The relationship between the European urban development documents and the 2050 visions

Authors: Ráhel Czirják, László Gere

Cities are imprints of the history and the social, economic and political processes of a given region, so they have specific features in the different continents and regions of the world. The characteristic features of cities and city networks determine their operational mechanisms, opportunities and successfulness. This paper examines what challenges the cities of Europe are to face in the 21st century and whether they are ready for this based upon the relevant policy documents.


Modern urbanisation started to emerge during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and then it spread all around the world. The old continent reached a high level of urbanisation in a relatively short time: by 1950 more than half of its population had lived in urban areas – on the contrary, at global level the same took place only after the turn of the millennium (UN 2014). Following this, the proportion of the urban population slightly increased to 73% in 50 years’ time (UN, 2014). As compared to the UNO’s methodology, the European Union applies a slightly different method of calculation to determine the extent of urbanisation; therefore, it publishes a little bit different data about global urbanisation, but the value of the urbanisation rate is more or less the same for Europe: 72% (EU–UN-HABITAT, 2016).

Figure 1: The distribution of the population based upon the degree of urbanisation by the region, 2015. Source: The State of European Cities, 2016, p  27

As cities show the history of a given region and reflect the local social, economic and political processes, urban regions can be described with different characteristic features in the different regions of the world. Furthermore, the specific features of cities and city networks determine their operational mechanisms, opportunities, successfulness and the way they can overcome the challenges of the future. (For more details about the characteristics of Europe’s cities, see our writing entitled A report on the state of European cities, 2016.)

In our paper entitled The future of cities we investigate what the future can bring to the cities in 2050. What challenges will a city, i.e. the settlement type comprising the majority of the Earth’s population, have had to face by the middle of the century? To answer this question, we took into account the global tendencies – demographic, economic, technological, etc. – that exert a basic effect on the urban regions. Starting from the earlier findings but narrowing the topic, we expressly focus on the European cities. We examine how the urban development documents react to the trends and challenges depicted in the forecasts and visions considering the cities of the old continent. To what extent do the forecasts and plan documents harmonise with each other? Moreover, on the basis of this, how well-prepared are the cities of Europe for the challenges and opportunities of the future?

Before presenting the survey and the findings, we need to discuss the barriers we had to face during the research. For the comparison it should be clarified that two different genres are examined so we cannot expect entire harmony or correspondence between them. The documents enumerating the trends expectable in 2050 basically investigate processes, attempt to outline possible future tendencies starting from the events of today and the near past, and then create a vision for our cities as a summary. Urban development documents and strategies also intend to reveal the prospective challenges of the cities; however, they much rather start from the present and the current tendencies (from the perspective of current issues, challenges and areas to be solved), and think in a shorter time interval. A special policy should provide tangible results and approach the solutions to the challenges in a result-oriented way; therefore, it determines problem areas which the lower-level planning documents and ultimately the urban development projects can react or connect to. In spite of being comprehensive and generous, the policy documents should have a far more practical approach than a vision outlined for a period of thirty or forty years. As for their starting point, they should react to the current challenges; therefore, the economic crisis also affecting Europe severely in 2008 or the recent refugee crisis are emphasised, too. Besides, we highlight fields that cannot appear in a long-term forecast due to their genres, including the importance of integrated planning or emphasising the involvement of the community in the process of urban development.

To sum it up: although two different genres of documents are studied, we suppose that they are in a close relationship with each other in terms of content and mentality. If we accept this, such a hypothesis is also well-founded according to the policy documents that have to consider the trends specified by the policy documents during the planning. Therefore, it is important to investigate to what extent this requirement is fulfilled. However, the non-presence of the given topics will not reduce the validity or importance of the given urban development documents; our research only intends to highlight the importance of knowing the future scenarios and visions during the planning, extending the planning repertoire with a new aspect.


Collecting long-term forecasts

As the first step of our study, we tried to consider the most significant social, economic and environmental tendencies in the world that will determine the life of European cities in the future and to transform these tendencies into the dimension of European cities. These tendencies outline scenarios with challenges or potential benefits we can rely on during the long-term planning. The starting point for our study is the forecasts for 2050 (extending the scope of documents to some extent), which also formed the basis for our previous research on the future of cities (Czirják and Gere 2017). In the following we present these visions briefly.

