24th Mar 2018


Old cities, new shapes

  • A formal industrial area in the city centre of Lyon (France) was redesigned by local residents. (Photo: Rina Sergeeva)

In Europe, more than on any other continent, city dwellers, visitors and urban planners are likely to pass by centuries-old buildings and protected monuments.

In a world of urban transformation and smart technology, European cities are solidly anchored in their past. But it would be a mistake to think that the Old Continent is not fit for the future.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • In the Netherlands in 2014, 44.1% of its total area was classified as predominantly urban - the highest rate in the EU, ahead of Belgium (34.6%) and the United Kingdom (27.5%), according to Eurostat. (Photo: Bert Kaufmann)

Many urbanists say that there is a "European model of city": old and dense urban areas, smaller than on other continents, where the centre still mixes residential and economic functions.

But it is not a static model.

"We may focus on the historical parts of Brussels, Rome or Berlin to fix our image of these cities. But it is naive, it is our 'tourist view'," said Antonio Calafati, a professor of urban studies at the academy of architecture of the USI (Universita della Svizzera italiana), in Mendrisio.

"In Europe too, the parts of the urban fabrics that can be easily adapted are much, much larger than their historical parts," he told EUobserver.

"Secondly, European cities grow by adding new neighbourhoods. And new neighbourhoods can easily incorporate the new technologies of environmental sustainability and the new practices of community participation and socialisation."

European cities, more so than cities in the US or the emerging world, have to adapt to how the digital revolution might shape urban geography.

Clear functions

In the past, cities were developed by building new parts to replace older parts, said Aleksi Neuvonen, head of research at Demos Helsinki, a think tank. Their function was clear: high quality housing, office areas, commercial areas.

"It's not so straightforward any more," Neuvonen told EUobserver.

"The economic power is slowly changing. The division of labour is not as clear as it was. We don't just have a few important players, small actors have a significant role too," he said.

Traditional urban planners are being faced with new micro-economies, such as car and apartment sharing.

The newcomers "don't see the point of spending a lot of time in long planning", Neuvonen said, adding that "there should be more platforms where different actors gather and find solutions".

More and more people shop online and work from home and "places don't have a clear function as they had before", he said. We "don't know what the outcome will be" for the shape of cities and their social fabric.

Citizen driven development

European cities also differ from elsewhere in the world by how they apply the concept of "smart cities". Smart cities is the name given to the use of new technologies and data to improve infrastructure, mobility or energy consumption.

"European cities differentiate themselves from the approach in US and Asian cities, which are more infrastructure-centred, techno-centred," said Stephane Cagnot, an urban expert at the Dedale agency, a think-tank on urban innovation in Paris.

"In Asia and the US, citizen participation is put aside. The focus is on control, like control of mobility, or city-centre management," he told EUobserver.

He cited the example of Buenos Aires, where a so-called Centralised Transit Command Station manages the car and pedestrian traffic of the whole urban area.

As a European counter-example, Cagnot highlighted the Confluence project in Lyon, France, where a former industrial area in the city centre has been redesigned by local residents.

In the smart community, human initiatives and social links are more important than technology to improve urban conditions.

The Confluence project includes a fleet of self-service electric cars for residents and people working there.

People are encouraged to have plants, fruits and vegetables on their balcony, to work in a community garden or to buy at the local market, which sells only products coming from a 30-kilometre radius.

Residential buildings are equipped with local energy management systems to adapt energy consumption to evolving conditions and reduce the use of energy.

Some buildings create more energy than they use thanks to photovoltaic panels and changes to the heating generation and distribution systems.

The European model for smart cities, Cagnot said, is more focused on people and how they live and move.

Local players

In large cities, he said, areas with offices, shops and residential zones are "close to each other but often don't share the same logic. The question is why and how inhabitants move to other parts of the city."

The other issue, he added, is "the issue of animation" of the community: "The smart city is where there is a real network of local players. You don't decree citizen participation."

