Some European visions of the city of tomorrow

Paris, Cloud Business Center, March 30, 2023

The question posed to me by the French Ministry of Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion during the fourth meeting of their national land-use planners’ network (RNA) concerns the innovative or even disruptive lessons that are emerging from the European foresight work on the cities of the future[1]. Among the multitude of works undertaken within the European Commission – particularly by the Directorate General for Regional Policies and the Directorate General for Research –, the Committee of the Regions and networks such as ESPON, some drastic choices have been necessary to try, at the same time, to find a common thread for this intervention. As with any foresight process, this contribution will start with aspirations and imagination and end with the genuine anticipation strategy: how to act before events occur, to trigger them or prevent them? [2]

 Consequently, after reviewing the very creative, community-based Stories from 2050, we will examine two structured foresight reports, Cities of Tomorrow (2011) and The Future of Cities (2020), which, along with other sources, helped to construct the New Leipzig Charter of 30 November 2020. I shall conclude with the issue of the means for the policies advocated, which I believe to be a fundamental issue in most European countries and especially in France and Wallonia.


1. Stories from 2050

Although, as a rule, I am not particularly keen on the use of individual storytelling in foresight, preferring collective intelligence as a methodological principle, it is important to acknowledge the interest in the initiative launched by the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission concerning the stories from 2050 [3]. From listening to their authors, these are radical, inspiring, and stimulating accounts of the challenges and opportunities presented by our future. Some of them focus on the future of cities. Written in 2020 and 2021, they are largely characterised by the traumas caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and by the increased awareness of the challenges arising from this new period in global history which is called the Anthropocene [4].

The European Commission conceived this work as a process for listening to society. Our duty observes Jean-Éric Paquet, is not only to tell but also to listen [5]. Thus, the Director-General for Research is increasingly of the opinion that foresight constitutes a space for engaging with citizens and listening to what they have to say. This approach is consistent with the efforts made by his department to fall within the scope of citizen science.

In the dozens of texts gathered and drafted in a variety of formats and with wide-ranging content, the Commission has faced a few observations. Firstly, the fact that creativity and innovation are needed more than ever to deal with the challenges of this century. Next, the idea that searching for another Earth, which features prominently in these stories, is an important ambition, but that what humans need to focus on most of all is to protect the only planet we currently have. Lastly, the notion that the European research and innovation policy can make good use of these works, as mentioned by Nikos Kastrinos and Jürgen Wengel [6].

These two DG Research managers note that the narrative that technology and innovation will solve problems and bring happiness for everyone in cities where life is good and where businesses flourish without detrimental externalities does not exist. This discourse has become pointless and obsolete. Nikos Kastrinos and Jürgen Wengel also observe that, according to the foresight stories, the source of the problems lies not in a lack of creativity and innovation, but rather in the primary and egoistical reality of human beings, who are fundamentally predatory. The community stories themselves seem to express notions of empathy, respect for others and constant striving. While this distances us from Research and Innovation, this society of the future certainly brings us closer to a better humanity [7].

I have picked out three of these stories which I think are characteristic of the effort made. The first is entitled The Foresighter Pledge and places great emphasis on anticipation [8]. The second story I have chosen concerns the construction of the city of Nüwa, on Mars, and highlights local autonomy and self-sufficiency [9]. The third is the story of the future protopians, who focus on a non-violent, inclusive world made up of “radical tenderness”, tolerance and celebration of life [10].

The Stories from 2050 project demonstrate the capacity of citizens to engage in long-term reflection and generate useful ideas for shaping a new society. The citizens themselves really enjoyed this exercise [11]. For the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation, the interest in the initiative helps to move away from a model of technological and scientistic thought in which all the problems of the future can be solved and instead, by listening to society, demonstrate that the challenges are complex and that, in a modest way, human beings have a central role to play in solving the problems.


