International Urban Cooperation (IUC)

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    Ronald Hall, Senior External Expert and former Principal Advisor to DG REGIO, gives his personal perspective on the EU’s International Urban Cooperation programme.

    More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Urban centres are the source of growth and development. As such, they are magnets for rural dwellers seeking opportunities to earn higher incomes, access high-quality services such as education and health care, and secure a better future for their children.

    This shift from lower productivity activities in the rural areas, principally traditional agriculture, to more added-value ones in urban areas in manufacturing and many service sectors, is key to how economies grow. It is the path taken historically by all the world’s most developed countries and, as such, is the model being adopted, in effect, by emerging counties across the globe.

    The benefits of urbanisation resulting, in particular, from the resource-intensive model of urban development which characterised the growth of industrial nations in the 20th century, has come at a price. It has led to the depletion of natural resources – including nature itself – and pollution of the air, rivers and oceans, which now threaten the quality of life in the metropolises of the developed world.

    For the developing and emerging countries – where urbanisation and economic growth go hand in hand – it is important that the lessons learned from the industrial world are fully understood. In this way, good practices that have been developed by national and city authorities over recent decades, and the mistakes which have been made historically, can be taken on-board in urban policy in emerging countries.

    In pursuit of the win-win

    Such cooperation creates win-win situations. While the industrial nations have much to demonstrate after a century or more of urbanisation, it is equally true that the emerging economies, perhaps less fettered by tradition, have many innovative solutions to share with the industrial economies. Indeed, some of the world’s largest urban centres are to be found in the emerging economies in countries such as China and India, as well as in Latin America.

    But perhaps the overwhelming need for cooperation and knowledge-sharing derives from the joint interest across countries and continents in preserving the planet itself. There is an urgent need to develop together a model of urbanisation that is sustainable, that preserves nature and natural resources, and that lowers the emissions that pollute our cities, harm our children’s health and contribute to global warming. This is the reason why sustainable urbanisation is central to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations and which, in turn, has led, among other things, to the New Urban Agenda (NUA) adopted by over 170 countries in Quito, Ecuador in 2016.

    The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy has formalised 14 regional and urban policy dialogues, including six EU 'strategic partners' (China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and India) as well as the Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) and Latin American countries (Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia) and the Central American Integration System (SICA). Even in the absence of such agreements, cooperation has been developed with other strategic partners, like Canada and South Africa, and regional groupings such as CARICOM (Caribbean Community), ASEAN (Asia), SACU (southern Africa) and UEMOA (West Africa).

    The EU takes the challenge of sustainable urbanisation very seriously. The Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creţu, representing the EU in Quito in 2016, committed the EU to devoting knowledge and resources to advancing the NUA. This has both an internal dimension inside the EU, where it has developed the EU Urban Agenda to guide its urban development programmes in the 28 Member States, and, as discussed below, an external dimension through its diplomatic relations with non-EU countries.

    A force for sustainable urban development

    The key vehicle for taking forward the external dimension today is the International Urban Cooperation (IUC) programme (2017-2019) which has an essential component that supports EU and non-EU city authorities to work together on sustainable urban development themes. The IUC is based on five years of pilot actions, notably under the EU’s World Cities project and the URBELAC project.   

    Under World Cities (2015-2018), EU cities have cooperated in a pairing arrangement with city counterparts in Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and South Africa. The pairings have exchanged experience on themes such as smart city development, energy efficiency, waste management, sustainable mobility, etc. Under URBELAC (2011-2019), which is now entering its fourth edition, the European Commission and the Inter-American Development Bank have been supporting cities drawn from the EU and Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) cities. It has created an EU-LAC network promoting exchange of experiences, benchmarking and the preparation of action plans. Both World Cities and URBELAC are the tangible result of the European Parliament’s support for international diplomacy at the city level.

    The IUC is establishing urban cooperation platforms with China, India, Japan, Latin America and North America. Its programme marks the coming of age of EU policy to promote international cooperation between cities. Under IUC city-to-city cooperation, some 70 participating cities on each side establish new city-to-city cooperation agreements for sustainable urban development. This involves the preparation of local action plans for integrated urban development. Fundamentally, these plans give priority to cooperation within the sectors of the EU Urban Agenda and the NUA.

    Drawing on the World Cities project experience, the cities use a multi-stakeholder approach, applying the knowledge and experience of the public authorities, business, the research community and civil society. The EU’s own URBACT programme for urban networking is being used as a key source of knowledge and experience to support local action planning.

    IUC city-to-city has led to the development of joint pilot projects, while MoUs ensuring their long-term future have been signed between public authorities, research agencies and business representatives on both sides.

    Setting a good example

    For instance, under the IUC, the city of Parma (Italy) was paired with Fredericton (Canada). The Canadian city’s Department of Heritage and Urban Planning, Growth and Community Services is cooperating with Parma's Equal Opportunities Office and European Project Office. Aiming to enhance local democracy, the two sides are working on identifying the barriers that hinder the political participation of marginalised groups and their root causes, and on possible policies and mechanisms to eliminate them and create a more inclusive urban environment.

    The Italian city of Bologna (Italy) is collaborating with Austin (United States) on various issues ranging from developing a more healthy local food system and improving resource efficiency to enhancing resilience to climate change. City governance issues have been high on the agenda and, for example, Austin has drawn the conclusion that its Office of Sustainability and the Office of Economic Development need to develop closer coordination.

