Sustainability, collaboration, and the future of cities

With COP 26 top of the agenda worldwide, we reached out to Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence and President of Eurocities, to understand what role cities are taking on in the recovery and how collaboration and clear values are paving the path to success for cities around the world.

Dario, as President of Eurocities, what are your key aims during your tenure?

I began my time as President already following the first months of the COVID pandemic, which heavily impacted cities. We were the first responders, the front line, stepping up to deliver food aid, look after the elderly or lonely, and ensuring that as many services as possible, such as schools, kept running albeit in often new ways.

Now, with these learnings and past months behind us, my message still hasn’t changed from what I said at the beginning: cities are the doers, the place where global agendas and EU legislation becomes real. As a mayor, and by talking frequently to my colleagues, this is more than evident to me, but it is not always the received wisdom in the European institutions, which all too often leave us out of crucial discussions.

We must work on the green, digital and just transitions as part of the ongoing recovery efforts. A large part of this will entail working through the National Recovery Plans to channel EU funding to where it is most needed – cities. We must plug the investment gaps in areas as diverse as housing and social care, while making room for new investments to take advantage of digital opportunities.

Cities are not only where most people live, but we are also the heart of economic production, the source of most emissions, and the closest level of government to people. In short, cities are the place where multiple and myriad challenges come together. And, with that in mind, cities are the place where today’s challenges must be faced head on.

So, I believe it’s time for a new pact between cities and the EU institutions – something that would take the Urban Agenda idea a bit further, to set up formal structures so that cities can relate the realities of how policies are implemented on the ground, and so that, across levels of government, we can make better policies that work for more people and the environment, while allowing room to allocate funds in such a way as to achieve the best impacts.

I’ve seen that Florence is one of around 70 other cities that have signed the Green City Accord, which outlines ambitious targets to protect the environment. What can cities do to help turn the tide on the climate crisis?

Cities are both part of the problem and part of the solution in terms of climate change. We know that what we do locally has an impact, and we also know that much more needs to be done in all areas.

The Green City Accord focusses on specific elements for cities committed to safeguarding the natural environment. In these areas – air; water; nature and biodiversity; circular economy and waste; and noise – Florence and the other cities aim to go above and beyond the targets set at European level. By committing to the Accord, we have already made one thing easier on ourselves: we have joined a community of like-minded cities, willing to exchange knowledge on the latest and most effective environmental actions. We also open the door to funding opportunities with a defined strategy and set of actions

While cities may not seem like the natural allies of the climate, we know that this is a shared challenge in which we must all do our part. Many cities have set out ambitious strategies. We’re planting urban forests, greening our streets and rooves, forging ahead with electrification of transport fleets and working with our surrounding rural areas to shorten food supply chains.

Cities are already turning the tide on the climate crisis. There are many solutions floating around in our urban areas, but too many that go underfunded, unnoticed. That’s why for the big agendas to work, like the European Green Deal, and I note here the discussions that are happening now at COP26, we need national and international leaders to take note of the actions and voices of our cities, to join forces and guarantee the expected results


Cities have been severely impacted by COVID-19. With the rise of remote working and other behavioural changes triggered by the pandemic, do you think the role of cities will change over the next few years?

I am sure cities will always remain the centres of economic and cultural life. But we cannot exist in isolation. We need strong relations with the areas around us, and we need to adapt where possible to changing lifestyles.

This means cooperating within our larger metropolitan area and beyond. In Florence, we have recently partnered with other Italian capital cities of the metro areas to develop the PON Metro project. It’s a really good example of how we can’t expect to just do things alone. The project implements one part of the initiatives conceived in the framework of European Urban Agenda for cohesion policies, born with the aim of strengthening the role of the cities and their territories as metropolitan areas, and learning from each other. Within this programme, we had the opportunity to co-create and develop a set of actions based on specific drivers in the smart city paradigm for the redesign and modernisation of public services through the digital agenda and a more efficient and sustainable mobility. We developed, for example, FEEL FLORENCE - the official tourism website and app of the Municipality of Florence and the Metropolitan City where people can discover new ways to visit the city and its vast territory, or check out suggested itineraries, places of interest, or events. There is also IF – Infomobility in Florence, which is the official App of the Municipality of Florence to keep you updated on city mobility. Each user receives customised push notifications based on user preferences and can consult up-to-date information on urgent road works, accidents, transit times at local public transport stops (buses, trams, etc.), street cleaning, cycle paths, charging stations, availability of parking spaces in the structure, construction sites and everything related to mobility in the Florentine area. In this way we help people to choose the best sustainable way to move around Florence.

