Official Journal of the European Union

C 318/86

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on a Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment

COM(2005) 718 final — {SEC(2006) 16}

(2006/C 318/15)

On 11 January 2006, the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned proposal.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 11 July 2006. The rapporteur was Mr Pezzini.

At its 429th plenary session, held on 13 and 14 September 2006 (meeting of 13 September), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 194 votes to two with six abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The EESC realises that in order to achieve sustainable growth and boost competitiveness and innovation, it is imperative that we address the complex problems that currently face our cities, including environmental degradation, traffic congestion, housing issues, insecurity, criminality, unemployment crises and manufacturing restructuring, the social exclusion of the young and elderly in particular, and spatial as well as ethnic segregation.


Urban air pollution has long been a public health emergency with extremely high social and health costs. The World Health Organisation has identified poor air quality in cities as the primary cause of the rising incidence of many chronic diseases. These diseases place a considerable burden on health systems in terms of financial cost, treatment, hospital admissions and sick leave.


Preventive action has become absolutely essential not only at the level of individual responsibility, by cutting down on vehicle use, but also collectively, through new transport policies.


The EESC believes that the Member States should now stop reflecting upon the issue and recommends that they waste no time in adopting concrete action plans for immediate implementation, following the Commission's numerous recommendations, within the framework of an integrated, participatory and responsible approach, in order to make a significant, sustained and verifiable improvement to quality of life and the environment.


The Committee is also convinced of the future success of the Commission's approach in developing an integrated development strategy for an urban environment deeply rooted in the principles of subsidiarity and proximity, especially if the strategy is implemented through shared, participatory methods, within the framework of the renewed Lisbon and Gothenburg agendas.


The Committee believes that the European Union should adopt incentives to promote the best practices adopted by national, regional and local authorities in order to put the abovementioned strategy into effect in accordance with their own individual circumstances.


In order to remain competitive, cities must develop modern, efficient and readily available online services, especially for the health sector, social services and public administration. This would ensure greater social cohesion and include the young and elderly in a framework that enhances relations between historic centres and the suburbs, rich and poor urban areas and between the latter and its hinterland.


In substance, the EESC advocates using the ‘Socially Responsible Territories’ model (i.e. territories that aim to develop sustainably, taking into account the economic, social and environmental aspects of their own activities as well as the socioeconomic implications of an ageing population) for urban development.


A territory may be defined as ‘socially responsible’ when it succeeds in combining adequate levels of wellbeing with the obligations inherent in social responsibility.


The process of learning to accept responsibilities as well as rights begins with informed awareness in the home and is strengthened through formative experiences at school from early childhood onwards.


The current (6th) Framework Programme for Research and Development offers an opportunity, through the Foresight project, to involve society stakeholders in agreeing on the choices most likely to produce a model that will be more alive to territorial social responsibility.


In addition to foresight activities, the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development also foresees, under the dedicated priority theme ‘health’ (1), specific activities relevant to human development and ageing, including through interactions between factors such as the environment, individual behaviour and gender issues.


The Committee emphasises the crucial role that schools, educational institutions and universities in general are expected to play in orientating young people and citizens towards sustainable development.


Many international initiatives have attempted to identify core principles and fundamental values when discussing corporate social responsibility. The foremost include:

The Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, Article 37 on environmental protection (2);

Global Compact (3);

The OECD guidelines (4);

Istituto Europeo per il Bilancio Sociale (European Institute for Social Accounting) (5).


The Committee states its strong belief that actions intended to support the concrete application of such principles and fundamental values should be considered as growth-enhancing investments insofar as they are intended to enhance the economic, social and occupational aspects of the urban fabric and its potential attractions and expressiveness.


The Committee is convinced that it would be useful to introduce ‘European green city’ awards in order to encourage local communities and their public and private players to optimise their efforts.


The Committee believes that it should set an example, in conjunction with the Committee of the Regions, by looking into the possibility of launching a ‘Eurogreen city’ civil society award and monitoring best practice in sustainable urban development through the SMO.

2.   Reasons


The overwhelming majority of Europe's population lives in urban areas (6), where the quality of life is often characterised by a dramatic deterioration in transport systems, environmental and social conditions, and access to basic services. The latter call for substantial, innovative interventions, a more intelligent use of resources and personal and community lifestyles that are more respectful of the environment.


The EESC has had frequent occasion to express its views on this issue, in particular: ‘For numerous reasons ... cities crystallise environmental problems in concentrated form. Such problems are acutely felt by citizens, particularly when they concern air quality, noise pollution and, especially in the southern Member States, water resources’.


The problems involved in integrating environmental issues into the urban development process are covered by the priorities outlined in the Sixth Community Environment Action Programme 2002-2012 for sustainable development in various priority areas, and on which the EESC has already expressed its views.


The Sixth Community Environment Action Programme 2002–2012 provides for the development and implementation of seven thematic strategies (7):

* air pollution,

* marine environment,

* sustainable use of natural resources,

* waste prevention and recycling,

soil protection,

use of pesticides,

* urban environment.


Five of the seven thematic strategies have already been formalised by the Commission. More specifically: the Proposal for a Thematic Strategy on air pollution was adopted by the Commission on 21 September 2005 (8); the Proposal for a Marine Strategy Directive was adopted on 24 October 2005 (9); the Proposal for a Directive on waste (new thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste) was adopted on 21 December 2005 (10); the Proposed for a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources was adopted on 21 December 2005 (11); and the most recent proposal on the urban environment (which is the subject of this opinion) was adopted on 11 January 2006.


There are clear interactions between the recommendations in the four previous thematic strategies and the most recent one. The following are concentrated and magnified in an urban environment:

measures for combating air pollution;

waste prevention and recycling;

greenhouse gas emissions produced by fossil fuels used in urban transport and domestic heating and air-conditioning systems;

the protection of ground water and the natural fauna and flora in urban parks;

the protection of the marine environment, with cross-cutting issues for ports and coastal towns.


Other measures that are also relevant to the thematic strategy for the urban environment concern the reduction of noise pollution, which was covered by an action plan strategy for major agglomerations in 2002 (12), and the recent Proposal for a Directive on the promotion of clean road transport vehicles (especially the recommendations concerning public procurement) (13).

The following are also closely connected with the proposed strategy under consideration:

EU environmental policy actions for urban management under the LIFE+ programme;

EU regional and cohesion policy actions relevant to the ESF, the ERDF and the Cohesion Fund as well other EU initiatives including URBAN II, EQUAL and INTERREG;

EU initiatives for rational energy use, reduced energy consumption and energy efficiency under the Intelligent Energy Programme and, at a future date, the Competitiveness and Innovation framework Programme (CIP);

EU research and development activities under the RTD Multiannual Framework Programme, which mainly concern the environment and public health; transport and energy; the information society as a means of improving quality of life; scientific progress and cultural growth in society; new materials and nanotechnology; radionavigation and satellite development through GALILEO, GEO and GMES (14);

interventions for the conservation of the urban architectural, monumental and cultural heritage under Community programmes such as MINERVA, LIFE/RICAMA, Culture 2000, MEDIA Plus and eContentplus;

EU actions on behalf of the countries of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans (MEDA), and the countries of the New Independent States (NIS) (TACIS) — the subject of the new Neighbourhood Instrument;

EU actions under Community development cooperation policies on behalf of various regions: ACP, Latin America (Mercocidades) and Asia, and EU trade policies under the EU Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA).


Major contributions towards defining a Thematic Strategy for the Urban Environment were based on the outcome of consultations carried out by the Commission on the interim Communication adopted in 2004 (15); on a preliminary analysis of possible strategies in this area; on voluntary initiatives under Agenda 21; the Aalborg Charter (16); the Conclusions of the Council of 14 October 2004 on the relevance of the theme and the importance of taking action at all levels; and, finally, on the Bristol Conclusions drawn up under the UK Presidency (17).


Furthermore, the Commission has drawn up a working document, which is appended to the Communication under consideration. The working document consists in an impact assessment of the different implementation scenarios for the strategy and their cost.


In 2005, the European Parliament in its Report on the urban dimension in the context of enlargement  (18), recognises that cities and urban agglomerations or areas where 78 % of the European Union population is concentrated, are the place where both the most complex and the most common problems are concentrated but they are also the place where the future is built, and where all forms of knowledge are explored and consolidated. Hence, towns and cities ‘have a central role to play in achieving the revised Lisbon and Gothenburg objectives’. The European Parliament has also called on the Commission ‘to develop and propose models and tools for sustainable urban development which would be accessible to all towns and cities and urban agglomerations or areas’.