It is not easy to draft a vision that comprehensively determines the future of the cities, and studying a vision describing the urbanisation trends would not be enough to identify the key expectable processes related to the cities. The UNO’s periodic report entitled World Urbanisation Prospects (UN 2014) is a good starting point that offers the most well-founded forecasts concerning the future of cities. However, with a relatively narrow focus, it mainly studies the demographic trends and the changes in the proportion of urban population. Due to its global character, it covers the developed Western countries less (the urbanisation boom has already died down, so they are less interesting areas) and touches upon the main challenges of the European cities only marginally. Therefore, besides this document our study includes a narrower situational picture expressly focusing on Europe, The State of European Cities 2016; however, it is true that it is not a vision for 2050 but a fresh situational picture aiming to achieve the optimal urban future. Furthermore, we used the report of the EPSON program entitled ET2050 on a European territorial vision dealing with not only urbanisation (ESPON 2014) and aiming to support the long-term policy-making of the European Union.

Beyond this, we also examined other visions that not necessarily highlight cities but rather certain sectors after making sure that their relevance is well-founded.

Since cities and urban lifestyle impose a high-priority environmental burden, and cities with their enormous population are extremely subject to the impacts of the climate change, it was important to integrate the study The European Environment – State and Outlook 2015 (EEA 2015) published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). All the more because the structure of this study resembles that of our own research: it lists the scenario determined in it into clearly distinguishable trends, so-called megatrends. Furthermore, although the processes related to the status of the environment fundamentally determine the approach, the document has been drafted with a comprehensive perspective, discussing plenty of topics from the demographic trends through the economic and technological processes to governance.

And last but not least, we took a look at two visions of a primarily economic focus, since the performance of the global economy is decisively affected by the economic performance of the cities: on the whole, four-fifth of the total GDP is produced in cities, so this segment had to be included, too. One of the forecasts drafted in this topic is The Competitiveness of Cities, a report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF 2014) and summarising the megatrends of urban competitiveness. Another forecast under study is the forecast carried out by the global research department of HSBC Bank Group on the world economy in 2050 (HSBC 2011).

Determining the European urban trends based upon the forecasts

Based upon the above forecasts, we identified 11 urban trends that will influence the European urbanisation process most of all and whose management seems to be the most highlighted in the documents. We organised the trends in “clusters” according to topics, which also facilitates the evaluation of the results later. The clusters and trends determined by us are the following:

  • city management (1 trend: cities rise as new power centres);
  • economy (3 trends: an accelerating technological change, whose centres are the cities; a decreasing/permanently low economic growth, which affects the cities as economic power centres to an increased extent; the employment structure changes; classical occupations and forms of employments change);
  • environment (5 trends: resources/energy consumption increases, which considerably affects Europe that needs to import; the consequences of the climate change are becoming more and more severe; urban land use is increasing; greenhouse gas emission, other harmful substance emission and pollutions are continuously increasing; the proportion of individual transport is rising as compared to the use of public transport); and
  • society (2 trends: social inequality increases within the cities: segregation, urban poverty, internal and external migration all result in an ageing population).

These trends include global tendencies that are typical of all cities in every region of the world, such as the worsening consequences and conspicuous spread of the climate change. At the same time, other processes like the extra burdens caused by the ageing society influence European cities in the most striking way.

About half of the trends are related to environmental protection, which is due to the diversity of the theme, including among others energetics, climate change, environmental pollution and transportation. These trends are often not only issues having environmental effects (e.g. the increase in the use of urban lands, i.e. urban sprawl has plenty of other social and economic consequences, too) but are included in this group because they are mainly examined by the documents with respect to environmental effects. Being discussed the most frequently in the policy documents, the environmental challenges are examined with a focus; therefore, the topics of the two document types harmonise with each other in this respect.

We specified the trends as comprehensively and generally as possible so that we can easily compare them with the fields that need to be handled and are also identified by the urban development documents. Many people suppose that the issues of European cities cannot be generalised to such an extent since different challenges have to be faced in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, or in the south and in the north; however, this study attempts to cover the whole of Europe uniformly for our research.

Collecting urban policy documents

In the European Union urban development still falls within national competence and there is no common, standard urban policy of the Union (although relevant steps are being taken). Nevertheless, the high priority of urban development in the Union cannot be questioned, this special area is included in certain regional policy framework documents as well, and also numerous declarations, statements and charts expressly focusing on urban development have been born in this topic over the past one and a half decades. In the following stage of the research we collected these fourteen policy documents, starting from the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) in 1999 to the Pact of Amsterdam in 2016.

When studying these urban policy documents (and parts of the regional political documents dealing with urban development), we collected the main challenges, strategic developmental suggestions, fields of topics and proposals specified in them in accordance with the given type of the document, i.e. the sections that specify and answer the key challenges related to the cities.

