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| RESEARCH & GOVERNANCE: Project RAISEes new dialogue between EU urban research and citizens

More than four-fifths of Europe’s population resides in cities, which are a huge focus of EU-funded research projects to improve the quality of urban environment, preserve our cultural and architectural heritage and promote sustainable ways of organising society and the economy. But are these projects on the right track from the city-dweller’s point of view? To find out, the Commission earlier this year launched a ‘project of projects’ known as RAISE to canvass the opinion of citizens from across the continent. The results are just in – and they convey some surprising messages to European policymakers…

Citizens from across Europe
Point-counterpoint: citizens from across Europe exchanging ideas with EU policymakers about urban sustainability research
Cleaner air, accessible and greener public transport, more opportunities for cycling and walking, cultural preservation efforts that extend beyond the mere restoration of buildings to include language, traditional songs or other intangibles and, above all, better communication to the public of the fruits of EU-funded urban research. Voilá: the citizens’ voice is heard.

Such were among the many recommendations conveyed to Members of the European Parliament, Commission officials, national and regional policymakers, NGOs and business groups during the first ‘Citizens’ Conference’ held in Brussels on 5 December. The event was the culmination of an EU project known as RAISE (Raising Citizens and Stakeholders’ Awareness and Use of New Regional and Urban Sustainability Approaches in Europe), supported by DG Research and partners in Austria, Belgium, Italy, Romania and Poland. Its purpose was to give private citizens from all walks of life a chance to put their concerns directly to policymakers and researchers.

And they did. As panellist Pierre Valette, Acting Director for environment research at DG Research, told the gathering: “Too often we here in Brussels deal only with national governments, politicians and lobby groups. This is the first time in my 25-year career that I’ve seen citizens working directly with researchers and policymakers to understand each other’s concerns. Their views presented today will certainly motivate us within the Commission to better define the EU’s future research priorities.”

Fellow panellist Jean Marie Beaupuy, a French Member of the European Parliament and chairperson of the urban/housing intergroup, seconded that view. “We must never forget the personal dimension of cities. The work presented here by these citizens holds important implications for increasing the quality of life in urban settings.” 

Finally, Carlo Sessa, project coordinator and head of ISIS, the Rome-based Institute of Studies for the Integration of Systems, spoke on behalf of the five national research institutes that were involved in the project, saying: “It’s very difficult to elaborate policy but easy to criticise it—and yet there is not enough criticism of policy at the citizens’ level. We need more of this.”

RAISE selected its sample of citizens earlier this year from some 600 candidates willing to volunteer their time to assess the impact of past and on-going urban research projects supported by the Commission (mostly from the Key Action, “City of Tomorrow and Cultural Heritage”) and, critically, to say whether that research was appropriate to their needs as urban dwellers in the ‘city of tomorrow.’ The final 26 participants were drawn from the EU’s 25 member states plus Romania.

More mobility and other services…but the right kind

Starting in September, the citizens’ group visited Vienna, Rome and other cities to examine EU-funded research projects and four areas pertaining to urban policy:

  • governance and ways to include marginalized citizens in decisions affecting their environment;
  • changes in both transport systems and transport habits to achieve a greener and wider array of mobility choices;
  • a sustainable integration of cultural heritage;
  • a more sustainable-built environment that stresses re-cycling and renovation over consumption and new construction.

All the participants insisted that mobility was central, but also problematic, in their daily lives, for instance. Shorter daily distances via improvements to transport infrastructure and better interoperability between different transport systems were a common theme. “Walking, cycling and public transport need to be promoted as alternatives” to cars, they said. 

Pointing to the urban blight surrounding many social housing sites, the group argued that poor governance delivers poor outcomes. As an Irish participant noted: “Most of us here were self-selecting because we’re educated and interested in urban issues. But the poor, the uneducated and the jobless don’t know where or how to express their voice when it comes to urban projects that directly affect their lives. We think this problem needs a new approach and that EU research should focus on ways to reflect their views as well.”

The group also had strong opinions about cultural preservation research projects. As another participant observed “it’s fine and necessary to carry out the physical preservation of buildings, but policies should that bring them into our daily life. Also, heritage is not only about buildings but about the intangible aspects of culture, too.”

EU research: great goings… but unknown!

One of the more surprising things to come out of the Citizens’ Conference was the group’s self-confessed lack of knowledge about European research. Despite their relatively high level of education, they were not aware of the hundreds of urban sustainability-related projects supported by the Commission. Most of the participants said it was a revelation to see the diversity and high quality of EU research carried out in Europe’s cities.

“I had no idea that European R&D was as good as it is. Some of the projects are simply wonderful,” said one of the participants from Slovakia. “But these projects are not well known enough among ordinary citizens. The EU needs to really broadcast its research. Even if you put it in simple ‘Mickey Mouse’ language, we need to know how we can take advantage or ‘buy’ the results of EU research, if I can put it that way.”

Declaring the City of Tomorrow

To provide urban planning guidance to Europe’s researchers and policymakers, the RAISE group presented their ‘Citizens’ Declaration on the City of Tomorrow’ during the December 5 meeting. The eight-page declaration says that the citizens of Europe “represent some of the richest people in the world and, at the same time, are among the least sustainable.”

Noting that “every technology comes with a cost,” it calls on Europe to use research as a tool to anticipate potential problems and to avoid them by focusing policy and R&D on the creation of a sustainable built urban environment that encompasses governance, mobility and preservation of Europe’s cultural heritage in the broadest sense of the word.

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  • European Commission, DG Research
  • Eric Ponthieu
    European Commission
    DG Research, Head of Sector, Urban Environment
    Phone: +32.2.296 99 45