2. A European model of urban development

Moving from foresight to strategy, which is itself an integral part of foresight, there are two works on the future of cities that should be mentioned. The first is called Cities of Tomorrow, Challenges, visions, ways forward, a work in which my colleagues of The Destree Institute and I were involved as foresight experts for the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission in 2010 and 2011, under the direction of Corinne Hermant – de Callattaÿ and Christian Svantfeldt [12]. The second, more recent work, entitled The Futures of Cities, was overseen by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in 2019 and published in 2020.


2.1. Cities of Tomorrow (2011)

The first exercise addressed several issues, including the question of whether a European urban development model existed [13]. The response was positive, and this model was clearly described in the work: an integrated and long-term approach, advanced places for social progress, platforms for democracy, places for green regeneration, and mechanisms for attractiveness and economic growth.

The shared vision of the European urban development model is an integrated approach which takes account of all aspects of sustainable development. Thus, the European cities of tomorrow are:

– advanced places for social progress;

– platforms for democracy, cultural dialogue and diversity;

– places for green, ecological or environmental regeneration;

– attractive places that are engines of economic growth [14].

 This vision brings together the main aims behind all the European policies in the 2010s, incorporating sustainability, territorial balance, polycentrism, limited urban sprawl, and quality and well-being of habitat and environment. The authors state as follows: The future urban territorial development pattern reflects a sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and balanced territorial organisation with a polycentric urban structure; contains strong metropolitan regions and other strong urban areas, such as regional centres, especially outside the core areas of Europe, which provide good accessibility to the services of general economic interest; is characterised by a compact settlement structure with limited urban sprawl through a strong control of land supply and speculative development; enjoys a high level of protection and quality of the environment around cities – nature, landscape, forestry, water resources, agricultural areas, etc. – and strong links and articulation between cities and their environments [15].

The issue of climate change and its energy corollary may not appear prominently, as has generally been the case in most works since the Paris Agreements of 12 December 2015, although they do feature heavily in the earlier works and in the report itself. In the preface by European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, the city is still regarded as an essential asset for mitigating the impact of climate change[16]. Thus, continues the report, cities have a critical role to play in reducing CO2 emissions and tackling climate change. It goes on to explain that energy consumption in urban areas is associated mainly with transport and housing and is therefore responsible for a large proportion of CO2 emissions. Referring to the World Energy Outlook, the report observes that around two thirds of final energy demand is associated with urban consumption and up to 70% of CO2 emissions are generated in cities. The authors are therefore able to conclude that the urban way of life is both the problem and the solution [17].

The most promising model is that of the diverse city, a place of social cohesion and cultural and human diversity in which the different spatial and social perspectives of the inhabitants are taken into account [18]. The Leipzig Charter on the Sustainable European Cities, adopted in 2007, is used to design a compact, environmentally friendly city: grouped habitats, planning methods to prevent urban sprawl, management of land supply, restriction of speculative trends, district diversity, involvement of stakeholders and inhabitants, and so on [19].


2.2. The Future of Cities (2019)

At least three of the key messages of the report entitled The Future of Cities, produced in 2019 by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, are of interest to us in the first instance: the performance of cities in terms of resource use and their energy efficiency, the imbalances, disparities and even divergences that affect them, and the interaction which they can develop with themselves, in other words, their inhabitants. The three messages are as follows:

The fight for sustainability will be greatly influenced by what happens in cities. While cities usually place greater pressure on natural resources, they perform better in the use of resources and have a greater potential for energy efficiency. Actions on environmental sustainability, including climate change, are already being taken by many cities.


– There is a risk of polarisation both within and between cities. On the one hand, being unable to take stock of the issues highlighted will lead to even more inequalities within a city. On the other hand, a diverging path between cities falling behind and cities capitalising on emerging trends may cause additional social and economic imbalance between different urban areas.

– The close linkage between space/service/people is at the core of cities’ capacities to respond to people’s needs and to manage new challenges in a wider context, beyond administrative boundaries and sectorial domains.  A truly holistic approach is needed to optimise the provision of services and create an intelligent interaction between the city and its inhabitants while maintaining or enhancing quality of life. [20]

The report helpfully presents the challenges faced by cities in the form of a system, with fourteen subsystems in which health, climate, resilience, environmental footprint, urban governance and innovation coexist with mobility, housing, services, the environment, etc.

