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Emma Terämä: European cities as solutions

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12.10.2016 Emma Terämä
Emma Terämä SYKE
Emma Terämä

The State of European Cities 2016 has just been published as a joint effort by DG REGIO of the European Commission and UN-Habitat ahead of the Habitat III Conference. It contains invaluable information about the progress and potential of European cities in 28 EU member states supplemented by the EFTA countries in the areas of people, environment, governance and the economy.

In this report the view of cities as solutions rather than hotspots for challenges is forged. The report covers five Sustainable Development indicators for European cities under SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; and SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages (see report for more).

Cities can be viewed as engines of not only human capital, growth and innovation, but also frontrunners in creating sustainable (nature based) solutions to tackle climate change. Mitigation of emissions must take place where the people predominantly are, i.e. in cities, regardless of income (and the apparent propensity to consume). Cities can be more efficient in terms of resources, simple (if not solely) due to shorter distances (less need for polluting transport) and economies of scale.

After a moderate population loss in the 80s, European cities are gaining attractiveness since the 2000s but at a slow pace. Capital metro regions grow the fastest, propelled by in-migration as well as natural growth (births less deaths). Working-age population are the most mobile. Mobility is also key in the concept of multi-locality: people no longer need to reside in one place only, or indeed near their workplace. Nearly all cities need to acclimatise to an increasing share of people living alone, requiring assistance and increased mobility (preferably via public transport).

Finns are second to only Norwegians in feeling most secure in their urban (and non-urban) environments. This goes hand-in-hand with trust: Finns top the charts with respect to trust in the police, and trust in local government officials (esp. in Tampere and Helsinki).

Still the Finnish case of cities is anything but simple. Regional differences are striking: for instance, 10% of people thought it was easy to find good housing in Helsinki, whereas this was 75% in Oulu, northern Finland. Still, if you come from London (as I recently did), you might consider the housing market in Helsinki rather relaxed! UK has the least rural areas (with the exception of Malta) of the countries studied, and London is one of only two European megacities making it rather unique.

Open questions remain: how difficult it is to gauge the actual level of urbanisation? What is the ‘correct’ relationship between people and the build environment, how dense should a city be? The report attempts to tackle some of these issues via comparisons with other lists and by enabling more discussion through opening up the data and showcasing the existing discrepancies.

We at SYKE have been working on the concepts of urban definition and intra-urban zones, and found that the excellent Finnish databases (population registry as opposed to census, land registry, buildings data) can be utilised for these analyses. We are also active in a large Academy of Finland funded consortium BEMINE where we investigate the future of Finnish urbanisation with a critical eye on the sustainability of the growth regions as opposed to other urban regions.

What we wish to explore further, as supported by this excellent report, is the much-needed European comparison of sustainable and liveable cities, what demographic and diverging trends cities and regions are experiencing, and how to increase evidence-base for decision-making and collaboration in tackling the upcoming issues.

Emma Terämä (@eterama) is Senior Research Scientist and co-ordinator of Sustainable communities at SYKE (Finnish Environment Institute). She has worked as a researcher in Austria, Netherlands and the UK for the past ten years as a post-doctoral researcher prior to returning to Finland in 2016. Her background and PhD is in quantitative natural sciences.

Emma Terämä, Tel: + 358 295 251 692, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Please be advised that the opinions of blog contributors do not reflect the views and opinions of the Finnish Environment Institute.

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