The EESC maintains that political decision makers, in coordination with the social partners and civil society at large, should pursue the objective of developing an urban environment that achieves a high social return through training-oriented policies.

2.2   The Commission proposal


The Commission proposal observes that the ‘diversity in terms of history, geography, climate, administrative and legal conditions calls for locally developed, tailor-made solutions for the urban environment’ and that the ‘application of the subsidiarity principle, where action should be taken at the most effective level, also implies acting at the local level’. Given the diversity of urban areas and existing national, regional and local obligations, and the difficulties linked to establishing common standards, ‘it was decided that legislation would not be the best way to achieve the objectives of this Strategy’, as was confirmed by most Member States and the local authorities themselves.


The proposed thematic strategy is structured along the following lines:

guidance on integrated environmental management;

guidance on sustainable urban transport plans to be developed by the local authorities with technical guidance on the main aspects of transport plans and with examples of best practice, to be published by the Commission by 2006;

support for EU-wide exchange of best practices;

Commission Internet portal for local authorities to facilitate access to all documents published on a variety of websites for local authorities, in line with the action plan for improving communication on Europe;

training to provide the specific skills required for adopting an integrated approach to management. This would also include exchange programmes for local authority officials and ESF initiatives for strengthening the efficiency of public administrations at regional and local level (19);

application of other EU policies: cohesion policies (20) and research policies (21).


Since the Commission proposal is multisectoral, it should be read against the background of other thematic proposals, and more specifically, the proposal on air pollution, and the proposals on solid urban waste, marine pollution and soil protection.


Furthermore, it would be appropriate for the Commission to provide a consolidated version of all provisions pertaining to the sustainable development of cities and urban agglomerations in the various EU programmes applicable to the urban environment. Finally, it should also provide strategic guidelines that, in various respects, are relevant to urban development.

2.3   General comments


The Committee welcomes the Communication from the Commission because it tackles an issue of considerable relevance to EU citizens insofar as it impacts on the quality of life in their cities and urban areas and also because of the fundamental role that the latter play in generating wealth and economic, social and cultural development.


Emphasis should be placed on the pre-requisites of the strategic action as outlined in the Bristol Accord of December 2005 (22) for sustainable communities across Europe:

economic growth, without which we are unable to invest in the creation and maintenance of sustainable communities;

an integrated approach that ensures sustainable development, reconciling economic, social and environmental challenges as well as social inclusion and social justice;

strong cultural identities to turn Europe's cities into places of international excellence with a view to achieving the Lisbon Agenda;

the ability to respond to the challenge of social segregation;

recognition that sustainable communities can exist at different spatial levels: local, urban, regional.


In order to ensure consistency with the Community commitment ‘to legislate less but to legislate better’, the Committee believes that it would be appropriate to:

adopt voluntary coordination methods that combine the new integrated approach to urban management with the contents of the environmental directives (water, air, noise, waste, gas emissions, climate change, nature and biodiversity) and other thematic strategies under the Sixth Action Programme 2002 — 2012;

adopt foresight systems for urban environment development, involving all economic and social players, stakeholders and end-user groups, including the most vulnerable and marginalised, on which local decision-makers can base their independent choices and whose outcomes could serve to identify common indicators at European level for monitoring and benchmarking;

intensify cooperation at all levels of government (local, regional and national) and between the various local authority departments, including in the area of public security, and to safeguard economic activities from criminality and urban petty crime;

take concrete action that addresses the problems presented by an ageing urban population, also by comparing experiences in different European cities;

provide EU support for capacity-building initiatives in support of local administrations and economic and social stakeholder and civil society organisations in the region;

provide EU support for technical training, best practice sharing and exchange programmes for local authority officials and experts from different Member States;

form public-private partnerships, especially for the management of integrated economic development programmes and the promotion of ecological economic activities in programming sustainable development and rehabilitating degraded or brownfield sites as well as the socioeconomic sustainable regeneration of small to medium-sized urban centres or run-down neighbourhoods in large cities (23);

ensure coordination and consistency in the approach of Commission departments responsible for policies and programmes that focus on the various economic, social and environmental aspects of urban development by setting up a clearly defined interservice focal point that outside partners can easily identify;

