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Urban Agenda and Next Generation, incorporating the lessons learned

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06 July 2021

Never before have EU funding-related issues been so hotly debated. To the surprise of those of us who work in these matters, the Next Generation funds have become almost the hot topic of elevator conversations. But prominence does not mean information.

There is a lot of noise, unrealistic expectations and a feeling of urgency to take advantage of an historic opportunity.  Many Spanish town and city halls are in a race to secure funds and the impression one gets is that the Urban Agenda is the map of El Dorado. Below, we will attempt to clarify some concepts and we will formulate a proposal whereby cities can approach this planning effort.

The SDGs, Urban Agendas and why 2030?

Successors to the Millennium Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of economic, social and environmental targets that humanity has set itself for 2030 (17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators).  Under the auspices of the UN, the SDGs are an international commitment agreed upon in 2015 that states and organisations undertake as their own, although they are non-binding.

Coordinated with this Agenda 2030 and also driven by the UN, the New Urban Agenda acknowledges the importance of urban issues globally and sets out a model of the city.  It is a very generic document, but it has been the basis for the Spanish Urban Agenda (AUE, in its Spanish initials), promoted by the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (MTMAU, in Spanish), which proposes a more concrete model of the city with a series of follow-up goals and indicators.

Local Urban Agendas and the initiatives of Spanish cities

The concept of the Urban Agenda is not defined anywhere, but it has struck a chord among Spanish cities, which are using it to refer to very distinct realities.

Following the maxim "think global, act local", some city councils are driving a local Agenda 2030 under the name Urban Agenda.  They are documents/processes that do not define strategies, but align policies or localise the SDGs; they are tools to contribute from the local level to global objectives that are already pre-determined[1].   They are documents very close to the Local Action Plans that the AUE proposes, with which Spanish cities must contribute to the objectives set nationally[2].

At the other extreme and under the same name, other cities are pushing much more ambitious processes, which set out directly to draw up strategic plans.

These two focuses, the Urban Agenda as a strategic plan (SP) and as a local action plan (LAP) are differentiated in at least the following aspects:

  • The aim of an SP is to materialise its own model of the city, while an LAP seeks to coordinate actions at the local level to achieve objectives that go beyond the municipality.
  • If the prime mover of an LAP is solely the city council, an SP requires the coordination of the main agents that impact the city.          
  • The goals of an SP are those freely chosen by the parties that design it (bottom-up approach) while in an LAP they are already pre-determined (top-down approach).
  • The level of detail required in an LAP is one of concrete and certain projects that are ready to be executed, whereas an SP is drafted with a greater degree of abstraction in terms of the course of action or programme.
  • The follow-up of an SP is carried out in accordance with the mechanisms laid down in it, unlike an LAP, which must be based on indicators that may be added.

 

Next Generation funds and the role of Urban Agendas

There is a perception that Next Generation funds are a large amount of money that will come from the EU and that what remains to be decided is what to spend it on. The reality, in part for cities, is that it is money that already available (set out in the 2021 Spanish National Budget) which will have to be mobilised very quickly (before 2026) and in the framework of calls that will determine the schemes and projects that can be granted funding and that are at the service of the model laid down in the Spanish Urban Agenda.

With these constraints, an Urban Agenda understood as a strategic plan with its horizon in 2030 is not the best recipe to make the best use of the Next Generation funding. We must avoid the mistakes of the Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development Strategies, in which excessively ambitious proposals in terms of in participation and strategic intent are resulting in slow paces of execution for the demands of the EU.[3]

The Next Generation funds are not intended to fund municipal council strategies in the long term, but to rapidly fulfil strategic guidelines set out at the national level. If the objective is to use these funds efficiently, cities must focus their efforts on drawing up as soon as possible a Local Action Plan of the Spanish Urban Agenda; a document which, although not a strategic plan, will make it possible to design projects with a strategic vision. 

Depending on their experience and resources, cities can approach their Urban Agendas with greater ambition, but to maximise the effective use of external funds, it is important that they:

  • Be focused on execution and contain defined projects (content, budget and completion deadline) and aligned with the goals of the AUE.
  • Pay suitable attention to cooperation with other bodies and citizen participation, but without raising expectations that are going to be disappointed.
  • Include training and recognise the important part that city council technical staff have to play and that will be crucial in the execution.
  • Incorporate the AUE follow-up indicators from the outset of the formulation and selection of projects.

With the name Urban Agenda, many cities are drafting documents in haste that may ultimately prove useless.  If the process is not approached correctly, if strategic plans are implemented with unsuitable deadlines and frameworks, we may find ourselves with a doubly fruitless effort.  We run the risk of producing documents that will not be compatible with the required execution deadlines, and that will not advance the culture of strategic planning either. A pragmatic, realistic approach, one that is in tune with the circumstances of each city, is the best solution.

[1] The AUE proposes a methodology, and several cities have signed agreements with the MTMAU for its development. 20 million euros in funding has been earmarked to draft 100 of these plans.

[3] Art. 7 of the ERDF regulation (Regulation EU 1301/2013) allocated 5% of this fund to the funding of “integrated measures for sustainable urban development". With scant culture of strategic planning and the need to meet excessively tight deadlines, many cities forged ahead with formulating ISUDs that have not had the sufficient degree of specificity to be put into practice.

 

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