City leader: Europe must simplify rules to help cities become more resilient

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. [100resilientcities.org]

Europe is moving in the right direction in helping its cities become more resilient and sustainable, but the EU must streamline its myriad regulations and requirements to move the process along, the leader of an international NGO pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation told EURACTIV.com.

Michael Berkowitz, the president of 100 Resilient Cities, also said his initiative could provide a vehicle, a bottom-up approach for Europe to reconnect with its citizens.

Berkowitz spoke to EURACTIV’s Zoran Radosavljević on the sidelines of the European week of regions and cities.

Why did you come specifically this week to the European Week of Regions and Cities? What was the purpose and message?

We have been an NGO focused on working in cities. We have used cities very rigorously as the entry point for all that we do. We’ve come to understand that in the case of many cities, they operate in a policy and funding construct that is bigger than that.

Most of the time it’s at the national level, so in the US, it’s about what funds are available to cities, what policies are constrained or incentivised in certain ways. That is true in lots of other countries, but in Europe, one of the main drivers for that is actually at the EU level. So we came because we want to help make the connections both with our cities and the EU and all of the institutions here, about how they can support cities to become more inclusive and integrated and ultimately more resilient.

What we are trying to do is to encourage the separate sectors [like transport, urban planning etc] to cooperate. Partly the conversation in the most general sense has been about how to break down those sectors and silos in ways that help to incentivise. We heard it at the EIB, we heard it when we were talking to the Commission, we heard it in many different places, so that’s the conversation we need to continue to have, even as we continue to see funding for different initiatives that is often sector-based.

One of the big reasons why we are here in Brussels is that we are starting to align the conversation about what resilience means because people approach it from a lot of different frames. Some people think about it from a primarily climate aspect, some think of it solely as disaster preparedness and recovery and for us, it’s this sort of duality of being able to anticipate and prepare for shocks and address the underlying stresses.

In global terms, do you see Europe as a leader or is it lagging behind in implementing those solutions?

Europe is diverse, but Europe is a leader. There is a lot of thoughtful urbanism going on here. I just came from Paris, where we released the Paris resilience strategy. I’ll give you an example of how this is working in Paris [which is one of the 100 cities in the programme]:

Paris is dense, has very few green spaces and they realised that they controlled 561 schools. Each had an interior courtyard that was paved. So they got together and the first thing they wanted to do was to reduce the urban heat island effect, how hot the city gets.

Then they brought together flood control people, the school construction people and also the community people. They said, let’s turn the interior schoolyards into green spaces and open them to the community so that there is a place for people to meet. That’s a very progressive thing. So those people had actually not met before the chief resilience officer from Paris actually brought them together.

They said ’if we do this, we can bring down the heat, the average temperature of the city, which will help us survive heatwaves. It will reduce the rainfall into our storm systems so that we flood less frequently.’ It will have benefits for the children because there are lots of studies that say children who are around greenery actually have increased cognitive benefits as they learn and it will give our citizens and particularly new immigrants and refugees a place to meet and become more integrated into French and Parisian society. All of that with a single intervention.

We see this happening in a number of cities across Europe, which is pretty heartening, but there is still a long way to go. Europe is very challenged by many of the threats of the 21st century, immigration, refugees and terrorism and climate change, air quality and pollution. There are lots of things that these cities still have to do, but on average, these cities are some of the cities that are really leading the way.

But cities don’t become great cities overnight, it takes time. Look at the great Dutch cities of Amsterdam or Rotterdam, they were filled with cars and flood-prone thirty years ago but as they began to work through those challenges, you see more and more those kinds of successes.

What do you see as areas in which Europe is underprepared?

The ageing population, which is a big stress that will show in the next few decades. In some countries, there are significant issues of what we’d call disconnected youth. The rates of unemployment for some EU nations are very high…

The biggest crisis that Europe has not managed to solve is the political identity crisis, that disengagement and disconnection with citizens. And cities and urban resilience give an opportunity for the EU to connect with the cities and citizens on the ground. Urban resilience is the potential entry to solve that, a bottom-up approach that we’ve been looking for for seventy years.

Compared to two years ago, the economy is doing better and the refugee crisis has slowed. Is now the good time for Europe to focus on integrated solutions?

There is this interesting learning moment, where you are close to the crisis but not too close, where you understand that you need change but you’re not just thinking about the crisis. This is the place some countries in Europe are at, there are others that still feel pretty close to this crisis, still trying to meet the day to day needs.

But I do think that cities need a good reason to change, sometimes that comes from a crisis that they have or sometimes from a crisis that a neighbour has that they relate to, but they need to have that. The Dutch are a good example, they have kept the crisis of the 1953 flood alive in a way that has allowed them to change, because they tell it in school, show it in stories, have movies about it, the flood of 1953 is alive and as a Dutchman you understand that water and climate is an existential threat. That allows policymakers to have a freedom to revolutionise, because people say ‘we can’t do it the way we used to, we need to go further than that’.

Europe is starting to draft its multiannual budget. What would be your recommendations?

One of the things we heard from a bunch of different stakeholders this week is that cities have become very trendy. I like that because I think cities where innovation happens and are where the actions is. But that has led to the proliferation of a number of programmes and requirements from the EU on cities, there are 80 different initiatives and funding streams in the last years.

One thing I would urge the EU to do is to think about how to consolidate, streamline and align those things because cities can’t deal with 80 different things, then they just chase small programmes and all requirements that come with that. The good news is that many of these programmes are largely pointed in the right direction but they are still fragmented. So rather than asking for something new, I would ask for something more streamlined.