provide EU support for feasibility studies to ensure a clear and objective assessment of the cost of preparation, adoption, implementation, certification, control and monitoring, quality assessment and the review of Integrated Environmental Management Plans (EMPs), Sustainable Urban Transport Plans (SUTPs), and Environmental Management Systems (EMSs) (24) for cities and urban agglomerations according to type and characteristics;

strengthen Community support for concrete development projects as well as networks of European cities and non-European cities such as the European Urban Knowledge Network, Eurocities, Mercocidades, Civitas-Mobilis, Urbact;

develop the technological potential of the information society, e-government, e-learning, and teleworking to enhance the development of the urban environment;

develop curricula for schools and vocational training centres at various levels to increase the citizens' sense of responsibility towards environmental issues and to create ‘knowledge workers’;

develop impact assessment systems that are able to provide harmonised progress reports on the environmental, economic, social, cultural and technological situation in European cities. To this end, it would be appropriate to provide common guidelines for impact assessments, similar to the EU Draft Handbook for Sustainability Impact Assessment.


The Committee attributes considerable importance to the process that will enable regions and especially cities to define themselves as ‘Socially Responsible Territories’  (25). This will only happen if regions and cities can successfully integrate:

social and environmental considerations into our economic decisions;

value models combined with participatory decision-making processes to relaunch competitiveness under the EU JESSICA initiative (26), amongst others;

best practice and continuous stakeholder interaction to promote innovation and competitiveness;

‘reasonable’ wellbeing combined with responsibility for the environment and health;

a sensitive and participatory approach to sustainable urban development from politicians.

The Committee is convinced that the social and cultural development of the urban environment is of primary importance, in view of demographic trends and migratory flows.

The Committee is also convinced that at the heart of an effective sustainable development strategy lies the need to fight economic, social and cultural poverty, deteriorating physical and mental health in humans, social exclusion, and the marginalisation of the most vulnerable sectors of the urban population in order to achieve more effective social inclusion of all ethnic and cultural groups.


The process should be divided into the following clearly defined phases:

identification of the local community's shared values;

identification of resources and needs;

definition of improvement objectives and harmonised assessment indicators;

establishment of an operation plan and identification of instruments;

bottom-up management and monitoring of the Socially Responsible Territories project;

intensive awareness-raising activities and continual training to develop a territorial culture.

Local authorities have already identified a number of solutions, including the following examples:

electric minibus service to replace the use of private vehicles in urban centres (Salzburg);

biofuel buses (Bologna);

assisted pedal cycles (27): very important for the elderly in general and for the inhabitants of non-upland towns (Ferrara, Milan);

light railways connecting airports and intermodal centres with cities;

local plans for urban restructuring to regenerate the city whilst preserving its architecture and character, as in the outstanding example of Versailles (28).

The EESC endorses the Commission proposal on the promotion of clean road transport vehicles and the proposal on taxing vehicles according to CO2 emissions and not cylinder capacity.


The EESC considers that awareness-raising initiatives relevant to these themes should be intensified at all levels, but especially at the local level, in order to ensure that citizens and businesses develop a sense of commitment and responsibility (including through the Foresight project) towards the work carried out in recent years on sustainable development and corporate social responsibility by international bodies, including the Commission, the UN, the OECD, and the Istituto Europeo per il Bilancio Sociale (European Institute for Social Accounting).

The procedures to be adopted centre round research and innovation, policies for supporting the renovation of installations, training, disseminating environmental management systems, and monitoring systems.

The most appropriate instruments in addition to information campaigns and the promotion of a culture of responsibility, include ISO 14001; EMAS (29); GHG (30); tax and financial support for meeting these targets; simplified procedures; exemption from environmental procedures for those who have obtained the relevant certification.

The Committee believes that it would be useful to introduce ‘European green city’ awards. Such awards could prove to be effective incentives for optimising the efforts of local communities, and their public and private components, to develop an integrated approach and lifestyles that are consistent with it.

The Committee believes that it should set an example, in conjunction with the Committee of the Regions, by looking into the possibility of launching a ‘Eurogreen city’ civil society award, contributing to a progress assessment of ESPON (31), identifying obstacles and monitoring best practice in sustainable urban development through the SMO.


The EESC believes that the focal point of an effective urban development strategy consists primarily in identifying appropriate governance systems in order to take action through the integrated management of complex situations that provide for the co-existence of:

multilevel territorial interventions and decision-making;

multiple decision-making centres with their own specificities and priority objectives;

timeframes for short, medium and long term objectives.


