Mediterranean cities as laboratories for sustainable development

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Why is it important to talk about the Mediterranean cities?

The Mediterranean cities have come back to the fore as the new centres of regional political, economic, cultural and social dynamics. For a long time, they have been underestimated by international and national policy-makers. Yet, recent riots and even current migration flows demonstrate that a new approach to urban development is needed. It is cities where young migrants crossing the Sea stop by on their way to the EU, and it is there where who can make it to the EU land up.

That is why the ETTG and IAI have organized a seminar on the 10th of April in Rome to explore the role of local authorities in improving the liveability of Mediterranean urban areas, focusing on youth as a key driver for stability in the region. Participants discussed the priorities that cities and the EU Institutions need to address, in a context affected by internal fragmentation, reduced finance and institutional weakness.

What are the Mediterranean Cities?

The Mediterranean, from the Latin mediterraneus, “midland”, indicates at the same time a passage, a source of culture, a way of life, a liquid bridge, a vision and a belief. We cannot talk about the Mediterranean without talking about its cities. Currently more than 75% of the Mediterranean population lives in urban areas of more than one hundred thousand inhabitants. That’s why the historian Braudel describes it as “a network of cities holding hands”. They are places that change constantly, albeit preserving common and recognizable features, such as social stratification and spontaneous growth in which the historical centres remain poles of attraction.

This social mixité results in a specific urban lifestyle, with reduced commuting time, and an intensive use of public spaces. These characteristics go hand in hand with common problems such as the conservation and management of historical areas; ex-post planning of informal areas and environmental protection; integration of refugees and migrants; communication between “old inhabitants” and “newcomers” and, ultimately the re-definition of the rights of the city and citizens. These problems, require one the one hand a strategic and European response. On the other hand, they ask for local and specific actions that take into account the various contexts’ needs.

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Europe, cities and the Mediterranean

That’s why we call for a prioritization of urban issues within EU’s Mediterranean policies. So far cities have played a minor role within EU external actions policy-making. Yet, cities are the place where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envisaged in the 2015 UN Agenda 2030, can be implemented and become responsive to citizens’ needs. This will especially be the case of the Mediterranean, whose economic and social balance is at stake, due to conflicts, political and economic crises, not to mention the exposure to climate change.

However, despite the New Urban Agenda as well as the new European Consensus for Development identify cities as important hubs for driving a new model of sustainability, a recent report by ARLEM has showed that a lot of work needs to be done “to enable local authorities to fully grasp their potential as drivers for sustainable urban development”. So far EU external policies have proved to be a-territorial, and they have not exploited the full potential of multi-level governance to tackle the problems that Mediterranean cities are facing. As ETTG researchers we think that a new territorial narrative on development is needed, taking into account urbanization issues.

Establishing a smoother and integrated relation between the international, national and local levels is essential to ensure a more sustainable development of the region. This multi-level model of governance needs to involve a broad range of stakeholders, both at the design and and the implementation phases through bottom-up approaches as well as precise instruments (financial, political, cultural). This is particularly true for younger generations, who feel excluded and marginalized and who need to be empowered. Two bottom-up and concrete experiences were presented during the seminar.

Learning from Beirut

In Beirut you can recognize everywhere clear religious, political, socio-economic, and ethnic lines. It is a city made of self-sufficient neighborhoods: the mostly Muslim west and mostly Christian east, with many subdivisions.  Meanwhile, thousands of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and more recently from Syria settled in camps that are by now real parts of the city. In that sense, it resembles the rapid urbanisation of many global cities, where incoming rural populations are creating new, informal places to live. The war is a constant presence in the life of this city that has learned to live in emergency, without thinking too much about the future. In this context, the Urbego platform conducted a participatory process, involving local youth with different religious, cultural and professionals backgrounds, to identify common issues and imagine actions and strategies to improve the inclusion and engagement of young people in the city making. These ideas- related to mobility, public and green spaces, education and culture- were presented to policy makers to inform planning decisions. Focusing on urban spaces gave the opportunity to overcome conflicting viewpoints, and to build, through dialogue and imagination, a urban vision which is coherent with the city cultural diversity.

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Cultural Mapping in Egypt

Cities in Egypt are facing a big challenge regarding democratic city-making processes. Based on in-situ participative workshop model, SAWP (Spaces for arts, welfare and progress) explored new venues in the Alexandrian neighborhood of Karmouz, to promote them as spaces for arts and culture. The initiative aimed at support creative economies of culture, which can assist sustainable development and raise citizens’ awareness on how to use local resources for start-up social enterprises and for social image enhancement. The project engaged inhabitants in mapping cultural potentials – popular stories and physical spaces – of their neighbourhood. The project resulted in a city guide that proposes new thematic itineraries both to tourists and residents.

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We need to re-think the role of cities

The seminar has helped us to identify some key challenges for the present and the future of the Mediterranean region. First of all, it is getting more and more difficult to discuss youth engagement in several countries. Some words like “participation”, “democracy” cannot be spelled out as the trend is to close public spaces and to reduce the chances for people to meet, discuss and think of new development models. Cities are extraordinary laboratories where youth engagement and civic participation can be redefined.

Mediterranean civil society is very vibrant and there are many good stories on the ground. The challenge now is to set up clear frameworks where all these stories and experiences can be put together in systemic way and supported by specific instruments. If we keep excluding cities from the analysis of the region, the Mediterranean is doomed to fall into a relentless vicious cycle of political, economic, social and ecological fragility.

Authors: Giulia Maci, Daniele Fattibene (IAI)

Picture courtesy M. Rizk 

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