Building a personal bond with a political declaration does not seem the most natural thing for a young professional to do. However, when it comes to the Leipzig Charter – and its 2020 successor, the New Leipzig Charter (NLC) – I must say this is what has happened to me.
The first time I heard of the Leipzig Charter must have been during my Erasmus semester in Poznań, Poland, in 2012. I took a course on ‘the European city’, during which the Leipzig Charter was presented as a milestone in terms of understanding the specificities of this specific 'type of city'. This made sense to me: the German and Polish cities I had spent considerable time in until then seemed to have much more in common with each other that with the U.S. metropolises I had visited the year before.
Fast forward to 2020 and I’m part of a fantastic team* tasked with further developing the Leipzig Charter into a document fit for the 21st century. A (non-binding) document fostering integrated urban development for the common good, the New Leipzig Charter will provide a framework for local and regional authorities, Member States and EU level authorities to foster more resilient and sustainable cities and urban areas. It is a document that speaks to today’s interrelated challenges, mindful of socio-technical and environmental developments both heavily affected and (re-)produced by urban dynamics.
As a result of a co-creative writing process that started in 2018, the NLC’s current draft version comprises no less that 11 pages, but the main elements almost – to cite a popular German expression – ‘fit on a beer mat’:
Mind the Space
Peoples’ everyday interactions take place at different spatial scales, comprising the neighbourhood, the given place/town/city according to administrative and political boundaries, and the functional area. The NLC addresses all of these spatial levels, taking into account their respective needs and potentials.
This means ‘three city dimensions’ (rather than three real cities), in line with the traditional sustainability triangle, covering the social, ecological and economic aspects of sustainability. For the NLC, this triangle was converted into the just, the green, and the productive city. Combined, these ‘three cities’ possess a considerable transformative potential. Digitalisation, an increasingly important aspect of contemporary urbanism, is seen not as an individual dimension but rather as a major cross-sectoral trend, affecting all dimensions of sustainable urban development.
Key Principles of Good Urban Governance
While the 2007 Leipzig Charter focused on the integrated approach to urban development policy, the draft NLC sets out a broader range of principles: urban policy for the common good; an integrated approach; participation and co-creation; multi-level governance; and a place-based logic. Taken together, these principles provide a powerful common ground from which all urban policy actors can work together towards large-scale objectives – like the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Green Deal.
Empowering Cities to Transform
The NLC aims to foster municipal capacity to act and strengthen urban governance in order to achieve the common good. The draft text fleshes out these objectives, ultimately calling for increased efforts to give cities the power to unlock their transformative potential. This push for greater local level autonomy was given a further evidence base by a comparative study on this topic, commissioned by the EUKN and carried out by a team of experts at Potsdam University, which will be published in the course of 2020 via the German Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development.
Alongside the NLC, the German Presidency is preparing another document addressing the implementation side of things: how can we make sure the NLC principles translate into concrete activities like the Urban Agenda for the EU? Among other things, this ‘Implementation Document’ is subject to further inter-governmental discussions involving a variety of European stakeholders.
As part of this inter-governmental discussion, the first meeting of the so-called Urban Development Group (UDG), chaired by the German Council Presidency on 2 July 2020, showed stakeholders’ broad support for the process as a whole and, in particular, for the NLC. Looking at the envisaged Informal Interministerial Meeting in Leipzig later this year, there will certainly be further fine-tuning, but the general tone seems to be set.
Something I hope will be safeguarded in the final New Leipzig Charter is a certain accessibility – in other words, making sure the document is graspable for all readers. This way, anyone can turn to it as I did in 2012: from an interested but unaware perspective. And, of course, I ultimately hope it will inspire and advance the rich urban discourse happening in Europe already.