Finally, we summarised the two lists in a table with the benchmark method in order to find the linkage points of the urban trends included in the visionary documents as well as the challenges and recommendations laid down in the policy documents constructing scenarios. This connection was marked on a three-grade scale:

  • Value 0 was given to the fields not at all specified in the policy documents. These fields are not affected or covered by the given documents.
  • Value 1 was given to the fields that are specified in the policy documents at some level but are only mentioned in most cases, with no emphasis; therefore, in a given case actual suggestions or recommendations are not or only marginally expressed in this relation.
  • Value 2 was given to the fields highlighted in the policy documents in the form of recommendations or proposals, or at least as high-priority challenges.

Adding up the lines after the evaluation, we can find out what emphasis each prospective trend receives in the policy documents. Beyond this, it can also be interesting to add up the columns and see in what depth each policy document deals with the prospective trends.

As for the results, we should remember that the given fields of topics could not be given higher scores because they mark so current challenges that could not have occurred in the earlier policy documents (e.g. the effects of the economic crisis). We endeavoured to give the scores as flexibly as possible, taking into consideration the content behind the concise wording of policy documents. For instance, the wording “cities emerge as new power centres” (trend 1) may not be found in any document but if we found any content concerning urban governance, we gave score 1 or 2. Similarly, the statement “the proportion of individual transport increases as compared to the use of public transport” (trend 9) appears in any EU document only marginally; however, we gave a score if any aspect of transport or mobility is specified. In several cases, certain aspects of some topic groups are discussed only marginally; however, if the given document set a great challenge in its title (or chapters) (e.g.  sustainable development or social challenges), the trends belonging to the given “cluster” tended to receive a higher score. In this way we attempted to take into consideration that although a given subfield is less highlighted in the given policy document due to the requirements of briefness, the general mentality of the document makes it more highlighted, too.

The ultimate result is that the deviation of the final values (sums of lines) from the average is relatively low (sums of lines). Overall, however, there are differences that make the findings assessable.


We summarised the findings in a table, with its lines specifying the 11 prospective urban trends and its columns indicating the policy documents. The various colours show what emphasis each trend received during the discussions in the policy materials: value 0 received colour red, value 1 yellow and value 2 green (by analogy with the traffic lights). In this way the results can be illustrated visually:

Figure 2: A comparison of the content focuses of visions and policy documents. Own edition.

Our research does not aim to analyse the content of certain policy documents, so this study excludes these details. According to our hypothesis, special policy documents should react to the long-term future trends (in our research, to the trends specified for 2050), so now we highlight how this task is realised on the basis of the benchmark analysis. We studied the scores of the occurrences of each trend, which show what topics are highlighted during the policy planning and what topics are forced into the background or omitted.

Figure 3: Summarised values of future trends discussed in the policy documents. Own edition.

Two groups can be differentiated based upon the values of the graph:

(1) Group 1 covers the six trends with the highest scores, between 26 and 19 points (the highest theoretical score is 28 points). Except for transport, this group includes all topics related to environmental protection and sustainability, a social (increasing social inequalities) and an economic trend (the trend of the decreasing economic growth). This distribution (society – economy – environment) features in nearly all urban development policy documents, so their high occurrence is not a surprise. Sustainable development was already discussed in ESDP in 1999, and the related recommendations that might as well be called subfields (decreasing the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, rationalising the energy and resources consumption, etc.) are also included in nearly all documents, though with different wordings and emphases. Similarly, the recommendations concerning urban land use and the issue of coordinating and decreasing urban sprawl have also been on the agenda for a long time.

Besides, the handling of social challenges is another priority: the challenge of managing social inequalities has been mentioned most times. After all, this is also because the trend was specified with the aim of summarising, including social and ethnical isolation and segregation within cities, the reduction of the various forms of urban poverty, and the different types of migration (economic migration from the East to the West within the EU, and immigration into the EU from outside). We did not discuss them separately for two reasons. First, we had to keep the number of trends as low as possible owing to the transparency. Second, each process has the same effect: they increase social inequalities. The high score of the topic (26) is due to the fact that even if only one subfield is highlighted in a given document, it already received the maximum score. Examining each subfield individually may also give interesting results; however, the frames of the present research could not cover this investigation.

The last trend is the odd one from group 1: it is the trend of constantly low growth and inappropriate economic growth. Each of the scenarios and visions studied by us were drafted after the breakout of the global economic crisis and are based upon current data, which significantly leaves its mark on the economic forecasts. The threat from future permanently low growth is a recent idea in the mainstream economic forecasts and has come to the front owing to the events of the past few years. Nevertheless, the policy documents cover a far longer period of more than fifteen years. Naturally, the challenge of managing low growth had not been identified before the crisis, while during and after the crisis mostly the consolidation of the economy and the enhancement of competitiveness, or overall, the economic growth itself dominated the EU communication. Therefore, any reference to the decreasing or low economic growth can be implied in the policy documents only indirectly. Nevertheless, owing to this implicit presence with regards to the economic recommendations we scored each reference to the economic weight, growth and competitiveness of cities. We found that all these aim to stop decreasing the economic growth of the cities and reach as high performance as possible, even if only indirectly. Therefore, the targets are the same (reserving, slowing down or stopping the negative trend) and only the languages differ.

(2) Group 2 includes the challenges that are taken into consideration by the Union with an inappropriate emphasis, or at least from the aspect of long-term forecasts for 2050. These areas will need even more consideration in the future. It should also be added that in many cases these are the latest trends that did not come up at all in the policy dialogues 10-15 years ago, and it can be one of the reasons for their lower scores.

Furthermore, it should also be added that a high numerical value does not necessarily mean that the handling of a given field of topic would be solved; what is even more, in many cases just the opposite is true. The recommendations related to the climate change and greenhouse gas emission are likely to be on the agenda for a long time since these challenges have not been managed appropriately up to present. Similarly, uncoordinated urban sprawl has taken place throughout Europe despite the numerous recommendations, and it cannot be said that urban planning has succeeded in solving this challenge. Regrettably, the increasing land use of cities can mostly be mitigated with the demographic changes; only few results have been achieved with policy instruments. Therefore, these challenges have a high score although they could not be solved. However, they were identified at least.

Reverting to the elements of group 2, we can find 5 trends here with a total score of 13-10: two economic (a changing employment composition; technological change), one environmental (transport), one social (ageing) and one urban management trend.

As compared to the previous group, economic trends are somehow more specific and are always fresh phenomena: the (urban developmental) special policy has not been able to react to them up to present. Actually, the related forecasts are uncertain, as the processes are changing dynamically. The opinions still considerably vary with respect to what changes the automatization, robotics and other similar transformations will bring in the field of employment. Since there is no consensus or a clear-cut tendency in this respect but there are only flexible visions, we cannot elaborate appropriate policy recommendations. Therefore, it can be understood that this trend has been involved in the policy documents only indirectly, at the level of reference. The same applies to the technological processes, too, as in most places the accelerating technological change arises only as one of the factors of maintaining the economic competitiveness; however, special policy does not deal with it more precisely. It is an area that is hard to regulate, coordinate and understand, and although it is emphasised more and more in the operation of cities, it is difficult to elaborate a common policy recommendation concerning it.

The use of the modes of transport and the reduction of individual transport in favour of public transport are surprisingly neglected topics in the policy documents. The challenges of transport can primarily be detected in the promotion of mobility, the development of the infrastructure and the improvement of accessibility; however, these are more and more large-scale developmental challenges, while the needs within the cities are rarely discussed in the policy. Although the improvement and support of multimodality (providing changing facilities between the different modes of transport) has perhaps been highlighted recently, the special policy-makers of the future could still achieve more in this field.

A similarly surprising phenomenon is the ignorance of the challenge of ageing. This topic was first discussed in 2005 but it has not received considerable attention since then. The issue of ageing affects numerous other fields, from the organising of public services through housing and transportation to the economic growth, and this is why it would be reasonable to include it separately. Nevertheless, the ageing and the trend of “increase in social inequalities” might be lumped together, and the special policy-makers might have taken them in the same category, so the handling of this challenge is not included separately everywhere. Therefore, this process and its effects should receive more attention in the future.

And last but not least, the trend of urban management gets into the second group. This topic can hardly be covered with any policy recommendation, although the political dialogue definitely deals with the role of cities. The low score is rather due to the fact that policy documents approach the topic from another perspective; therefore, very often we only gave score 1 (this trend received the most 1 points). The policy documents much rather focus on the establishment of inter-city networks – that connect the different actors of the urban development policy -, the integrated planning performed to increase the efficiency of urban policy, or the economy recovery effects of urban policy, etc.

If we analyse the scores by the cluster (urban management-economy-environment-society), the averaging of the total scores will show that urban management is the least emphasised policy element, followed by the economic trends, the social challenges and, with the largest emphasis, the environmental topics. As for their distribution, they follow each other linearly, with no considerable differences.