The exercise conveys the ambitions set out during the 2018 European Mayors’ Convention [21], which linked the climate and energy objectives with the European time frames for reducing carbon emissions. At the Convention, the 8,800 ambitious cities pledged to contribute to the objectives to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020, by 40% by 2030, and to decarbonise their cities by 2050.

Governance is placed at the service of the climate and energy objectives, with strategic guidelines for achieving them:

– government by offering services and especially financial resources;

– co-construction and civic facilitation of policies;

– municipal autonomy;

– regulation and planning for the transport, mobility, lighting, urban planning, development, and renewable energy sectors.

It is also the responsibility of these cities of the future to exploit their innovation potential. The report highlights the Future Agenda 2017 formula, whereby cities are often places of great energy and optimism and that is where most humans choose to live, work, and interact with each other. Consequently, according to this same source, cities are places of innovation, where ideas are generated from which, to a large extent, economic growth emerges [22]. Thus, the Joint Research Centre report emphasises the fact that, within a co-construction rationale, citizens can play a major role in identifying and solving urban challenges.


3. The New Leipzig Charter (2020)

The New Leipzig Charter of 20 November 2020, which is familiar to all developers and urban planners, is partly the result of the foresight works to which it refers. The Charter calls for alignment of European urban development policies in a model highlighted through its three priority areas: the just city (inclusive, cohesive, learning), the green city (decarbonised, low-waste, regenerative) and the productive city [23] At the heart of its vision, its purposes are the common good, public well-being, quality of services and empowerment of the actors who enable participation, deliberation, and co-construction of collective policies.

The integrated, place-based approach, which had already been included in the 2007 Charter, is still the guiding principle in the 2020 text. However, the perspective is widened to incorporate deprived neighbourhoods, functional areas and the entire urban context.

Multilevel governance highlights the need for strong, coordinated urban policies, in other words, sound financial policies, from European to local level, that are consistent with sustainability.

Citizen participation must be combined with co-creation, co-design and tackling inequalities and social breakdown in cities, by employing tools and mechanisms in the areas of housing, attractiveness for business, land-use planning, and environmental regeneration.

For its implementation, the signatories of the charter sought a stronger strategic alignment between the Union’s Territorial Agenda 2030 [24], the urban aspect of the cohesion policy, the national urban policy frameworks, and the Urban Agenda for the European Union [25].


4. Conclusion: a city which generates economic and financial value

The idea that cities contribute to both problems and solutions is well established today in our mental landscape. Although they may be places with a concentration of problems – idleness, unemployment, social breakdown, transmission of disease, exclusion, segregation, racism, xenophobia, violence –, they are also the preferred places for curing such ills by mobilising the appropriate resources.

The urban governance survey carried out in 2016 by the London School of Economics, before the most recent spate of crises, showed that half of city representatives regarded the lack of funds as the greatest challenge in urban governance, followed by politicisation of local issues, the complexity of managing contemporary urban problems, and inadequate or outdated political silos [26]. The JRC report also noted that the inadequacy of budgetary resources was one of the major challenges in urban governance [27].

Cities which do not produce economic or financial excesses are, and will be, incapable of coping with the current and future challenges, which, as we know, are vast. I hardly need to restate that decarbonisation will be very expensive. The effects of climate change will require costly repair and preventive work.

The crises already suffered, the “whatever it costs” mentality in the public responses to social rebellions [28], the Covid-19 pandemic, and the effects of the war in Ukraine and its consequences in terms of energy regulation and military investment, have considerably exacerbated a major public finance crisis. This has already been part of our political, economic, and social landscape since the beginning of the century and has been amplified by the major shock of 2008-2009, whose consequences continue to affect us today. In addition to the budgetary deficit, there is, as we have seen, the egotism of societal individualism which, in some people – both rich and poor –, goes as far as refusing to pay tax. The worries are real when one measures the scale of our countries’ debt and the negative primary balances of our budgets.

