I had the opportunity to join a European conference with…
This blog is part of a four-part series from the Renaturing Cities: Systemic Urban Governance for Social Cohesion conference. Over two days at the start of December, the Politecnico di Milano hosted academics, policy influencers and civil society groups who presented the best and most innovative ideas on transitioning to sustainability and renaturing cities from across Europe. There will be four blogs covering the conference on four topics: Social entrepreneurship, governance, inclusivity and architecture & town planning.
One of the main aims of the ARTS project is to work with local governments and organisations to see what local authorities and governmental bodies can do to nurture transitional sustainability projects. At the Renaturing Cities conference in Milan, a variety of initiatives and programmes were presented that show the ways that governance changes can lead to a flourishing transition community. Some speakers noted ways in which governments were acting as trailblazers, led by determined insiders, and others noted how governments can offer support to existing initiatives and groups.
Kurt Vandenberghe, Director of Climate Action and Resource Efficiency from the Directorate-General of Research and Innovation at the European Commission, outlined the ambitious aim to “create a new market of the future” in Europe by using nature-based solutions and generous funding. He emphasized the need to utilize governance innovation to maximize social change, but without damaging the cultural heritage that has allowed Europe to flourish economically. The main way to achieve these aims are outlined in the Horizon 2020 initiative to make Europe the world pioneer in renaturing cities.
The Horizon 2020 initiative is going to funnel nearly €80 Billion over seven years into multiple schemes, all with the aim of ensuring the future of Europe. This type of initiative shows the necessity for the long-term focus of governmental organisations, and particularly those with a strong civil-service or stable staff members like the European Commission. The stability and knowledge gained through these schemes that allow governmental organisations to act as knowledge and funding hubs that are essential. They can help get ambitious projects off the ground in economies where bank lending is still at low levels, and environmental issues haven’t reached full public salience yet.
Many speakers highlighted the perks and limitations of a bottom-up approach to including government in projects, including Brigitte Mouligneau representing the Flanders in Action programme of the Flemish Government, Alessandro Baladucci, the vice rector of the Politecnico di Milano and Ulrika K. Stigsdotter of the University of Copenhagen.
The speakers discussed how governments are bodies with strong levels of community engagement by nature; they must engage citizens or their mandate to lead is non-existent. Using a bottom-up approach and directing governments towards projects they can carry out can create significant social change, and means that projects ideally take precedent and move away from academia to real life results. The presentation of projects to local authorities and governments allows resources from community activists who often work on a voluntary basis to someone in a paid position can mean the delivery of projects is of a higher quality.
However, it was also pointed out that governments generally have a short term focus due to the length of time a party holds office. Whilst environmental community projects can be seen as vote-winners, there is less incentive to engage in the long term strategies and planning that research institutes and projects like ARTS conduct. Also, as many of the speakers noted, the engagement of government can lead to a lack of approachability for a project to the average citizen, who may be intimidated or put-off from a big name or big ego taking precedence over the more humble aims and potential outcomes of the project. The overall concept arising from this is that nature-based solutions and transitional sustainability projects must assess on a case-by-case basis the benefits of involving governmental bodies in their projects.
With such a range of speakers, the points of view presented many different sides to governance across Europe and their approached to renaturing cities. For many smaller initiatives, financial and physical resources are the best thing a government can give as it can push idea forwards. But many regional governments acknowledge that a long-term strategy must be created for the cities, and whilst elected representatives may not be in the best position to provide assistance, civil servants and permanent staff members should communicate with researchers and citizen activists to ensure no city is left behind in the race towards sustainability.