The occurrence of the topic in a chronological order is insignificant; only a slight increase can be observed. We could presume that as time passes, the recommendations of the topics of each policy document fit to the trends of the visions for 2050 more and more (not least because the current topics such as the economic crisis can already be present in the more recent documents); however, this trend is taking shape only to a very small extent. Some of the earlier documents are also comprehensive (e.g. Territorial State and Perspective of the EU in 2005), and the more recent documents also cover most special and few topics (e.g. the Riga Declaration in 2015). However, it is the latest Amsterdam Pact, signed in 2016 with the aim of integrated urban development that could reach the highest score of 20, only two points less than the theoretical maximum score.

Topics omitted

We also collected other topics omitted from the forecasts and visions of 2050 that tend to be discussed in policy documents but could not be presented during the analysis.

Such topics include, among others, the involvement of the population, the community planning, and the emphasis of making urban citizens interested in urban development. Also with the intention of strengthening the integration, the European Union deems the involvement of the population in the developments as a priority; however, the changing of the political activity is expected to be a general trend in the future.  Together with the increasing access to information and the rapid development of opportunities, it is becoming easier and easier to organise communities and involve the people in the developments affecting them. In numerous countries of Europe this initiative is already at an advanced stage, and the process is likely to continue in the future, too.

Another important field of development highlighted in the policy documents but not in the forecasts is the focus on knowledge economy, knowledge exchange and knowledge share. This is partly overlapped with the involvement of the population since active participation in the developments requires some kind of a basic knowledge; however, it is about something more: the preparation for some kind of a joint learning process, in which not only the individuals but also the communities and cities can learn from each other. It is a proven fact that collective knowledge, intensive knowledge exchange and share enhance economic efficiency and competitiveness, so this recommendation will not lapse in the future either.


During our research we sought the answer to the question what weight the trends specified in the long-term forecasts mainly until 2050 have in the urban development policy documents of the EU. Although the structures, focuses and purposes of the two types of documents somehow differ from each other, the forecasts have been able to determine future processes whose management has been discussed in the policy recommendations. Therefore, it has been established that this genre is suitable for comparison. We examined the connections, similarities and differences by applying text analysis and benchmarking methods. Through this analysis, our research aimed to call the policy-makers’ attention to a new aspect in determining the development areas: the involvement of the forecasts of long-term visions into the short-term policy recommendations. Presumably, our research will facilitate the drafting of development documents in the future.



Policy documents (in a chronological order)

  • European Commission (1999): European Spatial Development Perspectives – Towards Balanced and Sustainable Development of the Territory of the European Union. Agreed at the Informal Council of Ministers responsible for Spatial Planning in Potsdam, May 1999.
  • Lille Action Programme (2000): Adopted at the Informal Council of Ministers responsible for urban affairs held in Lille on 3 November 2000
  • Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations, The Netherlands (2004): Ministerial Meeting Urban Policy ‘Cities Empower Europe’ Concept Conclusions Dutch Presidency (Rotterdam Conclusion on Urban Policy)
  • UK Presidency (2005): Conclusions of Bristol. Ministerial Informal Meeting on Sustainable Communities In Europe
  • The Territorial State and Perspectives of the European Union – Towards a Stronger European Territorial Cohesion in the Light of the Lisbon and Gothenburg Ambitions (2005). Luxemburg, May 2005.
  • Cohesion Policy and cities : the urban contribution to growth and jobs in the regions (2006): Communication from the Commission to the Council and Parliament. Brussels, 13.7.2006
  • Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (2007). 02 May 2007.
  • Territorial Agenda (2007): Territorial Agenda of the European Union – Towards a More Competitive and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions. Agreed on the occasion of the Informal Ministerial Meeting on Urban Development and Territorial Cohesion in Leipzig on 24 / 25 May 2007.
  • Marseille Statement (2008): Final statement by the ministers in charge of urban development. Marseille, 25th November 2008.
  • Toledo Declaration (2010): Toledo Informal Ministerial Meeting on Urban Development: Declaration, Toledo, 22 June 2010.
  • Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (2011): Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse
    Regions. Agreed at the Informal Ministerial Meeting of Ministers responsible for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development on 19th May 2011 Gödöllő, Hungary
  • Budapest Communiqué (2011): Budapest Communiqué on European urban areas facing demographic and climate challenges, by the Directors General responsible for urban development. Budapest, 2 May 2011.
  • Riga Declaration (2015): Informal Meeting of EU Ministers Responsible for Territorial Cohesion and Urban Matters. Declaration of Ministers towards the EU Urban Agenda. Riga, 10 June 2015.
  • Pact of Amsterdam (2016): Urban Agenda for the EU. Agreed at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers Responsible for Urban Matters on 30 May 2016 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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