Lessons of cities' champions league, by Cliff Hague

While Britain frets over Brexit, and continental insurrectionists savour the prospects of disassembling the European Union, some parts of the European Commission are still able to whistle a happy tune.

At the European Observation Network on Territorial Development and Cohesion (ESPON) December seminar in Bratislava, Lewis Dijkstra from the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy gave a scintillating presentation of his new report on the State of European Cities 2016.

The report is a co-production with UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlements. Using remote sensing to define urban areas, Dijkstra suggested that global levels of urbanisation are maybe as high as 80 per cent, much higher than previously calculated from national datasets. Dijkstra reminded us that the UN’s sustainable development goals 2016-2030 apply to European countries, not just the developing countries. This means that the UK has signed up to targets like adequate and affordable housing for all, and reducing the ratio of land consumption in relation to population. Recently, I reminded Scotland’s minister responsible for planning of this, and got the impression that delivering the SDGs had not been part of his previous briefing.

The 215-page State of European Cities report provides a thorough and well-researched run-through of themes such as the benefits of agglomeration economies, the demography of urban areas and urban governance. There are extensive statistical comparisons between cities and countries. Planners are likely to be interested in chapters such as: "Making urban mobility greener and safer" and "Urban environment and climate change". Both make important points about the need for practical actions, while showcasing examples of innovation.

Recent research on access to public transport in European cities is discussed. It analyses the location of public transport stops, frequency of departures at each stop, distribution of population and the extent of the urban centre. Leeds-Bradford shows up well, while Greater Manchester, Dublin and Bordeaux, all places that have invested heavily in tram systems, are in the lower reaches of the comparative listing.

It is good to see traffic calming, walking and cycling being given attention, and to hear that many cities (but not all) are addressing these issues. Vienna is a good example. It set up car-free pedestrian zones back in 1974 and tripled their area from 1990 to 2015, so that most of the historic city core is now pedestrianised. London gets an honourable mention for extending its bike lanes, like some other cities in the north of Europe. In Copenhagen, cycling is the most used mode of transport, and consequently a lower percentage of people than in any other city cite walking as their main mode. In contrast, few of southern Europe’s urban areas are cyclist-friendly.

The jury is still out on some basic questions that concern planning. Do smaller cities lead to shorter trips and thus lower energy use for mobility? Or does the smaller size lead to less public transport and more car travel? Post-Brexit Britain, disdainful of experts, may not be interested in European answers to such questions: only two of us from UK were in Bratislava to hear Dijkstra present the report.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher. www.cliffhague.com

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