Urban dimension and cohesion policy 2021-2027: what is at stake

Urban dimensionCities will play an ever more important role within the EU urban dimension and cohesion policy 2021-2027. But more cooperation will be required with Member states especially when it comes to concretely involve cities in the EU decision making process and to directly learn from cities’ experience on the ground.

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Why cities matter within the EU

Today over 70% of the EU population lives in town or cities and many of the policy challenges facing Europe, such as demographic change, economic crisis and environmental degradation, end up to significantly affecting urban areas.  Nonetheless, cites are labs where the urban complexity finds innovative and creative response which shows a significant shift of paradigm where cities are part of the solution and can largely contribute to territorial cohesion and to regional sustainable growth and attractiveness within the European continent.

Since the introduction of EU regional policies in the 1970s, the EU has increasingly come to recognise cities as strategic engines for development, while as result of deeper integration, today EU policies directly or indirectly have an impact on urban areas.

With over 20-year experiments to strengthen the urban dimension further mainstreamed by the European Commission in the 2014-2020 programming period, European cities are certainly going to play a more important role within the cohesion policies of Post 2020. However, the path to that will require more cooperation with Member states especially when it comes to involve cities in the EU decision-making process, but also to learn from cities’ experience on the ground: all aspects in principle expressed but largely overlooked at various degrees in many Member states that tend to retain control at central levels.

The Urban Agenda for the EU – an inter-governmental cooperation

Urban policy has no legal basis in the Treaties. This means that subsidiarity and proportionality behind the multiple dimension of urban policies, while remaining both a barrier and an opportunity, leave most prerogatives and choices to Member states (MS).

Hence, over the years, discussions on urban development at EU level have taken place in the framework of intergovernmental cooperation, which is behind the Urban Agenda for the EU, culminated in various Declarations and, more recently, in the Pact of Amsterdam.

Strongly backed by the Dutch Presidency and signed in 2016 by Member States, the Pact of Amsterdam represents a clear political commitment and a means to complement actions of the European Commission (EC), which, overtime, have grown towards a body of knowledge, clear methodologies and pilot experimental interventions.

The Pact of Amsterdam aims to set an operational framework while, in principle, enhancing the role and direct involvement of local authorities in the design and implementation of EU policies.

The Pact focuses on three instruments: better regulation, better funding, better knowledge exchange. It identifies 12 priority themes for the Urban Agenda for the EU by establishing 12 pilot partnerships, which see the involvement of European entities from different tiers of government but primarily cities and urban administrative authorities in the intent to set effective governance models. Finally, yet importantly, it defines 11 actions and a working method for institutional players and stakeholders.

The 12 partnership initiatives, now in full implementation and lasting 3 years, aim to match with major societal challenges of relevant importance to cities such as urban poverty, energy transition to the most recent urban security and culture heritage. Each partnership prepares and implements an action plan, working on overcoming bottlenecks and improving 3 major area: regulation; financing; knowledge exchange.

Enhancing urban dimension in CP 2014-2020

In the 2014-2020 cohesion policies, a significant amount of resources is dedicated to urban sustainable development with initiatives directly (Urbact, UIA, EDN) or indirectly (regional and national OPs) managed by the European Commission.

Specifically, Art 7 of ERDF Regulation has introduced delegation of powers to cities through designation as Urban Authorities, in this way making them directly responsible for designing and implementing urban operations and, in some cases, acting as First level control spots. Along with confirmation of Urbact for three EU Programming periods, Article 8 of the ERDF Regulation sets the new Urban Innovative Action (UIA) Programme. UIA supports studies and pilot projects, identifying or testing new solutions for sustainable urban development, providing evidence on possible urban impacts and new indicators of change. Equally, the Urban Development Network (UDN), established under Article 9 of the ERDF Regulation, supports information exchange between cities involved in integrated Sustainable Urban Development (Art 7) and in Urban Innovative Actions (Art 8).

Finally, yet importantly, the Commission has launched several initiatives to strengthen urban knowledge&sharing making it for a one-stop shop for cities and specifically a website that provides cities with information about the Urban Agenda and specific funding, including access to specific databases such as the urban data platform.

What is at stake in the negotiation of Post 2020

The above initiatives have found new ground within negotiations of the new legislative proposals of the 2021-2027 cohesion policy framework set by the EC in May 2018. Sustainable urban development has been confirmed, with, among others, a provision requiring Member States to earmark 6% of their ERDF resources for investments, from current 5% allocation.

In addition, several initiatives running in the current Programming period, will be combined within the European Urban Initiative (EUI), a new initiative directly and indirectly management by the EC with a total budget allocation of 500 million euros.

Whilst covering all urban areas, EUI will be the direct link to the UN’s New Urban Agenda and the SDGs implementation in the EU cities.

EUI will cover the following three strands of sustainable urban development:

  • a) support for capacity-building (based on the experience of Urbact and UND);
  • b) support for innovative actions and for knowledge sharing (based on the experience of UIA);
  • c) support for knowledge, policy development and communication.

Stand c) is based on the various EU and international initiatives (i.e. JRC, ESPON, Joint Programming Initiative Urban Europe, OECD, United Nations etc) and will feed Strands a) and b).

Within this new framework, the new UIA will be key to add up new and consolidated data linked to cities’ new challenges posed in primis by globalisation, migration, climate change, economic and financial shocks. The Programme with its running projects has already demonstrated a set of new methodologies and indicators, new governance models that will help cities effectively contributing to the EU policy cycle.


  • Christiaan Van Lierop, Harnessing the potential of the Urban Agenda for the EU, EPRS, June 2018
  • Martina Rotolo, The urban agenda for the EU: how cities got a seat at the table of policy-making, the Urban Media Lab, Sept 2019


  • Paola Amato: Former EU Japan visiting scientist, URBACT expert, H2020 evaluator and NEWTON PRIZE evaluator for the UK UNESCO National Commission, for advanced research among UK, China, the Philippines and Indonesia.
  • Pietro Elisei: Director of Urbasofia, UIA, Urbact Expert, Former Isocarp VP

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