Placemaking: the Capitals way

Valencia is the European Green Capital for 2024. In 2022 it was both one of the two European Capitals of Smart Tourism and the World Design Capital (which led in 2023 to entry into UNESCO´s 350 strong Creative Cities network). This collecting of titles is not unusual. The emergence of “Capital of….” titles has been growing almost exponentially in recent years. In this short review I´ll focus on “European” titles but I recognise there are many other national, regional and worldwide titles (far too many to record; I tried but gave up).

Along with the Green title, 2024 sees, in Europe, titles in Innovation, Smart Tourism, Youth, Volunteering, Democracy, Sport, Christmas, Inclusion and Diversity, Access and Cycling. Some of these have a secondary title or one for larger cities and one for smaller. And let´s not forget the most well-known and longest running title: the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) with three title holders this year. What distinguishes almost of these titles is the competitive nature rather a marketing-led self proclamation. Their proliferation seems to have crept up by stealth.

I´ll look at the titles from three points of view: of the organisers; the cities (winners and candidates) and the impact/ legacy etc. I´ll end with a list of the current title holders.

Who runs the titles and competitions?

Although the titles use “European” they come from different stables. Often reviewers treat the titles as if they are of the same provenance. Most do follow a standard template: a call for candidates, set criteria, candidates submitting bidbooks, a selection panel to evaluate bids, perhaps a shortlisting and then a final winner is announced. Detailed processes vary, especially on geographic and city eligibility. Few have a financial prize ( the main ones are Culture €1.5m, Innovation €1m). Geographically most candidates have to be within the EU and EEA but there are exceptions: the Youth short list included networks in Georgia, Moldova and Lviv in Ukraine. Cities in Brexit UK could enter for the Innovation title (but haven´t yet).

Organisers fall into three categories. The EU leads the way through the various directorates-general of the Commission; secondly two European networks supported by the EU and thirdly a mixed group of private not for profit organisations.

The EU has few opportunities to engage directly with cities and clearly has seen from the Culture experience that a “Capitals” approach enables them to bypass governments to showcase and promote their objectives at a local level. Unlike the Culture title most of the new competitions recognise recent, rather than projected, performance in the relevant sector. Valencia submitted an incredibly detailed 290 page bidbook for the Green title recording, with evidence, their environmental credentials. Here are two typical introductory statements:

The European Capitals of Inclusion and Diversity Award is granted to local authorities that exemplify outstanding dedication to creating safe, inclusive spaces where all feel that they belong and can flourish. The winning local authorities transform the ideal of inclusion and diversity into tangible deliverables. This serves to inspire others. I thank these European capitals for taking the Union of Equality to citizens at the local level.”

In 2024, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the European Capital of Innovation Awards (iCapital).  The competition rewards those European cities that are courageous enough to open their governance practices to experimentation and push the boundaries of technology for the benefit of their citizens.”  

Smart Tourism, Green and Access City complete the European Union titles. The EU´s Union of the Mediterranean recently launched its award. Tirana and Alexandria have been selected for the first Mediterranean Capitals of Culture and Dialogue for 2025.

Youth and Volunteering capitals fall into the second category. Both are organised by European umbrella networks, supported by grants from the EU.

The third category is varied, a key feature being a not for profit basis. The longest running, since 2001, is Sport; recent examples include Democracy, Christmas and Cycling. A new title and organiser emerges in 2025: a European Capital of Local Retail (Barcelona is already selected as the idea originated there!). They all seem to have been the initiative of an enthusiast who has managed to attract funding and launch the programme. The degree of transparency varies considerably for titles in this category (eg details of candidates, names of evaluation panel, selection criteria and panel reports).

ACES Europe, who run the Sport and Cycling titles, now awards 18 different Capital of Sport titles, including World, African and Winter. It is the only title to require a registration fee (currently €12,000) for candidates. In addition to the European Capital of Sport title it also awards, in 2024, 13 other cities with the title of European City of Sport. It is also the least transparent on its website with no information on whether there are actual competitions, the criteria and who is on the selection panel. A case study in over-reach perhaps or an example of the demand for any title, from cities?

