhood or functional area), based on the relevant territorial and urban development strategies.

In particular, the new policy objective ‘a Europe closer to citizens’ will support tailor-made investment strategies at territorial level, in cities and local communities, to address their diverse challenges. Central issues include reinforcing collaboration through functional area approaches and by promoting links between urban and rural areas, as well as the role of small and medium-sized cities to support balanced, polycentric development.

The green and digital transitions are profoundly interlinked, and the societal aspect is being addressed in parallel. Investments in digital technologies are needed for people-centred smart cities, while adequate housing, health, education, lifelong learning and decent work are required.

The New Leipzig Charter, adopted by EU Member States in 2020, provides a key policy framework for sustainable urban development. The charter defines three characteristics of ideal cities – green, just and productive. All urban areas should have these characteristics, which will be strengthened through digitalisation.

Looking beyond its borders, the EU has provided substantial assistance to sustainable urban development in many partner countries through its development cooperation policy, and will continue to do so in the years to come. The new financial framework for 2021-2027 will see a stronger focus on bilateral urban development programmes combined with the use of new, innovative financing instruments under the EFSD+. City-to-city partnerships, notably organised through the International Urban Cooperation Programme, have allowed exchange and collaboration between cities in the EU and beyond. The programme has now been extended to cover regions.

Cities must be inclusive, low-emission and resilient. They have to be able to adapt to new challenges and to shocks and crises. However, this will mean little if urban environments are not comfortable, healthy and attractive places to live and work in.

Connecting the Green Deal to our daily lives

Ensuring that cities provide a sense of belonging and quality of life for all citizens is the ambition of the New European Bauhaus, which was announced by President von der Leyen in 2020 and launched by the Commission in January 2021.

The initiative puts the focus on participative processes for designing sustainable spaces for all, from buildings to public areas. It extends to the development of products, services and ecosystems, as well as mind-sets and behaviours.

In addition to creating a platform for experimentation and connection, the initiative supports positive change by providing EU funding for beautiful, sustainable and inclusive projects. Funding opportunities come from several programmes including ERDF, Horizon Europe and LIFE.

The Porto di Mare Eco-District in Milan is one of many projects that have already been supported by the New European Bauhaus. The development aims to be a self-sufficient community that reconnects metropolitan areas with the adjoining countryside. It won the 2021 New European Bauhaus Rising Star award in the category ‘Regenerated urban and rural spaces’.

To continue its support for projects like Porto di Mare and others across Europe, several Commission-led NEB Lab projects are exploring how New European Bauhaus activities can be financed and encouraged.

The EU Missions, which aim to solve some of the greatest challenges facing societies, are another mechanism with which urban development is being revolutionised.

Through the Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, the EU and its Member States will support 100 European cities to become hubs of experimentation and innovation for green, digital and inclusive transformation. In turn, these cities will serve as inspiration for cities worldwide, through initiatives such as the global Urban Transitions Mission.

A global challenge

Held every two years, the World Urban Forum is a high-level, inclusive platform to ensure sustainable urbanisation. The eleventh session, WUF11, took place in Katowice, Poland, with the theme of ‘Transforming our Cities for a Better Urban Future’.

Katowice is a strong example of sustainable urbanisation in action. Managing authorities there have committed themselves to decarbonisation, to regeneration of post-industrial districts and abandoned buildings, and to the important role of culture in sustainable societies.

As part of the Commission’s participation at WUF11, Commissioner Ferreira delivered an online statement on behalf of the EU and its Member States during the opening ceremony. The Commission organised 14 events during the forum to highlight the EU’s approach to integrated sustainable urban development.

The Commission’s prominent role at the forum and its strategy for European cities demonstrate how the EU is putting its weight firmly behind green, urban development policies. The EU has submitted six ‘Declared Actions’ representing its renewed commitments to implementing the New Urban Agenda. They exemplify the different policies, initiatives and frameworks in place to support sustainable urban development at all levels and encourage actions and delivery to achieve global goals.

The ambition is that no one – and indeed, no place – is left behind. Sustainable cities will play an active role in the vision of a climate-neutral continent by 2050 and in doing so, offer inspiration around the world.