World Cities Day: reflecting on cities’ power to bolster sustainable development


Today, 31 October, is the United Nations’ (UN) World Cities Day. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the integral role that cities play, and the ways in which they will need support in the future.

Cities and urban areas act as centres of innovation for solutions to global challenges. Concurrently, global changes – such as climate change, demographic transition, and migration – are having direct and increasing effects at the local level. Ongoing changes impact regions and cities unequally, and recovery from shocks can also often be slow and unbalanced.

In order to ensure that no communities or places are left behind in this landscape, it is imperative to embrace the role of regions and cities in future action, governance and programming.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (REGIO) acknowledges that cities must be supported at the EU level. It thereby invests in integrated sustainable urban development strategies; supports participatory approaches; and supports capacity-building and knowledge sharing for cities.

These tenants are implemented through a number of tactics, including the European Commission’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) programme, which places a strong focus on urban capacity-building and transnational exchange.

The IUC consists of three components. The first fosters city-to-city cooperation by pairing European cities with counterparts from across the world. Second, the creation of a Global Covenant of Mayors against climate change provides technical support and capacity to signatory cities. Finally, pairings and exchange between European and Latin American and Caribbean regions support regional innovation systems. Combined, the IUC fosters knowledge-sharing, builds capacity among urban and regional actors, and supports the localisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Today, over 160 cities from 39 countries participate in the IUC. The programme has supported and facilitated city-to-city and region-to-region in-person exchanges; regional events across the world; and international IUC events. In addition, a Knowledge-Sharing Platform accessible to the IUC community fosters discussion on topics such as localising the SDGs collaboratively over time.

The importance for the EU of supporting cities becomes particularly clear when the IUC programme is considered together with additional networking activities and investment in sustainable urban development through the Commission’s Cohesion Policy.

Up to this point, around €115 billion from Cohesion Policy Funds are being spent in cities, of which €17 billion are implemented locally through integrated urban development strategies that are managed by local authorities. Given that the theme of this year’s World Cities Day is “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations,” it is notable that the Urban Innovative Actions initiative also provides €370 million for testing and prototyping innovation in cities.

All of this relates to the Urban Agenda for the EU, which contributes to increasing global recognition of cities’ critical roles in sustainable development.

The next phase of the Cohesion Policy (for 2021-2027) responds to the importance of the Urban Agenda for the EU, and the core understanding that fully embracing the role of regions and cities is crucial to equity and sustainability. The policy’s structure will evolve around five objectives, including “Europe closer to citizens,” which is dedicated to flexibly supporting the implementation of tailored local and territorial development strategies with strong involvement from local communities. In addition, the Commission is proposing increasing resources for sustainable urban development to be implemented through local strategies, and the European Urban Initiative to give more coherent support to cities.

The focus of the European Urban Initiative is to provide cities with support for capacity-building; innovative actions; and knowledge, policy development and communication. The work being carried out through the IUC programme perfectly complement these aims, and the increased focus on cities in the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy. Taken together, this paints a picture for a future whereby cities are empowered and bolstered, and able to fully localise the Sustainable Development Goals.

Cities and regions across the world are innovating solutions to global challenges. Supporting them at the EU level in this venture – including through transnational exchange – is of crucial importance to building a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable future.

– Ramón López, Policy Coordinator for International Relations of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy