City competitions – a developmental tool of the EU

In today’s globalized era European cities are seen as increasingly competitive actors that focus on building their own identities and attractiveness. Due to the city competitions and relevant funds that the European Union offers, it has an important role in setting the developmental directions of its member states. City competitions provide an opportunity to influence the sustainability of urban planning from supranational level but come with responsibility for considering whether equal opportunities exist everywhere in the EU.

Today cities are seen more and more as individual actors that brand themselves by logos and visions, and compete against each other to gain power, tourism and resources. Also the competition between relatively small cities for project funds of the European Union is increasing. Such awards help European cities  develop their urban spaces, boost tourism and maintain economic growth. Moreover, competitions support sustainable and inclusive city development, emphasizing innovation and creativity.
This year the European Capitals of Culture, Matera in Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria, benefit from additional cultural city marketing. Meanwhile, three different cities  have been awarded for the Access City Award that relates to improving equal accessibility in the EU. These cities are Breda in the Netherlands, Evreux in France and Gdynia in Poland. Currently, the European Capital of Innovation (a.k.a. iCapital) 2019 is under consideration and the winner city will get €1 million for city development. Last year Athens in Greece won the award. 
[bctt tweet=”On the European level, Helsinki is seen in a positive light especially due to its sustainable and bike-friendly planning. ” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
On the European level, Helsinki is seen in a positive light especially due to its sustainable and bike-friendly planning. By its own words, the city of Helsinki wants to be the smart center of network in its own area and to emphasize ecological aspects in its planning. Compared to the core regions of the EU, Helsinki is relatively small in size and is competing for visibility, as well as, cooperating with cities around it in the Baltic Sea area, such as Tallinn and Stockholm, which are having the same average of resources and locational importance. The city of Helsinki has been listed as the world’s 10th most bicycle-friendly city in 2019.  Helsinki also won with Lyon the new competition for European Capital of Smart Tourism in 2019. The winners get communication and branding support from the EU that helps develop sustainable, cultural and accessible city image. 

Competing cities towards regional equality and social sustainability

Urban planning in Europe is done on local, national as well as supranational level. By increasing outsourcing of urban governance to private actors, European city development is also under fragmentation. Planning in a globalized era is not anymore only in the hands of the local government but multi-level governance where the EU bears strong responsibility via its regulations and competitions. EU policies have direct as well as indirect impact on local planning. For example, the EU’s Natura 2000,  the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world, has an indirect impact on local planning due to its nature protection standards. To take part in the EU’s city competitions, European cities are gently pushed towards a more environmentally sustainable direction. In other words, the programs and city competitions provide an opportunity for directing local state development towards more sustainable conditions in an environmentally friendly and economically smart way. 
[bctt tweet=”By promoting socially sustainable and regionally inclusive competition as well as city branding in the EU it is possible to invite everyone to enjoy competitive regional development.” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
However, it is important to consider how to maintain equal urban development opportunities in European city competitions. This “carrot” of winning additional development funds strongly maintains and supports the regional competition setting in Europe and forces cities to constantly boost their economic growth and benchmark the actions of fellow competitors so that they do not lose their power position. We should remind ourselves to ask for whom are these competitions meant for from regional and social point of view. Urban areas located farther away from the core regions of EU as well as cities with less than 100 000 inhabitants can be seen having thinner possibilities to compete in the game of agglomeration of additional goods.
By promoting socially sustainable and regionally inclusive competition as well as city branding in the EU it is possible to invite everyone to enjoy competitive regional development. The EU’s new way of encouraging urban development to proceed towards certain directions can indeed be an effective tool for equally improving environmentally but also socially sustainable living conditions everywhere in Europe.
TEXT Tiia Talvisara
PHOTO Giulia Gasperinic / Unsplash
The author is doing her master’s degree of urban studies and planning in Brussels and has a BA of political science and studies of clothing design from the University of Lapland. The author has specialized in questions of identity and public space in urban areas, as well as, socio-economic differences between Northern and Central Europe.