    Rotterdam (the Netherlands) is working with Surat (India). The cities are focusing on tackling issues related to water management, such as ensuring the quality of drinking water, mitigating water pollution from industrial run-off, protecting against flooding, and effectively treating sewage. In Rotterdam, Surat has found a knowledgeable partner with a wealth of water-management experience. In Surat, Rotterdam has found a city dealing with issues on a much larger scale, which has already inspired the Dutch city to think differently about the challenges they face. 

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    From 16-18 July 2018, the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creţu, led a team from the Commission to China for the annual EU-China High-Level dialogue on regional and urban policy, which was held at the headquarters of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in Beijing. She also addressed the Thirteenth High Level Seminar on “Regional Innovation and High-Quality Development of Regional Economy” held in the city of Zhengzhou. Since mid-2017, Zhengzhou has been one of 5 Chinese participants in city-to-city cooperation under the EU’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) programme alongside 5 EU counterparts (   

    At the High-level dialogue, NDRC was represented by Vice-Chairman, LIN Nianxiu. He said, “the EU dialogue on regional policy has been a model for other EU-China sectoral dialogues”. Commissioner Creţu and Vice-chairman Lin agreed that the regional policy seminar should be upgraded to a Forum in the main programme of the EU-China summit of 2019 in Brussels. Under IUC, it was agreed to launch a joint study on regional innovation strategies and policies and to add more cities on each side to city-to-city cooperation.   The meeting concluded with the signature of a Joint Declaration by the current (2018) generation of EU and Chinese cities, witnessed by the Commissioner and the Vice Chairman. 

    At the seminar,  Commissioner Creţu delivered the closing remarks alongside the Executive Deputy Mayor of Zhengzhou (and acting Mayor) and the Executive Vice Governor of Henan province, whom, earlier, she had met bilaterally. She said that the IUC is “the most ambitious effort to promote decentralised cooperation between EU regions and cities, and their counterparts across the world” and that  the programme was about  creating “an international community of cities”.   She used the occasion to announce the launch of a competitive start-up fund under IUC to award technical assistance to selected high quality proposals leading to short-term actions within the city-to-city pairings. Two senior members of the European Parliament also spoke at the seminar, Mr Jan Olbrycht and Mr Lambert Van Nistelrooij where they underlined their support for international diplomacy at the regional and city level , and the importance of city-to-city cooperation under IUC. They were part of a group of MEPs on a fact-finding mission to China taking place at the same time as the Commissioner’s visit.

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Sustainable and innovative cities and regions – 2016/2019

Connecting cities and ideas for better urban living

Cities are growing and changing so fast that many authorities are struggling to cope. More people can mean more economic activity and wealth, but it can also mean added strain on energy, water, health, transport and housing facilities. All this, in turn, puts pressure on the environment, and more widely on climate change.

This is why the European Union is launching a three-year programme to promote international urban cooperation. Europe’s cities want to link up, build and share knowledge and solutions with other cities and regions.

In this first phase of a long-term strategy of fostering urban diplomacy – a vehicle of EU external relations – the IUC boosts sectoral, transversal and international urban cooperation and exchange with key city partners (public and private) in Asia and the Americas (box). With a budget of over EUR 20 million, IUC activities support Habitat III goals as well as the Paris COP 21 declaration and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The IUC will build on existing cooperation through:

  • City-to-city cooperation on sustainable urban development
  • Sub-national action under the Global Covenant of Mayors initiative
  • Inter-regional cooperation on innovation for local and regional development

Target countries include China, India, Japan, Canada, Mexico, USA, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru. For the Covenant initiative, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)  are included.

City-to-city cooperation on sustainable urban development

Building on the success of the World Cities project and drawing on the solid approach of the EU-funded URBACT network, city pairs will be supported in their efforts to design, implement and manage sustainable urban practices in an integrated and participative way. Local action plans will be developed through an inclusive multi-stakeholder process and include specific activities and economically viable pilot projects to be implemented in the short term in order to ensure results and open up market opportunities. These plans will help drive thematic clustering of knowledge, exchange and best practices among cities facing similar challenges.

Sub-national action under the Global Covenant of Mayors initiative

Cities and other sub-national authorities will be encouraged to join a global initiative to tackle climate change challenges focused on mitigation, adaptation and universal access to energy, in line with the principles of the EU Covenant of Mayors. Support on methodologies, governance, training and capacity building will be provided, as well as technical assistance to encourage implementation of ambitious climate commitments. A powerful knowledge-sharing element will spur inter-city cooperation, learning and innovation.

Inter-regional cooperation on innovation for local and regional development

Support will focus on ways to improve and internationalise regional innovation and cooperation in and between the EU, Latin America and the Caribbean. The programme will stimulate the development or strengthening of regional strategies involving SMEs in the innovation sector, and it will promote international value chains.  It will collect and share experience, good practice and lessons learnt to enable knowledge management and development.  The Smart Specialisation (S3) platform established by the European Commission will act as a multiplier to further promote knowledge sharing inside the EU as well.

Tackling the funding gap

To address a recognised barrier for progress on urban development, the IUC programme will engage with major international financial institutions and partners to link city decision-makers with potential funders. EU business will be an important partner for activities under the components on sustainable urban development.


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