The power of the ephemeral

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet


Publication date

May 12, 2020

Torn between contradictory orders to “build the world of tomorrow” while trying to get back to some kind of “normality”, this period continues to leave our heads spinning!  Analyses aimed at disentangling the questions and elucidating answers are so numerous that they just add to the confusion.

I could stop my editorial right here.  No need to say more, as so many (too many?) opinions are already flying around!

Nonetheless, now is the time to step up and make proposals. What we thought impossible has now become possible… And what the European Union will do with these proposals will determine its future, leading to a new lease of life or its demise.

What surprises me most in these troubled and unsettling times is our adaptability. Out of dire necessity, healthcare professionals have adapted respirator standards. Even the “immutable” rules governing our national budgets are being challenged, as are the conditions for State aid, and all sectors have to reinvent their business or production models. I find this truly fascinating. I am optimistic by nature and, although I am fully aware of the traumatic events created by this crisis, I also note that, collectively, we are capable of changing the way we live, work and learn.

Just an example, among many others. In just 2 weeks’ time, Brussels-Capital is going to build 40 km of new cycle lanes. To compare with the 26 km built between 2012 and 2018. What was presented as a long and costly process suddenly becomes feasible, and even straightforward.  Thus many ephemeral solutions exist that can be made permanent (or renewed) in response to the challenge of making our cities more resilient.   

“Tactical urbanism” is one of today’s buzzwords and worth looking at more closely. Based on a simple concept – testing new uses and proposing new ways to share public space – tactical urbanism is commonly used but almost always as a marginal tool, whereas it could inform standard urban planning.  At Energy Cities, we are testing its transformative power as part of the Living Streets project and it is always a success, whatever the context for changing a street’s use.  Quite often this change is made permanent.

Given the multiannual urban plans and public procurement rules, tactical urban planning is not easy to implement and more importantly, totally contradicts our current decision-making processes.  It is probably one of the main challenges we will have to face when reviewing our governance process: who between citizens, users, practitioners and city councils are the most able to propose, decide and implement.

It also contradicts EU directives: those implementing the Maastricht public debt criteria, those promoting a sectoral approach to energy whereas such policies should be developed at district level, and those encouraging partnerships between cities, regions, States and the EU. We have recently drawn up a list of the policies that should be reviewed as a priority and in a letter addressed to the President of the European Commission, have requested that the EU recovery plan focuses on local energy resources, including the strength of collective actions in all sectors and citizens’ solidarity.

The EU needs a resilience plan that encompasses all levels if it wants to continue to fulfil its mission of guaranteeing a future to its citizens. The good news is that we have the capacity to adapt, to reinvent our ways of doing things by rethinking the link between territories, between us, the people who live in these territories and with our environment.