The Committee maintains that amongst the most relevant points for improving the integrated governance system of socially responsible territories, the following should be included:

improvements to the Commission's internal consultation process;

involve all stakeholders in the socio-economic and environmental sustainability of cities when drafting proposals for action;

continuous and structured dialogue with civil society for the transparent dissemination of information on environmental risks, clean technology choices, and the need to make one's own city more attractive;

a common vision for medium-term prospects through participatory foresight that involves all public and private decision-making centres;

impact assessment tools based on pre-defined criteria and indicators at EU level, corresponding to an integrated territorial approach;

best practice analysis, especially with regard to social inclusion, safety and social co-existence;

more environmental education in schools and extracurricular training for adults and the elderly;

a joint effort to develop, including through the EU JEREMIE and JESSICA initiatives, a financial engineering system liable to promote growth, employment and social inclusion in cities, through the Structural Fund and the Cohesion Fund, the EIB, the EIF and with the support of the PPP (public-private partnership);

incentives and certification schemes that reward public and private voluntary initiatives for the development of a sustainable and competitive urban environment.

Brussels, 13 September 2006.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  OJ C 65/02/2006, point 5.2.2 (rapporteur: Heinisch) and OJ C 65, 2006 (rapporteurs: Wolf and Pezzini).

(2)  Article 37: Environmental Protection — ‘A high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be integrated into the policies of the Union and ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development’.

(3)  ‘So let us choose to unite the power of markets with the authority of universal ideals. Let us choose to reconcile the creative forces of private entrepreneurship with the needs of the disadvantaged and the requirements of future generations.’ — The Secretary General of the United Nation, Kofi Annan, announced the Global Compact in a statement at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 1999 and formally presented it at the UN in July 2000. The Global Compact calls on businesses to adopt nine universal principles of human rights and labour and environmental standards.

(4)  The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were published in June 2000 and target international corporations.

(5)  Charter of Corporate Values drawn up by the IBS — (see Appendix II).

(6)  With a population of over 50 000 inhabitants.

(7)  Asterisks denote that the area has already been covered by a Directive.

(8)  COM(2005) 446 final.

(9)  COM(2005) 505 final.

(10)  COM(2005) 667 final.

(11)  COM(2005) 670 final.

(12)  Directive 2002/49/EC.

(13)  COM(2005) 634 final.

(14)  Global Monitoring for Environment and Security.

(15)  COM(2004) 60: Towards a thematic strategy on the urban environment.

(16)  www.aalborgplus10.dk.

(17)  The Bristol Accord, December 2005, www.odpm.gov.uk, Product code 05 EUPMI 03584. The Bristol Accord identifies 8 basic characteristics for a sustainable community 1) Active, inclusive and safe; 2) Well run; 3) Well connected; 4) Well served; 5) Environmentally sensitive; 6) Thriving; 7) Well designed and built; 8) Fair for everyone.

(18)  EP(2005)0272, 21 September 2005.

(19)  The European Social Fund (COM(2004) 493) could be used to support public administration training at various levels. The new Life+ programme could also play an important role.

(20)  COM(2004) 494 and 495.

(21)  COM(2005) 1.

(22)  See footnote 18.

(23)  The contribution of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in this field is substantial.

(24)  See Annex F of the Commission Staff Working Document SEC(2006) 16.

(25)  See the Renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy (Council document 10117/06, 09.06.06, paragraphs 29 and 30).

(26)  JESSICA (Joint European Support for Sustainable Development in City Areas: Community support for sustainable investments in urban areas) aims to provide solutions to financing problems for urban restructuring and development projects and social housing projects through a combination of subsidies and loans.

(27)  With electric motors.

(28)  The study group chaired by Mr Mendoza Castro was able to verify on site, at the invitation from the city's Deputy Mayor, Mr Buffetaut, the concept, structure and development of the local urban development plan for Versailles in the context of Agenda 21, which was decided by the city's municipal council in 2003 (See appendix 3).

(29)  EMAS, Regulation 1836/93, amended by Regulation 761/2001.

(30)  The new ISO 14064 standard on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) and Directive 2003/87/EC.

(31)  ESPON (European Spatial Planning Observation Network).