26 October 2020
What goes around comes around. The renewal of the Leipzig Charter

What goes around comes around. The renewal of the Leipzig Charter

The German Presidency of 2007 made sustainable cities one of its priorities through the Leipzig Charter. The document was signed by the then European ministers responsible for urban development and its aim was to make sustainable cities a priority for the Member States. When it was launched, the Leipzig Charter came out a ground-breaking document paving the way to achieve that goal through specific policy proposals. It had two main axes. On the one hand, it sought to promote “integrated urban development” through coordinating social cohesion, improving the quality of life and promoting energy efficiency. On the other hand, it wanted to foster integrated action to improve less‑favoured cities and neighbourhoods across Europe so that their inhabitants would have equal opportunities through social cohesion and measures in relation to efficient and affordable urban transport.

13 years later, the 2020 German Presidency is following the same principle with the aim of leaving no one behind in the pursuit of sustainable cities. After the ministers responsible for urban development signed a declaration (in which they agreed on a renewal of the Leipzig Charter in Bucharest during the 2019 Romanian Presidency of the EU Council), May 2020 saw the first draft of the updated Charter that will be signed in December 2020. This (needed) version renewal of the Leipzig Charter  has been supported by several organisations, amongst which the European Urban Knowledge Network, Eurocities and the European Council of Spatial Planners. However, why is a renewal needed?  

The original Leipzig Charter set a good base for sustainable cities and from it stemmed projects like the Urban Agenda for the EU. However, it needed to be updated to remain relevant, particularly because of the challenges that cities and regions and Europe are currently facing compared to those of 2007. The Dutch working group “Agenda Stad” carried out a study to assess the impact of the Leipzig Charter and it found that challenges similar to those that the document was trying to improve still existed. In its findings, the report also highlighted that the cuts in funding for urban development that had stemmed from the 2008 crisis had been detrimental for the objectives of the Charter in those countries that had been more touched by the economic recession. In countries with stronger federal structures and where less cuts were done in funds, improvements in the development of sustainable urban strategies had been noticed.  

So, what is coming around?

It seems needless to say that, in the last 13 years, the world has shifted quite dramatically. In fact, it would even be safe to say that the last year has seen a substantial change into how we perceive cities and what we value from them. We have seen digital advances that did not translate into social equality but only highlighted and emphasised our societal disparities. Migration trends have shifted, the economy is trying to recover from another crisis and, to top it all off, a giant clock now reminds us of the time we have left until the world faces an irreversible climatic catastrophe. Cities and regions had to adapt rapidly to their new reality, and this is why there was a need for the Leipzig Charter to reflect this novelty and propose measures to address it.

Moreover, it follows the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 that aims at making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. For this reason, the draft of the new Leipzig Charter sees three priorities for European cities: they must be just, green and productive. Just cities become inclusive environments for all levels of the population and adapt to current and future challenges by ensuring that no one is left behind through education and accessible opportunities. Green cities must adapt to the current climate challenges through renewable energies and energy-efficient sources, transforming the way we perceive urban transport and making mobility carbon‑neutral and efficient. Finally, productive cities must be the source of innovation and shift towards more carbon-neutral economies that will also support the creation and diversification of jobs.

From the Charter’s new draft, it seems like there is a common consensus in regards to the importance of cities and of sustainability. Nevertheless, even if the German Presidency has made it a priority to renew the Leipzig Charter and to stress the importance of cities and regions when it comes to implementing urban development, the European Commission did not refer to them in its 2019 political guidelines. This is one of the reasons why it is crucial that local and regional actors are established as official partners of initiatives like the Urban Agenda and the Leipzig Charter. Ensuring adequate multilevel governance and inter-institutional cooperation will only favour the application and monitoring of these initiatives and, consequently, the fulfilment of their goals.

What do progressive cities and regions want?

We now have an opportunity to address the elements of the previous Charter that did not work and to ensure that policy regarding sustainable cities and regions also stems from the adequate political actors: local and regional authorities. Our member Juan Espadas (who is also the Mayor of Seville and the President of both the Commission for Environment and the EU Green Deal Working Group of the European Committee of the Regions) presented his opinion on the renewed Leipzig Charter this week during the Committee’s plenary session.

Amongst his proposals and in order to ensure that the Leipzig Charter is, as far as possible, binding for the EU, the Member States and the local and regional authorities, rapporteur Espadas calls for the mandatory conclusions of the General Affairs Council to be adopted following the adoption of the renewed Leipzig Charter by the Informal Council of Ministers of Urban Development on 30 November 2020. This should be combined with a call to future Council presidencies to continue the debates on the Urban Agenda in their respective work programmes. This, with the reform of the European Semester, is paramount to make sure that the Leipzig Charter has tangible effects on the lives of European Citizens. It must therefore be reflected at the coordination level of economic policies across the European Union. It is the only way to reflect better the challenges for cities such as affordable housing, growing inequalities and long-term investments.

Regarding the content of the document, the rapporteur and our group believe that it is vital that the new Charter proposes a specific and comprehensive roadmap regarding the attainment of its objectives and that it develops policies that are centred on people and not just on the general innovation of cities. Achieving economic innovation and diversification is an essential part of growth for cities and regions, but we must ensure that this richness is then distributed equally in a way that will favour the most deprived neighbourhoods and to those who need it the most. There needs to be a more inclusive approach towards the sustainable development of cities, which requires affordable housing for everyone and a larger investment in sustainable energy sources, as well as better mobility programmes. We must fight against energy poverty and we must ensure that our cities have adapted to the new migration scenarios so that everyone is given equal opportunities.

The new document must be encompassed in the proposals of the European Green Deal and it is imperative that its contents are known across the Member States so that the policies stemming from it are uniformly applied across our Union. 

The initial Leipzig Charter stated that “Europe needs cities and regions which are strong and good to live in”. 13 years later, this still stands. The COVID-19 crisis has showed us the importance of sustainability and how cities and regions across Europe have made a difference in the handling of the pandemic. We now have the opportunity to address what did not work in the past and to fulfil the promising initiatives of the new Charter. At a time when the world is transforming before our very eyes, there needs to be measures put in place so that our cities and regions can adapt to the new challenges.