Flanders and its cities: growing into a stronger partnership

Flanders and its cities: growing into a stronger partnership

Time for an update

The request for an update from the Flemish urban policy team is broadly supported, but many sensitivities and a particular complexity lie behind the request. Since the ‘Age of the City’ White Paper (2003) appeared, the situation in the Flemish cities has changed a lot: thirty years ago, the cities were in the losing camp. Today there is growth and greater self-awareness. The urban renewal projects supported by Flemish urban policy have undeniably contributed to this. The ‘urban age’, however, is not just glitter. Behind the urban facade there is still a heavy concentration of deprivation, and even talk of a housing crisis and other societal challenges. The level of income has also fallen significantly in recent decades.

Strengthening the urban character

Throughout the process, we have been very much persuaded of the importance and added value of greater urban character. It may sound paradoxical – in urbanised Flanders greater urban character is needed – but the arguments from the 2003 White Paper have lost little value. On the contrary, the social context makes urban character even more relevant than it was then. Indeed, it comes close to a broad interpretation of sustainability contained in the United Nations’ sustainability objectives. Urban character stands for a quality development of density, for diversity in the broadest sense, for contact and debate and, in the process, the development of democracy.

We see positive approaches to spatial densification, cooperation at the level of urban regions, etc., but generally speaking, support is limited today for a positive and consistent urban policy in Flanders. The question is, however, whether we will have a choice in the future other than to increase our efforts on the cities and on urban character as a model of society? We see various arguments for giving serious thought to this, both in terms of the content (achieving the vision for 2050), financial (‘the cost of urban sprawl’) and administratively (European Urban Agenda).

Policy on cities versus urban policy

The report makes an important distinction between urban policy narrowly defined (driven by the Agentschap Binnenlands Bestuur (Home Affairs Agency)) and the policy on cities. By the latter we mean the mainstream policy from the different Flemish departments and agencies that have a significant impact on the cities (mobility, nature and the environment, housing, etc...). It is precisely that mainstream policy that contains the key levers for the cities. A Flemish urban policy in the full sense of the term applies to all sections of the Flemish government.

The agenda for a renewed urban policy

From a micro-perspective, the urban agenda consists of continuous efforts to increase the quality of life. That is unquestionably important, but policy measures in the short term will be overtaken in the course of time if a number of structural changes (or transitions) are not made at the same time. During this process, five substantive transversal transitions, both in terms of mobility, space, society, the environment as well as the economy, were revealed that must be the subject of a Flemish policy on cities. These transitions show a lot of kinship – not surprisingly – with the transitions in the Flemish long-term vision for 2050.

Less evident than the question of ‘what’ is the question of ‘how’: how can cities make these transitions and how can Flemish urban policy help them to do so? If we want to make progress, the rhetoric on transitions must be translated into meaningful steps in different policy areas. Hence our recommendation to steer the focus and the debate within urban policy in the years ahead towards the question of how. Two specific applications of this are clarifying what are referred to as urban dilemmas (the associations of conflicting but legitimate interests in one and the same place) and the use of technology. In addition to giving impetus, counteracting mechanisms must be phased out in order to achieve transitions and accompanying agendas. Well-intended local experiments on the circular economy do not represent very much if there is no transition to an attractive form of taxation at the same time.

Strengthening urban organisation and innovative power

Although we have been discussing a renewed “Flemish” policy on cities, success is also related to a renewed organisation and approach within the city councils. Despite the progression in terms of administrative strength, we see important differences in level of capacity between cities.

Regardless of this observation, important steps still need to be taken by all the cities on a number of new administrative and social issues (new roles, cocreation, integrated solutions, attracting new expertise in certain fields). The urban policy may and must challenge the cities therein more than is now the case.

Target group of a renewed urban policy

In the future, urban policy should on the one hand (1) remain more selective, with an explicit focus on the major and central cities, and on the other hand, it needs to broaden its target group (2) in which smaller cities and suburbs are also involved based on an urban regional operation. A stronger focus by urban policy on the city and its environment builds the bridge towards greater attention, which we are seeing from different Flemish policy areas, to a more intermunicipal and regional approach. Brussels deserves special attention. The sphere of influence around the Brussels region extends far out into Flanders. A future Flemish urban policy cannot remain aloof from Brussels and also involves greater dialogue between the Flemish and Brussels Region.

Renewed set of instruments

Finally, the study also focuses attention on the set of instruments and therein makes a distinction depending on whether it is urban policy (intergovernmental cooperation between the cities and the Flemish government as a whole) versus urban policy (ABB).

To strengthen intermunicipal cooperation (policy on cities), the urban programmes instrument is being promoted with reference to the City Deals that also exist in the Netherlands. We understand urban programmes to mean integrated programmes where the cities and the Flemish government cooperate on a social issue/transition. Given that the intended transitions are transversal in nature, they assume collaboration across services and departments both on the part of the city as well as on the part of the Flemish government.

In the set of instruments of the specific urban policy (ABB), we can discern two layers:

  • instruments focusing on producing the content of the transition agenda: city programmes, city renewal projects and pool of experts. In each of the aforementioned instruments, principles such as scale differentiation, use of data and technology and capacity building must be included;
  • managerial and organisational instruments: stimulating innovation, knowledge building and exchange (documenting good practice), analysis and monitoring (including city monitor), community building, communication and branding. The community must thereby be extended to smaller cities and private players.

Finally, IDEA also outlined the case for the visitation instrument as a means of growth in the collaboration between Flanders and the cities. ‘Visitations’ were used in the past as an instrument of evaluation under the City Fund, today they could be used as a learning and leverage instrument for growth into a stronger partnership between Flanders and its cities.

You can read the full rapport on the project website www.visiestedenbeleid.info.

arrow team members
foto Bart Van Herck
Bart Van Herck
Senior Expert Regional & Urban Development / Managing Director