The Urban Agenda for the EU was established in 2016 and aims to enhance current regulation, funding schemes and knowledge-sharing practices for better urban policy across Europe. As part of the continued development of policy, a conference looking at the Vitality of Smaller Cities in Europe was held last week in Barcelona.

The conference, hosted by the City of Igualada, was attended by delegates from 17 European countries who discussed the issues facing their cities and shared the experience of developing effective responses to the challenges. It was an exciting and informative event and saw contributions from cities that had participated in three URBACT projects as well as from those involved in urban policy development.

URBACT is an EU programme that aims to co-create and implement new and improved local strategies for sustainable urban development. Cities work together in Action Planning Networks (and other types of network) and there were 20 such networks, with 214 cities participating, under the funding programme that concluded in May 2018. A Call for new networks opens in January 2019. The network themes range from Improving City Resilience (led by Rotterdam), through Refill Vacant Space (led by Ghent) to Interactive Cities exploring how digital can improve urban governance (led by Genoa). Cities of all sizes participate in URBACT programmes but the event in Barcelona saw 30 cities who had participated in three networks for smaller and medium sized cities come together to share experience and consider implications of the experience for EU policy development. As there are 8,500 cities with populations of 10,000-100,000 in the EU, this is clearly important and policy for EU support for these cities is under discussion.

The three participating networks were RetaiLink, which was about creating innovative strategies to revitalise the retail sector, City Centre Doctor, concerned with revitalising the city centres of smaller cities, and Agri-Urban, which looked at cities and the opportunities offered by their agricultural hinterlands.

As with all URBACT events, the conference was designed with a significant interactive session, where city representatives got to share and discuss emerging ideas. Nine cities showcased their activities over the last two years, looking at the experience they had in developing partnerships, working with retailers, designing and promoting events, integrating placemaking, and reinventing local food systems.

The conference opened with insight from Emmanuel Moulin, who is Director of the URBACT programme. He provided a background to the work of URBACT (he suggested it works as an Erasmus for European city practitioners) and also spoke about how the experience of the cities participating in the projects is not only beneficial for the cities concerned but also can influence further policy development. Next was Nicolaas Beets, the Dutch Special Urban Envoy who has been responsible for developing the Urban Agenda for the EU. He talked of the development to date and the opportunities that may exist in the future for smaller and medium size cities. He suggested that the vitality of smaller and medium size cities could be a future urban agenda theme, but he stressed, however, the need for such cities to make the case if that is to happen. It was very encouraging that having spoken, both of these senior people who have considerable input to EU policy stayed throughout the day to hear about the experience of cities and the views of the experts, as did a European Commission representative.

The three experts opened different sessions of the day. Manuel Torresan from the Sapienza University in Rome spoke in the first session and provided an excellent overview of the challenges faced by towns and cities across Europe. It was clear that there was a remarkable degree of similarity across the continent, a fact echoed by the city presentations. Manuel identified ten actions that could be taken to address the challenges. The second expert was Simon Quin from the Institute, who spoke about mechanisms for making places better. He explored the drivers of community engagement, the barriers it can face and the development of effective mechanisms using the example of Business Improvement Districts. The final expert was Maria del Mar Delgado-Serrano from the University of Cordoba who focused on the development of local food hubs as a way of strengthening the vitality and sustainability of cities.

Throughout the day a visual record of the conference was developed, and the final session encouraged discussion from the floor and response from the three experts, Nicolaas Beets, and the URBACT project lead experts Mireia Sanabria (RetaiLink), Wessel Badenhorst (City Centre Doctor) and Miguel Souza (Agri-Urban).

It was a very intensive day that generated a significant amount of discussion and ideas sharing. One of the key issues that arose was how to value the effect of initiatives in town and city centres. One of the most widely used indicators by the EU about the effectiveness of funding is job creation but at a time when retail jobs are reducing is this a fair measure? Would it be better to look at other indicators which may be more abstract but which would relate to the local effectiveness of the initiative?

There appears to be a clear opportunity for the vitality of smaller cities to feature as a theme in the new EU Urban Agenda. This event provided some of the evidence of that need and also experience of what can be achieved when their challenges are addressed in a co-ordinated and informed way. Further steps are now needed to show the need for this more dedicated approach. The Institute will be providing access to research to support this.

It is absolutely clear from this event that the issues being faced by town centres in the UK are replicated across Europe. There is much we can learn from one another and it is to be hoped that there is a way of doing this in the future.

RetaiLink partner cities are Igualada (ES), Romans (FR), Fermo (IT), Sibenik (CR), Pecs (HU), Bistrita (RO), Liberec (CZ), Hengelo (NL), Hoogeveen (NL), Basingstoke and Deane (UK).

City Centre Doctor partner cities are San Dona di Piave (IT), Idrija (SI), Petrinja (CR), Valasske Mezirici (CZ), Radlin (PL), Naas (IE), Heerlen (NL), Nort-sur-Erdre (FR), Amarante (PT), Medina del Campo (ES)

Agri-Urban partners are Baena (ES), Fundao (PT), Monmouthshire (UK), Pays des Condruses (BE), Sodertalje (SE), Jelgava (LV), Petrinja (CR), Pyli (GR), Cesena (IT), Mouans-Sartoux (FR), Mollet des Valles (ES).

There is useful information in the RetaiLink final report that summarises issues relating to small and medium size cities and details the approaches adopted in each partner city.

More information on the issues facing cities is also available in the City Centre Doctor report from Wessel Badenhorst (2016).

The Institute is delighted to have supported both the RetaiLink and City Centre Doctor partnerships. Cathy Parker ran a session at the first City Centre Doctor workshop and Simon Quin ran one at the RetaiLink workshop in Sibenik, Croatia. Simon also spoke at the RetaiLink final conference in Hoogeveen, Netherlands as well as in Barcelona. Our High Street research has been included in the two reports linked to above and has been used by a number of the cities involved in the projects.