23rd Oct 2016


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.

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  • 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 and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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