What makes a city vital?

Exchanging thoughts beyond borders and disciplines

How can cities and its communities deal with and recover from shocks like pandemics, natural hazards and rising levels of poverty? On 3 November, the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) organized a successful international paper workshop on this topic with researchers from over twenty countries. Researcher Jose Nederhand: "Because of the different academic and international backgrounds of the participants they mentioned a broad variety of aspects of what defines a vital city."

VCC approached the city as ‘lived’, which means that cities are actively produced and experienced by be people, firms, communities, etc. VCC researchers, led by dr. Jose Nederhand, are working towards a special issue in the scientific journal Cities that will focus on what makes a city vital. Earlier this year, VCC issued a call for papers to which researchers worldwide could respond. In the run-up to this special issue, VCC organized a paper workshop for researchers who wish to submit a paper. These papers were categorized four-fold: bottom-up initiatives, power, adaptive capacities and living, the core themes for the special issue.

During the workshops, participants were given feedback and tools to further develop their research paper for publication in this special issue, that will be fully open access. The paper workshop was also meant to create a community of researchers around the topic of the vital city. The Cities special issue results from a position paper in which eight VCC researchers jointly described what is needed to make and keep a city vital.

Relevant aspects from a vital city from different angles

The topic of vital cities appeals to researchers from all over the world and from a broad range of disciplines, from international urban studies, environmental sciences and architecture to psychology, sociology and arts and culture studies. Fifty researchers from twenty different countries and nationalities joined the paper workshop, from the Philippines, Kenia and India, to Turkey, United States and Norway. 

Nederhand: "Because of the different academic and international backgrounds of the participants they mentioned a broad variety of aspects of what defines a vital city. Someone suggested examining the application of digital technologies for taking stock of and providing for residents' needs to create a more vital urban environment. Another one was planning on examining the position of elderly people with migration backgrounds to create a (more) age-friendly city. And a third wanted to examine the value of nature-based structures and processes, to build a more resilient city through self-dependence and self-care (like urban farming and city gardens)."

Vitality as “energy in the city”

The paper workshop provided much inspiration, depth and concrete next steps.  An interesting and shared observation was that vitality could be understood as "energy in the city". That can be both positive (activism, support) and negative (violence, aggression). This energy might be used for the empowerment/active participation of residents, especially those in a vulnerable, weakened position. Even violence or aggression can point to the fact that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If this negative energy can be turned around, vitality can grow because people might be empowered to overcome shocks or unfavorable dynamics.

At the end of the paper workshop in which a lot was discussed, spoken word artist Wessel Klootwijk together with graphic harvest designer Carlotta Cataldi summarized the content of the workshop in words and images. In this way participants got a good overview of the day and were inspired to take the output a step further.


Soil city citizen - Wessel Klootwijk

Carlotta Cataldi

dr. José Nederhand

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

Related content

EUR researchers set out basic principles of future-proof city

“We are committed to improving quality of city life through research. Together with organisations, businesses, policymakers. we are working to create a vital…

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes