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Defining “the City” in the Setting of 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy? Learning from the Ongoing Italian Urban Agenda

0 Comments 🕔13.Jan 2015

This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature.

Skyline of Milan. Credit: elevenItaly

Skyline of Milan. Credit: elevenItaly

by Simonetta Armondi

The EU urban issue in question

The European Union’s approach to urban issues is not new. It has emerged and been consolidated over the course of the past two decades. There have been need assessments, periods of public comment, policy actions and policy reactions at all levels of government and governance. Thus, in order to define the EU’s current urban agenda, we cannot start with the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’ – within which cities have no clear role – but, rather, must consider all the documents, directives, and policies the European Union has issued in the last two decades regarding the European urban “archetype.” For, there has been significant discussion of the meaning and nature of cities over the past fifteen to twenty years, starting with the European Commission’s ‘Towards an Urban Agenda for the European Union’ (1997) the Cities of Tomorrow Report and continuing through the Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (2011).

Yet, despite this long history, there are still unanswered and pressing questions in the area of EU urban policy, such as: What should be our policy responses to (urban) economic crisis at the national and local levels?[1] To what extent should the EU be involved in the formulation and/or implementation of urban policy? And, how should we understand the differences in approach and action at the three different levels of policy activity: that of the European Union, its Member States and individual cities?

And, of course, questions such as these remain important because there is no European “norm” when it comes to urban policy. Europe includes countries that have developed meaningful urban agendas as well as countries that have not even tried to put the urban issue on their policy agendas. And, this diversity is apparent not merely at the national level, but at the local level as well. Some cities have articulated an effective urban agenda; others have outlined incoherent policy measures that need fine-tuning; and from still others, there is simply silence. Thus, the latest EU communications on the urban issue are essentially a request that individual European countries develop their own national urban agendas.[2]

Therefore, a series of more or less mainstream terms and concepts are taking center stage again at the European level (place-based policies, strategic planning, metropolitan cities and smart cities, community-led local development, to mention just a few), introducing some residual potential for innovation, but also revealing persistent limits and uncertainties. The same orientation seems to permeate the strategies of the ongoing Italian National Urban Agenda, apparently intentioned to fill decades of omissions in the field of urban policies. Starting with the interpretation that was given by the Italian example at the national level, this article tries to provide some feedback on the broader European narrative regarding the emergent urban question.


Between Innovation and Instability: Emergence of the Italian Urban Agenda

Italy’s new Inter-ministerial Committee for Urban Policies (CIPU), established by law in 2012, is tasked with coordinating urban policies implemented by the central government by working together with regional and municipal leaders. The CIPU assumed its office in January 2013 and is a key institutional innovation on the weak Italian policy scene because it recognizes the central role of a national policy for the cities. It recognizes the increasing importance of cities in a globalized economy and the relative lack of national policies targeted at cities by attempting to bridge the gap between cities and the national government. Moreover, it is significant that this institutional innovation happened together with the Partnership Agreement 2014-2020 between Italy and the Commission Services’ (Draft, December 2013) because this document highlights three drivers of sustainable urban development, already identified in the previous ministerial documents on Italy’s national urban agenda. Those three drivers are:

  1. Strengthened urban services for residents and city users.
  2. Promoting social inclusion in deprived areas and for vulnerable groups.
  3. Developing the capacity of cities to boost local segments of global supply chains.

With reference to these three drivers, the Partnership Agreement emphasized that urban policy must be crafted with respect to two different types of urban administrative contexts:

  • The ten “metropolitan” cities stated by a national law: Bari, Bologna, Genova, Firenze, Milano, Napoli, Roma, Torino, Venezia, Reggio Calabria, and the four cities identified by special statute regions: Cagliari, Catania, Messina, Palermo;
  • Medium-sized cities and regional urban centers.

This difference between large cities and small or medium sized urban centers is key in the documents. However, Italy’s persistent regional disparities—in particular the dualism between the Centre-North and the South—are also a central concern.

Entering the Old Port of La Cala, Palermo, Sicily. Credit: Patrick Nouhailler

Entering the Old Port of La Cala, Palermo, Sicily. Credit: Patrick Nouhailler


Indeed, it was as a result of the distinction between larger and smaller urban centers that, in February 2014, the Italian Minister of Territorial Cohesion published a Technical Advice on the “National Operational Programme for Metropolitan Cities 2014-2020” (NOP Metro). This document stated that, in answer to the European policy requirement, Italy would set up a “National Operational Programme” on metropolitan cities – the pro-tempore managing authority of which is the Ministerial Department of Cohesion and Development Policies – and that this “Programme” would come up with actions for development in urban areas within the overall context of EU Cohesion Policy. In specific, the “Programme” was tasked with establishing an urban policy in context of the following:

  • The centrality of cities to the European Agenda for Sustainable Development and Social Cohesion, which crosses many of the areas of intervention of Europe 2020.
  • The concentration in large urban areas of emergent social, environmental, and infrastructural conflicts and inequalities.
  • The ongoing design of constitutional and institutional reform for the establishment of metropolitan cities (Law April 7, 2014, n. 56).[3]

The NOP Metro met these challenges by adopting an experimental policy design in which state-level actions occur simultaneously with the implementation of each Regional Operational Programmes to support actions promoted only by the 14 local urban authorities. Within the overall framework of the urban agenda – namely the integrated territorial approach of the Partnership Agreement – NOP Metro is in particular focused on the following two types of policy intervention:

  1. Smart City
  • supporting investment plans focused on extending broadband deployment and the roll-out of high-speed networks for public services;
  • promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewables in public buildings;
  • developing low-carbon emission technologies and sustainable urban mobility concepts.
  1. Social innovation
  • supporting social inclusion in deprived contexts with high concentration of marginality, poverty, and homelessness (e.g. vulnerable groups such as Roma and homeless people);
  • developing physical regeneration of deprived neighborhoods through energy efficiency technology and the involvement of social enterprises.

Moreover, for the purpose of such projects, although the “Programme” naturally regards city mayors as local leaders, it also encourages the formation of partnerships and projects of inter-municipal scale. Thus, for each “metropolitan” city, the territory in which the “Programme” operates is not wholly constrained by the city’s political and administrative borders, but includes neighboring territories because of the functional interdependence of cities which serve as regional hubs.

Nonetheless, at the core of the NOP Metro urban model is a particular stylization of the urbanization process. The stylization is based on the implicit assumption that the metropolitan mode of urban development is still dominant—although the most influential urban studies show a shift to a regional urbanization process,[4] and even to a planetary urbanization.[5] Contemporary Italian urban geography can be interpreted as a peri-urban model instead of sprawl condition. The rural-urban fringe stems from the erosion of the countryside caused by residential settlements and industrial districts. In the Italian configurations, urban and rural territories merge, creating complex spaces, consisting of residential areas, commercial strips, agricultural land, leisure parks and nature. The rural-urban fringe, an area between the city and the countryside, is epitomized by spatial and functional heterogeneity and by a large amount of shrinking territories.[6] Nevertheless, the process is related to the regional urbanization of contemporary territories, not only in Italy, but elsewhere.

In point of fact, European cities evince a number of different modes of urbanization. For example, even a birds-eye view of European urbanization reveals the following:

  • There are only two truly large urban agglomerations (Paris and London);
  • There are a considerable number of large city-regions (Milano, Munich, Copenhagen, Madrid, Stockholm, etc.);
  • There are several areas with very few urban centers in the north, in Spain and France, and in some Eastern European regions;
  • There is, overall, an emergence of mega-city-regions – a thick network of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in central, Western and Southern Europe.

Indeed, these heterogeneous urban systems suggest a rising mismatch between administrative and urban patterns, and seem to mark the end of the metropolitan mode of urban development. Thus, the formal designation of fixed boundaries of new governmental entities (like Italian metropolitan authorities) does not seem promising any longer.


Rescaling EU urban policy. Have we made real progress?

As we have seen, European societies need an EU urban agenda because they face an ‘urban question’ which has emerged in the past twenty years, and is now rising in importance.[7] This is a driving force behind the European Union’s request for a national urban development policy and the resolution of some national authorities, like Italy’s, to establish a national urban agenda. However, addressing underdevelopment in a growth-enhancing way necessarily requires basing policies on the many and varied types of underdevelopment dynamics to be found in the EU’s cities.[8] Put another way, crafting an intelligent urban policy requires a nuanced understanding of the many different types of European city. It requires that we ask in what ways and to what extent do national urban policies touch down differently in dissimilar kinds of cities? And, that we consider what distinctions can be identified between cities in terms of their available capacities, responses, actors, consequences?

Besides different urban “portraits” – beyond the cityism approach, as underlined in the previous paragraph[9] – within a European urban agenda, it should be possible to recognize different policy interpretations. For example, for the smart city issue, a European urban agenda needs to take stock of research on the limits or, indeed, the regressive effects of solutions based only on the technological dimension of innovation and of digital infrastructure.[10] Likewise, each national urban agenda should consist of a highly tailored set of projects designed to address specific urban contexts of underdevelopment or underused resources, on the one hand, and to promote growth, on the other.

Thus, this paper strongly recommends an intensive review concerning how and to what extent the European – and Italian – urban policy narrative on cities have been meeting, so far, the challenge of profound innovation in urban practices raised by territories, but also in urban studies, in recent years. Further “hot” topics concern the connection between narrative framework and policy implications: the change in the nature of European urbanization patterns, beyond the era of the modern metropolis on one hand, and the awareness of the multifaceted notion of social cohesion, on the other hand. An EU urban policy has to recognize and consider cities for what they actually are today, with different problems and potentials at different scales, inside and outside their regular boundaries. What we designate a “city” is not identical to all other “cities,” but exists on a continuum because city is not a homogeneous entity.[11]


Simonetta Armondi is Professor of Urban and Regional Analysis at Politecnico di Milano. She has done research on governance, partnership building, and local project strategies within EU Cohesion Policy, and is working on a research project that looks at evaluation policies at both the regional and national levels for the 2014-2020 Programming Period. In addition, her research examines the peculiarities of Italy’s shrinking territories in the context economic recession, particularly as a chance to rewrite planning, project, and policy tools.


This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature.

[1] European Commission, “Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. Eighth Progress Report on Economic, Social and Territorial Cohesion: The Regional and Urban Dimension of the Crisis,” Bruxelles 26.06.2013.

[2] European Commission, “Cities of Tomorrow: Investing in Europe. Issues Paper,” Regional Policy Conference, Bruxelles, 17-18.02.2014.

[3] This reform assigns an increasingly role to the metropolitan government. At the same time, the administrative ordinary boundaries are not appropriate for interventions which address the larger scale of agglomeration. In any case, the urban authorities of NOP Metro are the mayors of the existing urban institutions.

[4] Edward W. Soja, “Regional Urbanization and the End of the Metropolis Era,” In Companion to the City, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011) 26-34.

[5] Neil J. Brenner, ed. Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2014).

[6] Simonetta Armondi, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Productive Territories. The Case of Shrinking Italy,” The International Journal of Architectonic, Spatial, and Environmental Design 6, no. 3 (2013): 62-76.

[7] Neil. J. Brenner, “The Urban Question as a Scale Question: Reflections on Henri Lefebvre, Urban Theory and the Politics of Scale,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 2 (2000): 361-378

[8] Thomas Farole, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Michael Storper, “Cohesion Policy in the European Union: Growth, Geography, Institutions,” Journal of Common Market Studies 49, no. 5 (2011): 1089-1111.

[9] Methodological “cityism” is focused on city as an exclusive analytical lens for studying contemporary processes of urban transformations that are not limited to the city. See David Wachsmuth, “City as ideology: reconciling the explosion of the city form with the tenacity of the city concept,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 1 (2014): 75-90.

[10] Olivier Coutard and Jonathan Rutherford, “Post-networked cities: recombining infrastructural, ecological and urban transitions,” In Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Castan Broto, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin eds., Cities and Low Carbon Transitions (London: Routledge, 2011) 107-125.

[11] Peter Marcuse, “The ‘City’ as Perverse Metaphor”, City 29, no. 2 (2005): 247-254.



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