#8: The Transformative Power of Cities for the Common Good: Backstage with the New Leipzig Charter VIPs

The New Leipzig Charter – what is it?

On 30 November 2020, after two years of co-creation, the New Leipzig Charter was officially endorsed during the informal meeting of the Ministers responsible for urban matters. The new charter is an update of its 2007 predecessor, offering a more contemporary framework that addresses the challenges facing cities today.  

The Charter represents a major milestone to achieve a more integrated urban development in Europe, strongly emphasising the transformative power of cities for the common good. Inspired by the original 2007 charter, it aims to provide a framework for local and regional authorities, Member States  and  EU-level  authorities to foster transformation through a place-based, multi-level and participatory approach – all while making sure urban policy serves the common good.

The delivery of the New Leipzig Charter was the main priority of the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the field of urban development. The Secretariat of the EUKN is delighted to have been a part of its development, supporting the 2020 German Presidency in the organisation of the dialogue process that brought together diverse stakeholders.

We talked to some of these stakeholders following the signing of the Charter. In this article, we bring you their reflections on the new charter, their ideas about what the charter means for integrated urban development in Europe, and their vision for what needs to be done to make its principles a reality. 

Karen van Dantzig, Dutch Urban Envoy

If you compare this New Leipzig Charter to its 2007 predecessor, it’s more “future proof”. More attention is paid to digitalisation, to the green transition, to resilience, a bigger connection with the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs, the importance of multilevel cooperation and more emphasis on the common good and social justice. Inevitably, the pandemic played a role here: just as the German Presidency was writing the charter, it came along and magnified the vulnerabilities of society. It also created a greater sense of urgency around the just, the green and the digital.

The New Leipzig Charter thus reflects the ambitions and challenges of today – it’s a roadmap to achieve the future we actually desire. And there is now a clearer, common understanding of the future: we’re no longer solely focused on economic growth, but also on the sustainable and just side of things. It means we are pushing ourselves towards a more ambitious outcome, which hopefully everyone in Europe will benefit from.

The impact of this charter will depend a lot on how it is put into practice on the ground. We need action. If we just keep talking about frameworks and governance, the momentum of the Urban Agenda Partnerships and the local-level city makers will disappear, or they will turn away to invest in more action-oriented projects. For the cities and citizens, it has to go to the next level. The continuation of the energy around the urban process will depend a lot on how they experience the just, green and productive transitions talked about in the charter. 

The Urban Agenda for the EU and its Partnerships can be a good instrument to push the Charter further towards becoming a reality. To achieve this, better regulation and better funding should get more attention in my view. It is quite logical that a lot of attention goes into creating  better knowledge”’ and a strong network. Recommendations concerning ‘Better Regulation’ and ‘Better Funding' are harder to work at and get implemented – but they are potentially more rewarding. 

Dorthe Nielsen, Executive Director of Eurocities

Although the reality in Europe’s cities has changed beyond our imagination since we started the discussion about a new Leipzig Charter, the charter’s central messages couldn’t be timelier and more relevant right now. Cities are the hardest hit by the crisis. Urban authorities are both delivering the emergency response and developing recovery programmes for a more resilient future. Already existing challenges, such as social inequalities, have been exacerbated. The need to speed up the digital transformation should now be clear to everyone. 

At the same time, at the EU level, a new budget and recovery package is being agreed to boost a green and fair recovery, also with an eye to speeding up digital transformation. And a solid legislative framework for the Europe Green Deal is taking shape. It is against this backdrop that we must now turn the messages of the New Leipzig Charter into a reality. 

Firstly, we must reinforce the involvement of cities in decision-making at the EU and the national level. We should use the experience of the Urban Agenda for the EU to establish a systematic and ongoing dialogue about urban challenges and solutions between city and EU leaders. 

Secondly, we must ensure that EU funding and investments rapidly reach cities. For a just and green recovery in Europe, the national recovery plans must match the needs of cities. We need the partnership-led and multilevel governance approach promoted by the New Leipzig Charter to be fully implemented.

We can build back better for Europe when we join forces, developing stronger strategies and better coordination across all levels of government. The New Leipzig Charter and the Urban Agenda provide important guidance on policy and governance to this end. At Eurocities, we look forward to implementing this reinforced agenda for cities in the EU in continued collaboration with all our European partners.  

Jonas Bylund, Research and Innovation Officer and Management Board member, JPI Urban Europe

Apart from weaving in the priorities from international policy concerning cities and urban areas (such as UN Agenda 2030, The Paris Agreement, the Urban Agenda for the EU, etc.), an important innovative aspect of the New Leipzig Charter is that it acknowledges urban co-creative experimental approaches and capacity building among actors towards sustainable urbanisation.

To build on the momentum of the New Leipzig Charter (and implement it) post-2021, it seems crucial to shape everyday-life challenge-driven policies and actions with reference to the priorities and challenges laid out in the New Leipzig Charter. 

This means to listen carefully to what various problem-owners and stakeholders, affected parties and publics are actually faced with! It also means to temper the knee-jerk reflex to find solutions and to focus more on sound processes towards urban transformations. 

In particular, we should move away (in practice, not just nominally) from linear funding and financing approaches in order to increase potential for synergies between Cohesion funds, urban research and innovation (R&I) programming (national as well as transnational), and the EU Green Deal. 

An important way to achieve this is also to strengthen science-policy relations. Developing these relations as interfaces and fostering cooperation at all levels would increase the impact of investments.

Kieran McCarthy, Public Representative and Member of the European Committee of the Regions

The Charter rightly reflects upon urban challenges suggested by the CoR, such as the issues of affordable housing, growing inequalities and long-term investments. Cities are part of the problem, but cities can also themselves provide solutions to global challenges such as climate change, digital transformation, new ways of citizens' involvement in public decisions, etc. 

What should we do now? Well, it’s important to ensure the same treatment or ‘equal footing’ for all three of the “dimensions” of cities mentioned in the New Leipzig Charter – the productive city, the just city and the green city. 

The renewed Leipzig Charter and the implementation document on the Urban Agenda for the EU also suggest further connecting the new European Commission policy missions, such as the new EU Green Deal, with the future partnerships. This is something that now needs to be done to build on the momentum of this important moment.  

What are we doing at the CoR? The new Charter considered the CoR’s suggestion to the European Commission to develop the concept of active subsidiarity as an additional step in the process of strengthening dialogue with cities, as well as with metropolitan areas and regions. Linking the Urban Agenda for the EU with the Better Regulation Agenda, the CoR has set up a network called "RegHub", which has already been cooperating with the urban partnership on public procurement. We have also been expressly mandated by the new Urban Agenda for the EU and the Council conclusions to continue to provide input and consistent support to the development and implementation of the Urban Agenda for the EU – in line with the strategic principles set out in the renewed Leipzig Charter. We look forward to what lies ahead!