Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In the U.S., cities prioritize efficiency and customer service. Across the Atlantic, the focus is on unemployment and energy waste.
U.S. cities worry a lot about government efficiency and customer service. European cities, on the other hand, fret more about unemployment and cutting energy waste. That, at least, is the picture drawn from new data supplied to The Atlantic Cities by Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge.
This year, the challenge has taken its brief to "inspire cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life" across the Atlantic to Europe. In doing so, it has highlighted some fascinating differences in priorities among applicants, which are all city governments, on the two continents. We'll be covering the 21 finalists announced last week in more depth in the near future. In the meantime, take a look at the table below, which breaks down the percentage of Mayors Challenge applicants both last year (which was open only to U.S. cities) and this year (only European cities), by problem area type:
|Unemployment / Workforce Development||7.9%||11.6%|
|Obesity, food poverty, and/or physical inactivity||6.9%||7.1%|
|Urban sprawl and blight||6.2%||0.6%|
|Energy Efficiency and/or energy costs||3.0%||9.0%|
|Unsustainable transportation modes and networks||1.0%||5.2%|
American cities seem to be far more interested in making government work less wastefully than their European counterparts. At 9.5 percent of all submissions, this was the top priority among the U.S. city ideas submitted last year. In Europe, however, it only accounted this year for 3.5 percent of entries. That chasm becomes only greater when it comes to customer service. Projects addressing that issue accounted for 8.2 percent of American entries, while just 1.9 percent of European submissions focused on the same area. Look at energy efficiency, however, and the figures flip to almost the opposite. Nine percent of European submissions dealt with this, compared to three percent of American projects.
When it comes to problem solving, American and European cities still share much common ground. Judging by the tally of applications, both continents' cities are thinking hard about economic growth and unemployment, albeit with the U.S. more focused on the former and Europe on the latter. Likewise there seems to be equal urban concern with combating obesity, food poverty and lack of physical activity, with the volume of related projects hovering around seven percent on both continents.
There's another large gap, however, when it comes to transport, social inclusion, and aging. Among Europe's cities, projects in these areas accounted for a 5.2 percent each of the total share. In the United States, not one of these areas of concern scraped above one percent.
How could we account for the differences? Some are easy enough to hypothesize an explanation for. Given a lower dependence on cars, more widespread transit networks and typically higher density in European cities, it makes sense that combating urban sprawl – a key American concern – takes lower priority on the other side of the Atlantic. Likewise, the U.S.'s relatively lower median age compared to most European countries could account for its cities' fewer submissions of ideas relating to care for the elderly.
Shifting priorities are also underpinned by geography. Certainly, the environmental movement has older, deeper roots in Europe, albeit in the German-speaking and Nordic countries rather than across the continent. That said, it's still likely that the prime motivation behind European cities' energy efficiency measures is the continent’s relative resource poverty, both its dearth of oil and its geopolitically problematic reliance on Russian gas.
Cultural attitudes may also loom as large as local failings. Widespread American skepticism about a swollen, overbearing state sector could well be behind U.S. cities' greater concern with improving efficiency and customer service. Likewise, European governments’ generally more extensive (and now embattled) use of fiscal redistribution through welfare since World War II has likely kept concerns about social exclusion further up the agenda, as something it’s up to government to fix. The differences highlighted only show how important it is to look at urban problem solving internationally. Focus on one region and its most pressing concerns alone, and you’re likely to end up with a far narrower set of solutions.