Budgetary depletion leaves the door open to developers who go against the common interests highlighted by the New Leipzig Charter. The elected representatives, formerly builders, and today transients, as one mayor pointed out, could tomorrow be financially powerless. Some of them already are, those who have no purpose other than trying to give meaning to the predations of those who supplant them and the common interest they hold.

The main remedy for this problem lies in multilevel participation, which ranges from traditional consultation to discussion, community deliberation and co-construction with stakeholders [29]. In his concept of the plural city, the sociologist Jan Vranken, from the University of Antwerp, invited us as citizens, or as mere residents, to several forums in which the city’s financial issues could be discussed freely since, as he pointed out, the public budgeting exercise affects everyone [30].

The remedy can also be found in the productive city section in the New Leipzig Charter. This implies, as in the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, an economy that produces excesses as a guarantee of its sustainability. Thus, maintaining high levels of productivity will be critically important in retaining production within city boundaries. As highlighted in a 2020 report by the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion (ORATE), if we wish to maintain and develop productive activities in cities in the long term, it is essential to understand the reasons why manufacturing activities have been able to take place in cities and to promote innovation and entrepreneurial activities. Identifying and developing appropriate sites should promote the return of industry in cities[31].

This is certainly the price of ensuring the autonomy and well-being of the inhabitants of our European cities and their elected representatives.


Philippe Destatte



[1] Quatrième rencontre du Réseau national français des Aménageurs (RNA), Ministère de la Transition écologique et de la Cohésion des Territoires, Paris, March, 30 2023.

[2] Philippe DESTATTE, What is foresight? Blog PhD2050, Brussels, May 30, 2013. – Ph. DESTATTE, From anticipation to action: an essential foresight path for businesses and organisations, Blog PhD2050, Namur, February 1st,  2014.

[3] Tanja SCHINDLER, Graciela GUADARRAMA BAENA, ea, Stories from 2050, Radical, inspiring and thought-provoking narratives around challenges and opportunities of our futures, Brussels, European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, October 2021.

[4] We live in the Anthropocene, the geological age where humans have the most significant impact and influence on climate, the environment, and the entire planet. Biodiversity on Earth is shrinking at a frightening pace. The extinction of animal species caused by human activity may lead to the next wave of mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. No wonder space travel has always fascinated humankind, therefore fictional space travel was used in this process to question whether it is one – possible and second – desirable, to leave Earth behind and disrupt another planet. Furthermore, space travel fantasies and aspirations are linked to the quest for knowledge and exploration, encouraging participants to go beyond their usual thinking and leave current barriers and obstacles behind. Stories from 2050…, p. 13.

[5] Our duty is not only to tell, but also to listen, Jean-Eric PAQUET, Foreword, in Stories from 2050…, p. 5.

[6] Nikos KASTRINOS & Jürgen WENGUEL, Epilogue: What can EU R&I policy lean from Stories from 2050? in Stories from 2050…, p. 107sv.

[7] Ibidem, p. 108-109.

[8] The Foresight Pledge, in Stories from 2050, p. 75, EC, DG Research, 2021.

[9] Totti KONNOLA, Inside the first self-sustainable city on Mars, ready for humans in 2100, March 24, 2021.

[10] Protopian Future, in Stories from 2050…, p. 95. – Protopia refers to a society that, instead of solving all its problems as in a utopia, or falling into severe dysfunction as in a dystopia, progresses gradually over a long period of time, thanks to the way technological advances reinforce the natural process of evolution. Kevin KELLY, What Technology wants, London, Penguin, 2011.

[11] Tanjia SCHINDLER, Stories from 2050, Project Overview and Process, Mutual Learning Exercise, Research and Innovation Foresight, Policy and Practice, Citizens’ Engagement Approaches & Methods on good practices in the use of Foresight in R&I policy planning and programming, Strengthening the role of foresight in the process of identifying research priorities, 31 January, 1 & 2 February 2023.

