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Urban areas are focal points for society’s strengths and weaknesses. On one hand they are powerhouses for economic growth, while on the other hand they can be hotspots for social unrest and environmental concerns. And cities and towns are not static, they are cauldrons of change that we must understand if we are to build on their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. The Super link 1 cluster of urban research projects is identifying the research challenges that cities and their planners face.

Almost 80% of Europeans live and work in cities and towns with populations ranging from 10 000 up to several million inhabitants. Despite our longing for the countryside it is in urban areas that most of us live, learn, labour and pass our leisure time. Cities and towns are centres of economic activity, transforming resources from their hinterlands and the world at large and trading them back into the global economy. They are centres of cultural heritage in their museums and theatres, they are centres of intense social and political networking, and they are centres of learning and innovation in their universities. And cities are always in flux – changing in response to growth, the latest technologies and the hottest social trends; and changing themselves as administrations seek sustainable competitive advantage through a variety of planned urban development policies.

However, the impressive benefits of urban areas are matched by their impressive problems – air pollution that affects health and monuments, noisy traffic that wastes energy and patience, social exclusion that creates ghettos and underclasses, all the problems of water and energy supply and waste disposal, and the scarring of the urban landscape left by de-industrialisation. And, of course, size matters in urban planning – the types and scale of problems are different between small towns and large cities. Because of the importance and complexity of urban areas, the Fifth Framework Programme for Research (FP5) strongly supported urban research to create the concepts, strategies and tools that urban planners can use to ensure sustainable growth and quality of life for the cities of tomorrow.

A supercluster

Led by the TNO-Environment and Geosciences link 2 from Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, Super link 3 is a FP5 Accompanying Measure that links four urban research projects covering economic development and sustainability: Masurin link 4, on the revitalisation of industrial sites; Optias link 5, on strategies for locating commercial facilities; Comet link 6, on urban planning for the tertiary (services) sector; and Ecopadev link 7, that studies eco-industrial parks. As Super is a network of over 50 leading experts on sustainable urban development, including natural and social scientists, urban planners and consultants, a key objective was to use this critical mass to identify future themes for urban research. The cluster activities have been much appreciated by the members of the individual projects. “I don’t know other projects where scientists and practitioners are linked together on such a scale and where researchers can get such valuable input on the feasibility of their ideas,” commented Professor Georg Kluczka of Berlin’s Free University, “In Comet we are studying the way service industries that deal directly with customers are relocating from city centres to the suburbs, and the new interaction patterns that arise. Co-operation within Super gives us access to an even wider range of practitioners in the other projects and their comments and opinions are invaluable to us.”

Together, the Super partners have outlined five main themes for urban research in FP7 which reflect the growing challenges that cities and towns are facing:

  • Post urbanisation and urban/suburban relations
    Where does a city end and the countryside begin?   Urban sprawl has made it difficult to draw lines. Cities have many physical and virtual networks which pay little attention to lines on maps. These networks and flows have their own needs, different from those of suburban and rural environments, so it is vital to be able to recognise them in all their complexity such that appropriate tools can be developed.
  • Environmental impact and industrial ecology
    Industrial sites are important shapers of local and regional networks and their location concerns many stakeholders. New tools are needed to aid decision-making in this area, not just for the rapidly growing cities of the EU-15, but also for the cities and towns in the new Member States that have industries in transition.
  • Labour market and the quality of life
    What challenges do ageing populations, rising immigration, planning for ‘happiness’ and the relief of poverty, pose for urban planners in the future? Today, these issues are causing concern to EU and national policy-makers; frontline urban administrations will need tools to understand and meet them.
  • Integrated approach and decision-making
    As urban planners face increasingly complex problems, solutions that integrate policies across a range of sectors are needed – for example, solutions that address transport, land-use planning and environment policy as an integrated whole. Urban planning needs the tools to move from sectoral specialisation to coordinated and integrated responses.
  • Regional cooperation and competitiveness
    Specialist cities and networks of cities and towns are recent phenomena, such as Amsterdam that hosts almost exclusively service industries. How can specialisation and co-operation help cities develop? What benefits can city networks bring, where suitably located specialist cities serve and trade with each other in a network?

A super conference

On 12 January 2005, Super held a conference on the role of urban research in the Seventh RTD Framework Programme. Chaired by Professor F. Dieleman of Delft University of Technology, the conference participants discussed the five themes with FP7 in mind. René Korenromp, project coordinator of Super from TNO Apeldoorn, presented the project’s activities and the five urban research themes.

Eric Ponthieu, head of sector for ‘urban sustainability and cultural heritage’ link 8 at the Research DG recounted the history of urban research funding through the RTD Framework Programmes. He emphasised that integrative tools are needed, particularly to link urban planning and land-use research and to show their relevance to the major EU policy areas, such as the Lisbon objectives, the environment and health action plan, and reform of the common agricultural policy. Francesca Crippa of Eurocities link 9 spoke on the research needs of large cities, and Pascaline Gaborit from the European New Towns Platform link 10 described the particular problems that new towns and garden cities are facing as they grapple with urban renewal. Hans Pluckel representing the Dutch Randstad region link 11, which contains Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague, presented ideas on competition and co-operation between urban areas and on the need for more basic and applied research to help authorities deal with the problems of ageing populations and the integration of minorities among others.

Following these presentations, participants split into parallel workshops to give clearer definition to how integrated management approaches can be promoted in urban research themes for FP7. Summarising the conference, René Korenromp is clear on the need for intensifying urban research: “Cities are important because they allow ‘agglomeration advantages’; these are the synergies that come from the many different networks they contain and their interactions. As these synergies arise from interactions, to understand and control them we also need integrated management tools. For example, if flexitime-working practices become popular within a city centre, pushed by the concentration of service industries, this could have important impacts on the demand for public transport capacity during the day. In this case we need management tools that can link land use, employment and transport policy areas. In a similar way, the Super cluster is an ‘integrative’ project as it links urban research teams covering many policy sectors – so our emphasis on integrative mechanisms in FP7 urban research is quite natural for us.”

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