Visionary Africa - For an African Urban Agenda


José Manuel Durão Barroso

President of the European Commission

Speech by President Barroso: Visionary Africa - For an African Urban Agenda

Roundtable: Visionary Urban Africa, Bozar

Brussels, 3 April 2014

Thank you very much,

First of all let me thank Paul Dujardin for receiving us here in Bozar; Ólafur Elíasson, Mariam Yunusa; and Professor Lesley Lokko for the presentation of the books and the results of your work. I would also like to thank the UN Habitat team, together with the Bozar, for organising this roundtable discussion today.

For me it's a pleasure after two days of intense discussions with Heads of State and Government in the Justus Lipsius, to have the opportunity to discuss with architects, artists, academics and people who are also working on the ground the reality of urban Africa, and what we can do together, learning in both directions from this experience.

This event complements perfectly what we have been discussing this week with our friends and partners during the EU-Africa Summit, because the focus of our discussion has been growth, prosperity, security and our values in a globalised world.

More specifically, and I think that this was in our conclusions, developing the connection between culture and urban development is a common goal in Europe and Africa. Today provides the perfect opportunity to inspire future partnerships in this area.

Africa is currently showing a real acceleration of urbanisation, a motor of development, growth and jobs in our globalised world; sometimes accompanied by the negative aspects of urbanisation, as a consequence of conflict and war. I've personally been in many parts of Africa, for some decades, and I cannot resist to mention the cases that I've seen.

For instance, Luanda, in Angola, that now has half of the population of Angola, precisely because of the war that ravaged that country.

But at the same time, cities are at the heart of our economic and social development. Megacities, from Cairo to Johannesburg, from Lagos to Nairobi, drive the political and economic pace of their nations. That's where things happen, and this is very important.

But cities, apart from economic growth - and that was very clear in your conclusions -are not only about that. They are a melting pot of societies, an arena, a forum for ideas, with greater proximity and interaction in public places.

That's one of the conclusions we mentioned, about civic spaces and public spaces. These exchanges can be difficult, but they also contribute to a shared identity, culture as well as to progress.

This is, of course, nothing new. In Europe, the Greeks and the Romans understood this many centuries ago, developing infrastructure, cultural opportunities and in creating the right environment in cities to create an identity and society, always with that idea of public space, the forum, the agora.

I'm passionate about cities, I have to say. In Portuguese traditional literature there is a very interesting dialogue between the countryside rat and the city rat. They meet and discuss the advantages. Probably there are also some versions in other cultures.

I was always closer to the city rat. My wife prefers the other side, the tranquility of the countryside. I like to get the newspapers and go to coffee houses...

One of the great European philosophers, George Steiner, said that one of the basic identities of Europe is the coffee house, from Lisbon to Vienna, from Paris to Rome.

And this, of course, you can find in cities. I love cities, and I believe they are something very problematic but so exciting and so connected to the ideas of progress in the world.

This is why it is so good to bring together today European and African artists, directors, architects, urban planners and development experts to discuss how we can share experiences.

As my friend Ólafur Elíasson said, we have to learn both ways, and this is important to get urban planning right.

One important point that you made was inclusiveness. I think it is very important, because it's in cities that we sometimes see the biggest disparities in society.

At the same time we see the extremely rich and the extremely poor. And that presents a special challenge that usually doesn't have the same dimension on the countryside.

We are proud in the Commission to be involved in the Art at Work project, to engage with local communities and policy makers, and UN Habitat's work to engage with men and women, younger as well as older generations, to ensure that urban planning is inclusive rather than divisive and that it can contribute to a more cohesive society.

The second issue is sustainability. We also know that we need to grow sustainably. That means that cities cannot simply be the old industrial powerhouses of the past. Cities cannot be extended factories.

They can and must develop with the very latest green technology to maintain a high quality of living standards, in line with green growth and our climate agenda.

They can be built using local materials and should provide the right infrastructure for people's needs, from clean water supplies, transport links, roads, schools, hospitals, to museums, theatres and sport centres.

Thirdly, the innovative nature. Because cities are marketplaces of ideas, they are key for innovation.

Our European cities have shown how they can provide a basis for growth, innovation and culture. Here in Europe we have that beautiful initiative - I don't know if you have something comparable in Africa -, the European Capital of Culture.

This year they are Riga, in Latvia, and Umeå, in Sweden. We also have the European Capital of Innovation, which earlier this month I awarded to Barcelona for introducing new technologies to bring the city closer to citizens to foster growth and the welfare of its citizens, with smart lighting, alliances between universities and private partners and the intelligent use of ICT.

So, following your recommendations - that, of course, I will bring now to my services in the Commission - I believe that cities are key to creating a public and political space and promote cultural diversity which reaches across disciplines and borders.

Culture, art, music, architecture will remain key tools to complement "traditional" economic development if we are - in Africa and Europe - to seek a better, richer, more inclusive, open and sustainable future together.

I believe that in the sense that Ólafur mentioned, with a broad sense of the word culture, this is extremely important.

That's why I personally believe, in many countries and cities in Africa, that some ways have already been found about the way to relate the public and the private space in a different innovative manner.

I think this is an important issue. What you said from your conclusions regarding the need to have people centres and culture spaces in cities.

That is important. The civic nature of those spaces to resist very disorganised progress. The pressure comes from real estate developers, who are very often destroying a part of the traditions. They say building is more, but sometimes it is not more beautiful.

When many years ago I visited the Dashanzi art district in Beijing, which is now very popular and fashionable, I remember at the time it was less open than today, even if there is still a long way to go there. And the artists were very grateful for my visit.

And they said to me 'It is very important that you come not only because supporting contemporary art is a way of supporting freedom, but also because you may protect us from the developers'.

Some of those artists told me that more terrible than the political pressure in terms of freedom of creation was the pressure they were receiving from developers who wanted to buy their space and move them out of there.

And this is something that is also happening in some parts of Africa and in some African cities. But there is opportunity to get it right, with innovative ways.

By the way, Bozar does great work in matters of architecture. I'm a frequent client of Bozar and I've seen here very interesting examples of responses that have been given to the new architecture and urban planning problems in Africa, as well as in other parts of the world, like Brazil.

For instance, in Rio's favelas there are quite interesting cases from the point of view of urban planning and art. You see extraordinary experiences of innovation, not only in terms of urban planning but also in terms of artistic creation.

So I think there is great potential in your work. I'm sorry I can't be here longer. I will take the books away with me and discuss this with my people at the Commission, so we can hopefully introduce some of your ideas in the work of our Directory-General for Development.

Thank you very much.