[12] Corinne HERMANT- de CALLATTAŸ et Christian SVANTFELDT, Cities of Tomorrow, Challenges, visions, ways forward, Brussels, European Commission, Directorate General for Regional Policy, 2011. – See also: Chr. SVANFELDT, C. HERMANT- de CALLATAŸ, La “ville de demain” vue par l’Union européenne, in Les Cahiers du Développement social urbain, 2012/2 (N° 56), p. 52-54.

[13] The ‘European model of the city’ is a fascinating issue. On the one hand, it captures essential features of European cultural history, and it is deeply rooted in the past and, hence, related to the identity question. On the other, it captures essential aspects of the political vision of the European Union and, hence, of the future as envisaged by the underlying society. Cities of Tomorrow…, p. 1.

[14] Cities of Tomorrow…, p. 10-11.

[15] Cities of Tomorrow…, p. 12.

[16] Cities of Tomorrow, p. III.

[17] Cities of Tomorrow, p. 5. – The report highlights that 2/3 of final energy demand is linked to urban consumption and up to 70% of CO2 emissions are generated in cities, even though they are inhabited by 50% of the world’s population in 2010), referring to the World Energy Outlook 2008. Let us note that according to the World Energy Outlook 2022: 70% of the world’s population could be living in cities in 2050, i.e. an increase of 2 billion inhabitants in cities worldwide (p. 110 and 464 – This analysis can be found in the report Futures of Cities in 2019: While being responsible for a high level of energy consumption and, therefore, generating about 70% of global GHG emissions, cities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Cities are most effective at taking measures to tackle climate change when aligned with each other and with national- and regional-level actors with whom they can share greater climate ambition and capacity. In the last two decades, city ambition has risen remarkably to go beyond the national governments’ climate-change targets as the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C warns that current nationally determined contributions for the Paris Agreement are not sufficient. Cities need support from their partners in national and regional governments, the private sector, academia, and civil society to fully meet and exceed these ambitious targets. The Future of Cities, JRC, 2019, p. 82.

[18] Cities of Tomorrow, p. 35.

[19] Cities of Tomorrow, p. 43-48.

[20] The Future of Cities, Main messages, European Commission, Urban Data Platform, 2019. Future of Cities…, p. 8-9.

[21] Covenant of Mayors: cities at the forefront of climate action, February 19, 2018.

[22] Cities are often places of great energy and optimism. They are where most of us choose to live, work and interact with others. As a result, cities are where innovation happens, where ideas are formed from which economic growth largely stems. Future of Cities, Insights from Multiple Expert Discussions Around the World, p. 3, London, Futureagenda 2017. – The Future of Cities, p. 105.

[23] The New Leipzig Charter, The Transformative power of cities for the common good, 30 November 2020.

[24] Territorial Agenda, A future for all places, December 1st 2020.

[25] Implementing the New Leipzig Charter through multi-level governance, Next Steps for the Urban Agenda for the EU, p. 4,, 2020.

[26] The Urban Governance Survey, 2016, Cities UN Habitat and the United Cities and Local Governments, London School of Economics, 2016. – The Future of Cities…, p. 129 & 149.

[27] The Future of Cities…, p. 106.

[28]According to Anne de Guigné, the budgetary impact of the Yellow Vests crisis amounted to €17 billion in new expenditure or lower revenue.. Anne DE GUIGNE, Emmanuel Macron et la dette : six ans de rendez-vous manqués, dans Le Figaro Économie, 29 mars 2023, p. 24.

[29] Michel FOUDRIAT, La co-construction en actes, Savoirs et savoir-faire pratiques pour faciliter sa mise en œuvre, Montrouge, ESF, 2021.

[30] Cities of Tomorrow…, p. 35.

[31] Europe’s productive cities and metros, Policy Brief, p. 2, Luxembourg, European Union, ESPON, 2021.

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