time for participation

interview about urbanism

Today`s urban problems are multidimensional and they are governed by cities themselves. But how can cities help and learn from each other? In Europe, there is an attempt to organize a working method that will allow them to solve their issues together. Could they also cooperate with cities from different continents? Will cultural differences allow it? A Member of the European Parliament, Jan Olbrycht, answers these questions in an interview with Lucia Yar, euractiv.sk.


MEP on Urbanism: We live in times of participation


The New Urban Agenda of the EU, adopted in 2016, aims to contribute to better functioning urban areas and to provide good living conditions for European citizens. But what is the practical added value of such an agenda?

Within the European Union, there is an ongoing debate concerning the urban dimension of different European policies. When we talk about urban policy, we mean different urban dimensions including efforts, coordination, and monitoring of all urban policies.

In the past, we had a very interesting experience in urban programs with several declarations about urban dimensions, but for the first time, during the Dutch presidency, there was a proposal to organize a kind of a working method which, in fact, is based on political choices of the most important topics, like transport, migration, social issues, poverty, etc.

I believe this is a good method and it works on the European level because all the problems today are in fact multi-dimensional problems.
— Jan Olbrycht, Member of the European Parliament

How have European cities embraced the agenda so far?

Cities cooperate on concrete issues with governments and experts within the European Commission. First, they prepare their action plans for the future using the working methods anticipated by the agenda. Since cities are members of different European organizations, they transfer the new methods into these organizations.

We hope that the results of this work and partnerships will also be translated into regulations for the 2021-2027 period, and not only into cohesion policies. The Commission has already proposed an EU regulation for a very special European urban initiative, in which the urban agenda method should be developed after 2020.

However, we are not preparing another declaration. It is practical work focused on concrete solutions and concrete results in future European policy.


You are talking about new methods that are a step forward within the European urbanization. What do they include?

The method is based on putting multilevel governance in practice, which can also be understood in different ways. One is the awareness of each person’s competencies within the process, as everybody is working separately and on different levels. 

According to the subsidiarity principle, the urban issues are not in the EU’s competence nor the European Parliament’s and the governance should belong to cities. But multilevel governance is different, as various kinds of governances decide to solve problems together, presenting different dimensions and ways of thinking.

I believe this is a good method and it works on the European level because all the problems today are in fact multi-dimensional problems. Therefore, the working method should be also much more complex and require not only the division of labor, but also multilevel cooperation.


What do you see as the most viable way of motivating local governments and representatives to cooperate with each other at various levels on urban policies?

Everything depends on people and, of course, different politicians can always influence the program. When you ask city representatives if they want to participate in hundreds of meetings, which may produce a very interesting debate but have no conclusions or implementations, they will say it is useless and a waste of time. Of course, there are also many meetings concerning the exchange of good practices, which is different. The representatives are keener on participating in these discussions.
However, the Urban Agenda is not about the exchange of good practices. It is a common work, intending to identify the problem, to find the best or new solutions and to propose something concrete in national and European legislation.

What is important is to show the way we work, not only the technical solutions.
— Jan Olbrycht, Member of the European Parliament

Yet the exchange of practices brings added value to the process of policy-making, particularly in the cooperation between Europe and the Global South, including Africa or South America. How does this exchange proceed from the European perspective?

During the exchange of experience, what is important is to not only the exchange of good practices, but also information about failures: what we achieved, what we did not achieve and why. It is important that the discussion and the cooperation are honest, otherwise we end up exchanging promotional materials and Power Points.

Second, such exchanges cannot be too detailed because you cannot transfer a practice directly from one side of the world to another. It may be possible in Europe but when going further, the cultural context differs. What is important is to show the way we work, not only the technical solutions.

What is possible to transfer is a method. What you can learn is to identify a problem. Today, we live in times of participation and not any more in times of experts. Shall questions like ‘how do we identify the problem?’, ‘to whom should we talk?’, ‘how should we talk to others?’ and ‘how do we find the solutions, the method, or the way of working?’, be answered at a round table, by conducting a survey, or by contacting concrete people and different groups of society? This is important, and we can learn a lot from each other.


In terms of various aspects of urbanization, which of the current issues do you consider the most pressing one?

Immigration is crucial, and I do not mean the refugees. I mean immigration and everything that is linked to it. It is absolutely a horizontal matter. It concerns housing and social services, as well as social participation and many other complex policies.


From the point of view of the European Parliament, how can urban interventions and urbanism mitigate the consequences of the growing number of people moving to cities?

Europe in general has a problem because we do not have an immigration policy. But when you talk to mayors and politicians, you realize that they are not even discussing the immigration policy. They are discussing what should be done as people are coming to their cities. 

What they should think about as the first thing is to look at the incoming people and their way of life. There are many various and very interesting solutions in small as well as big cities. It is a matter that has currently no proposal of solution at the European level, but in many member states, the mayors are doing absolutely crucial work.


MEP Jan Olbrycht (European People’s Party) chairs a parliamentary intergroup URBAN. He is also a vice-chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Regional Development. In the past, Olbrycht served as a mayor of the southwestern Polish town Cieszyn and vice-chairman of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions. He remains a member of the Committee for National Spatial Planning at the Polish Academy of Sciences.


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