These preoccupations are closely linked to the identity of European cities, whose aspect and spatial organisation evolved during centuries. "European cities are civitas, the role of citizenship is central," Antonio Calafati insisted.

"Quite differently from other world regions, extreme poverty and deprivation are understood as unacceptable in European cities. The role of cities as a social integration device - and the key role of public spaces - is a further dimension to consider when discussing the European model of city," he said.

This, he added, plays "an even more important role than the features of the urban fabrics [how urban areas look like] to identify the 'European model of city'."

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.


Brussels 2030

The EU capital has had an awful year. Looking forward, the city needs to urgently make itself a better place for people to live in and visit, starting with its notorious problems with congestion, pollution and bureaucracy.


The stress hormone and EU garden cities

European town planners still borrow from the "garden city" ideals of the 19th century, but they might be doing more harm than good.


Back to the Future by Hyperloop

Cars that run on petrol or diesel are meant to be a rarity by the year 2050. Progress is slow. But some Nordic cities have radical visions of how a "Hyperloop" could change that.


A world without waste

A garbage crisis in Naples, Italy, gave birth to the "zero waste" movement, but is the rest of Europe brave enough to change the way it thinks about trash?


Cities united by love of good food

Cooperation between cities can build healthier communities and help kick-start the local economy. The URBACT programme enables EU cities to develop solutions through networking, capacity-building and knowledge-transfer activities.


The EU Agencies Race

In this edition of EUobserver's Regions & Cities magazine, we take a closer look at some of the EU agencies, exploring how their location matters and the benefits for cities and regions to host them.

News in Brief

  1. EU wants 'Paris' climate strategy within 13 months
  2. Workload of EU court remains high
  3. Spain's supreme court charges Catalan separatist leaders
  4. EU calls for 'permanent' exemption from US tariffs
  5. Summit backs guidelines for future EU-UK talks
  6. Macron support drops as public sector workers go on strike
  7. EU leaders condemn Turkey for illegal actions in Aegean Sea
  8. Parliament must publish 'trilogue' documents, court says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EUobserverStart a Career in EU Media. Apply Now to Become Our Next Sales Associate
  2. EUobserverHiring - Finance Officer With Accounting Degree or Experience - Apply Now!
  3. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  4. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  5. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  7. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  8. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  9. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  10. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights
  11. ACCAAppropriate Risk Management is Crucial for Effective Strategic Leadership
  12. EPSUWill the Circular Economy be an Economy With no Workers?

Latest News

  1. Nordic states discuss targeted Russia sanctions
  2. Commission sticks to its line on Barroso case
  3. Germany and France promise new Russia sanctions
  4. EU rejects US trade 'gun to the head'
  5. Tariffs and Turkey will top This WEEK
  6. EU leaders roll over Brexit talks amid Trump and Russia fears
  7. Europe needs corporate tax reform - a digital tax isn't it
  8. EU data chiefs rally behind UK over Cambridge Analytica

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressThe 2018 European Medal of Tolerance Goes to Prince Albert II of Monaco
  2. FiscalNoteGlobal Policy Trends: What to Watch in 2018
  3. Human Rights and Democracy NetworkPromoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Next Eu Multiannual Financial Framework
  4. Mission of China to the EUDigital Cooperation a Priority for China-EU Relations
  5. ECTACompetition must prevail in the quest for telecoms investment
  6. European Friends of ArmeniaTaking Stock of 30 Years of EU Policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: How Can the EU Contribute to Peace?
  7. ILGA EuropeCongratulations Finland!
  8. UNICEFCyclone Season Looms Over 720,000 Rohingya Children in Myanmar & Bangladesh
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationEU Court: EU Commission Correct to Issue Guidelines for Online Gambling Services
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina Hopes for More Exchanges With Nordic, Baltic Countries
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementCondemns Facebook for Actively Promoting Anti-Macedonian Racism
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal Seed Vault: Gene Banks Gather to Celebrate 1 Million Seed Collections