The Democracy title introduced a new form of selection: an expert panel reviews the bids and produces a shortlist. Final selection is by an online poll of over 4,000 self selecting people in a “Citizen’s Jury”. Voters cannot vote for cities in their own country.

The increasing race to win a title

Cities have not been slow to bid for these titles. Over 80 cities put forward bids for the European titles in 2024. Smart Tourism led the way with 30 bids for the main title and a further 11 for its smaller city awards.

Cities are often serial candidates. Genoa, for example, bid for both the Smart Tourism and Sport titles. Former ECOCs are very active in seeking new titles. I remember the then mayor of Riga saying that cities of that size need a title every few years. It keeps the momentum of change alive, rotates into different sectors of city life and builds an international awareness and “brand” for tourism and inward investment. The Mayor of Tirana, host of the new Mediterranean title highlighted this strategy of collecting titles: “We have a fantastic experience with Tirana’s reputation as the capital of Sport, the capital of Youth.“. (Youth in 2022 and Sport in 2023).

The budgets and programmes for the titles look relatively small, considerably smaller than ECOCs. As the awards are based on achievement there is less emphasis on kick starting a new legacy than with the Culture title. Most programmes have a few new conferences and workshops, some new public activities but mainly rely on repurposing existing activities and events. The finances are difficult to find out, there is a definite focus on secrecy and non investigative journalism! Bristol´s Green title in 2025 had a £12.6m budget. In contrast Ljubljana in the following year allocated €600,000. Valencia´s budget for the World Design Capital was €5.5m.

That awkward question: any legacy?

The Culture title has, since 1985, generated a vast library of reports, books, articles, theses and evaluations. The newer titles have not yet reached that level of review. The Green capital seems the most likely to generate interest. It encompasses urban planning, climate emergency, environmental concerns. This 2019 article looks at Lisbon 2019 and Oslo 2020 Green Capitals and seeks:

to determine its (the Green Capital) utility as a policy instrument to catalyse the substantive urban transition to sustainability that the much sought after label seeks to recognize, highlight and honour.

Several Green capitals have produced reports on their year. Most have been self congratulatory rather like many ECOC evaluations. An exception is the very informative report 36 page report on Bristol´s Green year Perhaps its most important finding was the discrepancy between the European Commission’s objectives and those of the city. A common issue with ECOCs.

Ljubljana issued a both report on its year as Green capital in 2016 and a “5 years later” review. (I´ll write a more detailed post on the Green capital). Smart Tourism prompted this survey from China. A feature of some of the titles is a formal network of past winners to share ideas and developments.

What next?

I think we will see even more competitions emerging. Clearly there is a demand both from cities, and a willingness on new organisers to administer. The topics are almost endless! The titles will gain more visibility the longer they continue. The lack of a financial award does not seem to be an obstacle.

There is scope for more analysis, especially of a cross sectoral basis, exploring the effectiveness of these placemaking initiatives: do they meet the objectives of the organiser (especially the EU); do residents respond? Are cities on a roller coaster of bidding? Is the continual bidding worth it? Are many of them little more than a PR opportunity for a city with little programming depth?

The current arrangements for the ECOC run until 2033. Soon the Commission will presumably start a review of both the process and performance of ECOCs to guide any decisions on continuing the programme beyond 2033. There are many lessons to be learnt from these newer competitions (yes, another post is in the offing).

There will be a a new European Commission and European Parliament later in 2024. City mayors, recently through Eurocities, seek to be round the table for EU decisions and policies. In their manifesto for the upcoming elections they call for an Urban Envoy in the Commission to coordinate all EU policies aimed at cities. Time for a working conference involving all the Capital programmes?

Many titles need to become more transparent, both in the selection process and, importantly, by title holders reporting publicly on their activity and legacy.

And the 2024 title holders: