Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It was in the beautiful city of Leipzig, in the summer of 1785, that Friedrich Schiller wrote his poem Ode to Joy. As we all know, these words, put to music by Ludwig van Beethoven, have become the lyrics for the European anthem. In that sense, the European spirit was born in Leipzig.
Sadly, because of Covid, we are unable to convene in this city full of history. Nonetheless, I would like to thank the German Presidency for its hospitality and for inviting me to speak on this special occasion. Thank you Mrs Bohle, for being an excellent host in these extraordinary times. I expect this will be a fruitful meeting with a resounding result: a New Leipzig Charter, and a continuation of the Urban Agenda for the EU.
Now let me take you to another city.
Last summer, Thomas Schlijper, a photographer from Amsterdam, travelled to Paris to record a remarkable event. In a single night, a team of workers had painted yellow lines and bicycle symbols on the asphalt, and erected barriers to separate traffic lanes.
Paris acquired an additional 50 kilometres of cycle paths. The boulevards were quickly awash with cyclists. Much impressed, Thomas returned home, wondering when Paris would overtake Amsterdam as the cycling capital of Europe.
The empty streets of the lockdown seem to have become something of a tabula rasa for redesigning the cities of the EU. Across Europe, plans are being brought forward that were already on the shelf; for example the digitalisation of public services in Florence, the renovation of houses in Vienna and the acceleration of cultural projects in Vilnius.
The spectre of Covid-19 is still haunting us. Across Europe alone, almost 12 million people have been infected by the pandemic. More than 280,000 have died.
The pandemic has given new focus to the challenges facing us. No single country can overcome the virus and its consequences on its own. As Charles Michel recently said, “The storm is not yet over. We are all in the same boat.”
In the past, despite the dramatic loss of human life and serious economic damage, epidemics resulted in innovation. In Medieval Italy, the bubonic plague ignited a hunger for knowledge which helped give birth to the Renaissance. In response to infectious diseases such as smallpox, malaria and tuberculosis, modern-day hospitals were established in eighteenth-century Paris. A century later, typhoid and cholera were overcome through the construction of sewers, clean drinking water and the building of new urban districts.
So, despite the current concerns, uncertainty and losses, I remain optimistic. Our resilience is considerable, as is our capacity for innovation and our talent for cooperation. Almost 75 percent of Europe’s population lives in an urban environment. The UN expects this to reach around 85 percent by 2050. Against that background, the success of our cities will help determine the success of the European Union.
In 2016, the Pact of Amsterdam was adopted, laying out the Urban Agenda for the EU. It has placed cities on the map of Europe. It is important that they retain that position.
The aim of the New Leipzig Charter is to establish the principles for future sustainable development in Europe. We want our cities to be just, green and productive. The Urban Agenda for the EU can once again play a decisive role in that process.
To effectively do this, there are two key issues. The Urban Agenda must be better known and more appealing to the people of Europe. Secondly, we must successfully implement its recommendations.
We have to ask ourselves: what kind of cities do we want? And can we use the crisis to bring them into being, by pushing back mass tourism and commuter travel and by providing affordable housing and liveable city centres?
One ideal that could prove valuable is that of the accessible city. By accessibility, I refer to three things: an accessible city in terms of travel and freedom of movement; a city that is economically accessible for both rich and poor; and a city that is demographically accessible for all generations.
First of all the easily accessible city. Many of our cities have been designed to save time. However, in practice, a great deal of time is in fact lost by commuters snarled up in traffic, or travelling to shopping centres, by car. One possible response to this is the 15-minute city.
In the 15-minute city, all basic needs such as housing, employment, shopping and sport can be reached within 15 minutes on foot or by bicycle. Achieving that goal requires more space for pedestrians and cyclists, more green and a boost to local economic activity.
The concept of the 'Ville Du Quart D'Heure' was developed at the Sorbonne University, and warmly embraced by the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. Other cities including Barcelona, Madrid, Milan and Edinburgh have adopted the programme.
However, a city must not only be physically accessible. It should also reduce the divide between rich and poor. At the start of this century, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, the American urban geographer Richard Florida wrote that cities that succeed in retaining creative talent become bustling centres of innovation, creativity and prosperity.
In New Urban Crisis, Florida has criticised his own vision. Not everyone profits from influx of high-income cultural entrepreneurs, ICT specialists and lawyers. The result is a growing gulf between people who participate in the creative economy, and those who are excluded.
Florida’s method for reducing that divide is ‘inclusive urbanism’. In addition to calling for closer involvement, local democracy and better pay for support staff, he also calls for more affordable housing.
Affordable housing is urgently needed in Europe. Between 2010 and the second quarter of this year, rent prices across Europe rose on average by more than 14 percent, and house prices by 25%. Even Covid-19 has brought about little change in that situation.
Not only the traditionally more disadvantaged groups, but also people from the middle class are experiencing increasing difficulty in finding affordable housing. It is up to every country to find its own answers to these questions. In the Netherlands, we intend to build 1 million additional homes in the next ten years.
The spread of short-term holiday rentals booked via digital platforms is another challenge for European cities. In Amsterdam, the number of advertisements on Airbnb has risen from 7,000 to around 30,000 in just a couple of years.
This can have negative effects on public interests such as the housing market, liveability, social cohesion, safety and the level playing field for other providers of such accommodation. In my country we are trying to curb this growth through legislation.
Finally, a city also needs to be accessible demographically. The corona pandemic has rightly heightened our awareness of the vulnerable position of the elderly.
However, we must not forget the young. For them, Covid-19 is a huge exercise in self-control. Young people are forced to maintain social distancing, and move around as little as possible.
Even before corona, life was not easy for this generation. The OECD recently reported that Europeans below the age of 24 are 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than people between the ages of 25 and 64. They earn a lower income than the generation before them.
This situation has worsened. No less than 35 percent of young people are in low-income employment with an uncertain status. These are the first jobs to be sacrificed to corona. For recent graduates it is particularly difficult to find a decent job during an economic downturn.
Governments and cities would therefore be well advised to develop policies aimed specifically at young people. Let us make use of their strengths. Young people are keen to contribute to society, to be useful and to be taken seriously. As a mother of two studying children, I know what I am talking about.
In my mind, therefore, a successful city is accessible in physical, economic and demographic terms. At the start of my speech, I asked two questions. The first was: how can we increase for the appeal of the Urban Agenda for the EU amongst citizens? The second was: how can we successfully implement its recommendations?
In answering the second question, let me give you an example from my own country. To tackle the spatial challenges facing our regions and cities alike, we have developed a National Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment; the NOVI. Within this strategy, national government is in charge, but problems will be tackled in a coherent approach, together with regions, cities and civil society organisations. The NOVI represents the Dutch interpretation of the approach outlined in the Territorial Agenda.
The City Deals are another excellent example. Within these deals, cities join national government, businesses and other partners from society in elaborating innovative solutions for urban problems.
One of these City Deals aimed at smart cities envisages the development of a tool for crowd management. It will enable local authorities to guide pedestrians in the city centre, to help reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection.
Multi-level governance like this is also reflected in the Urban Agenda, and firmly embedded in the New Leipzig Charter. And not without reason. This integrated approach really works.
Just like in the Dutch City Deals, across Europe there are many examples of broad-based thematic partnerships. The Urban Agenda has established 14 such partnerships, that have resulted in 115 specific actions so far.
Partnerships will help us tackle urban challenges on an EU level, as well as contributing towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. In all of these efforts, it is vital that not a single European city or region is left behind. Here, the role of the European Commission is of course crucial and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Ferreira for taking a visible and leading role.
Later today, we will approve the New Leipzig Charter. By doing so, we will reinforce the crucial principles that will be a guiding force for sustainable urban development in Europe. The New Leipzig Charter will, however, only truly be a success if it results in real improvements on the ground, for the cities and people of Europe.
The Urban Agenda for the EU has shown that such improvements can be achieved, on condition that we work together as equal partners, and leave sufficient space for innovation and experimentation. I call upon you all to set to work in that spirit.
We currently find ourselves living in a special moment; in what philosopher Gershom Scholem has described as a ‘plastic hour’. These are crucial moments in history at which our choices can lead to major, structural changes.
Plastic hours are not common. They require a union of public opinion, political power and unusual occurrences, generally in the form of a crisis. They are also dependent on social mobilisation and leadership.
Europe has shown its willingness to spend billions on overcoming the pandemic. Now is also the moment to tackle structural problems such as the social gulf, housing shortages and climate change. It is the moment to give the city the place it deserves, as the driving force for innovation and economic development.
It goes almost without saying: the Netherlands warmly supports the adoption of the New Leipzig Charter, the Implementation Document, and the Territorial Agenda. I congratulate the German Presidency on successfully merging so many interests and opinions into texts we can all relate to.
Dear colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I truly hope that if photographer Thomas Schlijper goes cycling through the streets of Paris, Lisbon, Ljubljana or Leipzig in twenty years’ time, he will find cycle paths, and plenty of space for pedestrians. That cars are powered electrically and that public transport is cheap and clean. And that the air is fresh and the surroundings green.
I hope that the economy in these cities is flourishing in a bustling commercial environment. That everyone has access to fast, cheap Internet. That people, rich and poor, young and old, and from all corners of the globe, live together in harmony and can have their say. That they are happy, confident, safe and healthy. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my wish for the future of our cities.