KREMER August 2020

COVID-19 and the EU territory

by Peter Schön and Peter Mehlbye


Irrespective of medical and pharmaceutical successes, and even if there would be a vaccine available in 2021, the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its consequences will be with us for quite a while and will need ongoing political and societal answers to cope with it.


The COVID-19 pandemic has differentiated territorial impacts and affects cities, towns and countryside and their inhabitants. It has not only revealed differences in living conditions for people and between places but contributes also to further differentiation of societies. The political answers to shape post-COVID Europe have to take this social and territorial differentiation into account.


The pandemic has also created a political momentum for innovation of politics promoting a better balanced, resilient and polycentric EU territory. The recent Territorial Thinker’s Briefing 7: “COVID-19 PANDEMIC: A lever for a more balanced and resilient EU territory?” (July 2020) gives insights on trends as well as ideas and a mindset for policy makers that could support this necessary process of policy innovation (READ MORE).


Recent social experiments enforced by COVID-19


The first six months of living with the SARS-CoV-2 virus spawned a number of social experiments in society, economy, and politics that would not have been performed without the crisis. Some of these experiments fit into existing trends (of change) and will remain and bring forward further societal innovation. Others will disappear as soon as the crisis is over. Here are some that have a good chance of staying:


Digitalisation and smart cities

Lockdown of businesses, schools and families have accelerated the use of digital options from home, like teleworking, e-learning and shopping via internet, and its associated delivery services and distribution systems. All this will bring an additional boost for digitalisation and „smart city“ strategies.


Economy and globalisation

The economy has been severely hit by the lockdown of societies. Some sectors and places have been hit harder than others (travel, restaurants, culture and art), and the system of international supply chains has been disturbed. Especially trade and services in inner cities have suffered from the lock-down.


Greener environment

The environment has – at least locally and temporarily – benefitted from enforced lockdowns. With the ‚restart’ this environmental gain will discontinue unless politics intervenes.


Private living sphere and housing conditions

Lockdown, social distancing and quarantine measures have shifted our lives from the public towards the private sphere. Good housing conditions, private green and open spaces, neighbourhood quality, and secondary homes in attractive landscapes will gain importance, whereas increasing income inequalities will limit such choices and options for many.


Public social life and urban lifestyle

Many people fear that living in cities and unintentionally encountering other people might be health- and even life-threatening. Irrespective of scientific evidence, the sheer perception of density potentially enhancing the risk of contamination might, for some, change the attitude against cities, especially if the pandemic should go on for a longer time. Moreover, it is evident that urban areas lose attractivity when an urban life-style is prohibited.


Administrative capacities

The last months have also shown that governments that perform good and firm crisis management can regain the support and trust of their citizens. However, lately the first signs of protest towards measures limiting freedom ideals have occurred, highlighting the difficult balancing act.


Consequences and policy needs for cities, towns and rural areas


Many of the trends sketched above support a more decentralised location of businesses and people and might bring about a renewed attractivity for suburban areas and smaller towns and villages. Take for example the extended role of digitalisation and virtualisation and new distribution services and delivery systems, the rise of the private sphere, the new valuation of housing quality and private green spaces, the measures of social distancing and restrictions for urban lifestyles, the perception of density being potentially dangerous, etc.


These processes imply new chances for a polycentric and thereby better balanced territorial development, but also risks and challenges, especially for larger cities. These processes have to be politically steered and shaped. Different people and places are affected in different ways and need different, targeted measures.


Large cities could – in the long run – lose some of their inhabitants, shops and economies, partly to suburbs and smaller towns, from office buildings to private houses, and partly to unintegrated non-stationary delivery systems.


A paradigm shift at EU level towards a more mindful globalisation should make use of the benefits of regional circular economies. Politics should take special efforts to transform the (global) economy and bring it towards a more climate friendly path. Better territorial balance can help reducing carbon footprints and contribute to a greener EU.


Good governance and innovative political ideas are needed as well as cooperation amongst all levels of government. Adequate and sufficient resources at all levels that are sufficient to implement the important recovery strategies are now needed for offering our European regions, cities, and towns a new future.


New overall politics of balanced, resilient and polycentric territorial development


Policy makers should adhere to a key overall political priority or vision for Europe becoming a more balanced, resilient and polycentric  territory with high quality of life and good living conditions, provision against risks and coverage of basic needs including jobs and basic infrastructure in all parts and all places. To achieve this ambition, policies should be closely adapted to the needs of diverse local and regional places. New innovative organisation models needed to enable this adaptation will involve the concerted effort of several policy areas and should follow three main tracks:


1. Second tier cities and towns

The new politics should take concrete steps towards complementing the bigger cities with networks of smaller well-connected second tier cities, such as regional centres, market towns, etc., as well as rural and remote areas. They provide an appealing option and sustainable complement to bigger cities that should be harvested, especially when near to bigger cities. Good connectivity and improved basic school and medical infrastructure in smaller towns and rural areas are important factors of quality of life in such regions.


2. Larger cities and urban neighbourhoods

Dense and derelict urban neighbourhoods in crisis should be given special attention in creating more resilience and quality of life when faced with social mobility restrictions and overcrowding issues. Empowering dense neighbourhoods, creating public green spaces and green mobility, and securing affordable housing rents are some of the key factors for improving the quality of life within cities.

New integrated urban development strategies are needed to keep inner cities alive. Politics should safeguard the concept of compact cities and avoiding sprawl and dispersion. New urban-rural divides must be avoided.


3. Less dense and remote areas

Sparsely populated areas in the European periphery should benefit from the recent boost in use of digital solutions. They should be helped to gain social and economic attractivity through innovative models of adapted digital and infrastructure provisions, by implementing further innovative models (e.g. ‘flying doctors’, tele-medicine, e-learning, e-delivery services) and by enhancing their connectivity and population densities.


Road map for policy makers


The challenge for policy makers at European, national, regional and local/sub-regional levels is to capture the current opportunity in a coordinated manner and keep the overall goal of a balanced, resilient and polycentric EU territory in focus. Policy makers are encouraged to grab the moment and innovate policies by promoting a stronger territorial approach.


The Territorial Thinker’s Briefing 7 (July 2020) offers a set of detailed ideas and proposals that could help shape the mind and innovate current policy thinking (READ MORE).Upcoming policy debates should recognise that territory matters and acknowledge the necessity of a paradigm shift in favour of lesser territorial inequalities and better territorial balance within the Union of tomorrow!