AuthorBoc, Emil
  1. Introductory remarks

    'With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear' wrote Italo Calvino (1978, p. 44) in a novel that explores the imaginary and the imaginable, in a game of space and time. The cities have been, are and will be places where the new technologies are put into practice, where public policies and services are developed, in order to respond to the problems and needs related to economic development, habitation, mobility, health care, education, environment. In fact, one of the consistent arguments in favor of the cities is precisely the existence of public services (Fujita and Thisse, 2002, p. 133). The cities are places for individual freedom and civic rights, of creativity and economic and social innovation, of tolerance and cooperation. At the same time, the cities are places where the inequalities can be seen in dramatic images, where poverty generates despair and violence, places where pollution turns life into a nightmare and discrimination pushes on the fringes of society people whose only fault is that they are different. Navigating among these contradictions, analyzed and exposed over the years by researchers from various fields, the cities have proven a remarkable resilience and their worldwide role never ceases to grow. Until the end of the 21st century, almost all of us will live in cities, hence we are today living a transition from what we could call 'nonurban' (even rural) to 'urban' (Batty, 2018, pp. 13-14). In 2018, the cities of the world housed 54% of the entire world's population, a figure that, if the current trends are maintained, will grow to at least 68% in 2030 (in other words, an estimation of at least 5.7 billion people). The impact of such a process is a significant one on multiple levels. For instance, although they occupy only 3% of the Earth's surface, the cities are responsible for more than 75% of the global carbon emissions (Allam, 2021, p. 61).

    In this context, the cities are facing a series of strategic challenges, which can be addressed from the perspective of three contradictions that are poignantly visible in the contemporary world and to which the cities are called to respond through public policies, aimed at providing hope and dispelling fear. First of all, we are talking about 'affluence and poverty' (Beauregard, 2019, p. 22); second, about 'the ecological impact of cities' versus city sustainability (Beauregard, 2019, p. 57); third, about the way in which the public sphere is built at the local level. It is either a place for dialogue between the social partners, where the tensions are subject to negotiation and there is the reciprocal acknowledgment of the Other in his otherness (Habermas and Derrida, 2003, p. 294), a place of governance and of democratic political community construction. Or it is a space dominated by discourses that separate and discriminate, discourses of an oligarchy (real or imagined) that spread violence (of course, the symbolic violence first of all, but it creates a framework for the manifestation of physical violence) against certain groups consisting of the poorest, of the least lucky, of those who are somehow different.

    The cities browse therefore among challenges that risk sinking them and there are no one size fits all solutions. There are models of good practices, there are short-term measures and long-term measures (sometimes at odds with each other) and almost always the local administrations have insufficient resources in relation to the needs.

  2. Challenges and opportunities for cities

    2.1. Those who have and those who have not

    The city is the place where the differences between opulent richness and total poverty stand out very well, although, in practice, between the two there are many shades of precariousness. Of course, we are talking about a societal problem that exists outside the cities. Nevertheless, in a world that is becoming more and more urban every day, the cities are the place where we see the differences easier. On a first level, this is 'private wealth' and the public policy problem regarding the redistribution of wealth found mainly in the national jurisdiction and lesser in the cities' competency (although they have the right instruments to reduce the gap between those who have and those who do not have). Despite this, when we talk about wealth in the cities it is essential to talk about the public wealth and about the fact that public wealth is a necessary condition to generate private wealth (Eisinger, 1988 apud Beauregard, 2019, p. 25). Quality roads and public transportation, high quality education institutions and programs for children, playgrounds and parks at hand, street cleaning, public lighting, public safety, healthcare and dedicated sports areas, affordable housing, air and water quality assurance--we all want them and we need them. Assuring these services for all the city's citizens is a condition to reduce the gap.

    The cities are places where digital technologies explode, having the potential to be part of the solutions to everyday life problems. Places that become innovation hubs where highly qualified specialists gather, who work in the cutting-edge fields. It is best for these processes, so widely desired by the cities, to be balanced by public policies that ensure access and a place for the least lucky. The presence of some specialists, very well paid as compared to the other citizens, will fuel the prices in the city and will trigger gentrification processes. And the new technologies bring (or can bring) new forms of precariousness for those who do not benefit from the incomes that the new economy's service contractors and high-tech workers have, although they belong to the category of those who use technology--for instance, the Uber drivers (Clark, 2020, pp. 199-200).

    Furthermore, we all agree that most jobs will need some form of digital skills in the future and that Internet access is essential. Nevertheless, on average two in five Europeans aged 16-74 are lacking digital literacy (European Commission, 2020, p. 8), and these figures are higher in the poorer communities. Network access is, in most cases, a private business and not a public service (as, maybe, it should be). Because poverty nowadays is related to network access or lack of network access. Poverty is no longer defined in financial terms, but in connectivity terms, particularly in the cities, where it is essential to be connected to physical and symbolic networks alike (Bettencourt, 2021, passim).

    The European Union had a social component from the very beginning. This social component comes from a tradition related to the trade union movement and to a wide range of political movements, including social-democracy, Christian democracy or social liberalism. After the Second World War, under the European construction circumstances, the social component was present as a major element of the proposed model. It is presented in all the European treaties, in the Social European Charter and in several other documents (of principle or specific). In Europe, we have a document such as the European Pillar of Social Rights that deals with social security, improving working and living conditions, gender equality, and social inclusion.

    It is not by mere chance that, if we look at things globally, the EU has a high social security level. Despite this, the significant differences are not gone, poor people exist in the wealthiest countries of the Union, and among the Union's countries there are still gaps that fuel phenomena such as brain drain. Of course, the European citizens must have the possibility to move freely; nevertheless, they should move of their own free will and not because they are constrained to leave their regions because of poverty and poor economic opportunities. The reduction of such gaps is a necessary condition for the sustainability of the European project.

    The resources allocated to social security are important (in 2020, expenditure on social protection represented 22.0% of GDP in EU-27), but the challenges raise the question of the ability to maintain what has been gained and the promise for a better life (which, on the European construction level, represents an essential part of the social contract). The coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken have had a negative economic impact (which is expected to be a lasting one) and the most affected have been the poor ones, the vulnerable ones (Bassot and Cahen, 2022, p. 106). At the level of 2010, in UE-27, there were 103.7 million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The situation has improved every year until 2019, when this figure has reached 91.4 million. After 10 years of progress, in 2020, it jumped to 96.8 million, namely 5.4 million Europeans made the jump, in a single year, to a more precarious life. 15.8 million European children are living in poverty (Social Justice Ireland, 2022, p. 17).

    The energy price issue raises, at the level of2022, an additional challenge, which directly affects, also through inflation, those who do not have, worsening, at the same time, the affordable housing issue. Already in 2018, 82 million Europeans spent more than 40% of their disposable income on housing, given that the prices are increasing much faster than the incomes and the need for social housing is growing fast (Vandecasteele et al., 2019, pp. 30-33).

    2.2. On sustainability and consumption

    The cities are organisms with an impact way beyond their administrative territory, from a political perspective (broadly speaking), an economic, social and environmental perspective. They attract and consume resources (the emphasis here is on the economic dimension), they are places where more and more people are living (the emphasis here is on the social dimension) and there is no major impact upon the environment (in a destructive sense)...

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