Thinking a bit wider afield we now have the challenge of how to manage the recovery funds – 37% of which are to be targeted to green actions, which is exactly where many cities have planned projects that will mean working with neighbouring municipalities and regions. In Florence, we have had quite a good cooperation with the national government on the design of these funds, and now it is the time to go from plan to action. Thanks to REACTEU funds, the Italian government has decided to increase the availability of the PON Metro programme by over €1 billion given its effectiveness and Florence has just added €80 million of which 55% is intended for the digital and green transformation of metropolitan cities (the so-called green quota). This will give us the opportunity to accelerate our path towards becoming a zero emissions and sustainable city thanks to improvements such as the energy efficiency of sports facilities and buildings, the electrification of vehicles (such as company vehicles, public transport and school buses), the modernisation of the water network against leaks, and strengthening our digital infrastructure, or better managing our urban forestry to give some examples.

Florence is obviously a city with a fantastic cultural heritage – what role do you see culture playing in the future recovery for all cities?

As a city of art that normally welcomes large flows of tourists Florence has suffered in terms of lost revenues throughout this period, and our cultural heritage will play a strong role is attracting tourists back to our city now. However, we are keen to focus on a more sustainable tourism model going forwards. The past months have shown us how our previous model of tourism was unsustainable. Many people from around the world come to our city each year – several times more than the number of people who live here – but the relationship between the city and these tourists is fleeting. If we are to really make the most of our cultural heritage, in a way that makes it a sustainable asset to the people who actually live here, then we must identify new tourist flows, based on a more responsible engagement with the city. Culture is also the creative glue that keeps our society together – we have all felt its loss most keenly when it was locked away during the pandemic.

For Florentines, culture often means jobs, pride and belonging, which is why it’s one of the focal points of our ‘renaissance’ – the Rinasce Firenze – that we are working on with many local residents to look at how we can use it in the best way for all of us. The goal is to reshape a city ready to respond to new challenges, in present and future times. A city that allows citizens to reclaim urban spaces with greater liveability, that aims for sustainable mobility, that starts from what has always been the greatest asset and trademark of Florence: arts and culture, to surely attract tourism, yet always bearing in mind that the city is also about its citizens, families, employment, public health, high quality of life and services. Rinasce Firenze identifies nine thematic pillars, presented as both proposals and solutions: a polycentric city; a new historical centre; experiencing urban spaces; green mobility; city economy growth; widespread arts & culture; children and families; social care: welfare, home, employment; and an increasingly "smart" city.

Widespread cultural assets are certainly one of the strongholds of our strategy. They help to valorise what Florence is in its essence and will help propel us towards becoming a more accessible, sustainable and liveable city. It's a very powerful leverage not only for economic growth but for social innovation, inclusion and knowledge.

How do you think cities can collaborate rather than compete in recovery?

Unlike national governments, cities are used to cooperating. We work within our region, nationally, and through international cities networks like Eurocities, of which I am president.

So, we already have the networks between us that can aid in the sharing of best practice. For example, if one of our goals in Florence is to reduce air pollution and to add new bicycle lanes, the first step is often to approach another city that we know has done something similar, rather than to start from scratch with our own research. We all have things that we do well that we can share with others, and, of course, many areas that we would like to improve our knowledge on too.

Now as we are looking to the recovery, and the disbursement of the NextGenEU funds and implementation of the National Recovery Plans, cities can stand united in calling attention to the fact that, in most countries, cities were not adequately included in their design, and must now be consulted for the implementation and monitoring processes. When you think about it, it should be a no brainer: we are the ones that will do the leg work to enact much of what should be included in these plans, so understanding what happens at the local level is key.


Do you think that having clear values will give cities an edge in recovery? What can cities do to ensure their values are at the heart of their strategies, and not just paying lip-service?

It’s clear to me that we need a post-pandemic cultural and social reconstruction, based on participatory democracy. Democracy is not something immutable but something that must be built, cared for, and defended day after day. This means we must remember to invest in 'human capital' including in schools and culture. If we stop investing in young people, we condemn ourselves and the anti-democratic drifts that we now see in isolated pockets could intensify.

Cities are also working for an ongoing dialogue with EU leaders on challenges ahead – for example via the Conference on the Future of Europe, which should be an opportunity to strengthen democracy in Europe. In my role as Eurocities President I can say we fully support that.

However, we also have some concerns. The Conference comes with a promise of increased dialogue with citizens, but there is a lack of a common understanding of what ‘citizens participation’ means. At local level citizens engagement is already strong and has a clear impact on our decision making. We want to see real results from the conference. It should bring opportunities to change the way we work with the EU institutions, to ‘localise Europe’, and new tools for engaging with people at EU level.

In Florence, as for many other cities of Eurocities, we already know how to do this, we are creating a liveable city that puts people at the centre.

Wonderful, thank you so much for sharing your insight with us, Dario.

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