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Intermediate cities key to regional competitiveness?

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Intermediate cities key to regional competitiveness?
Salzburg, Austria - © Pixabay Franz26

In a rapidly urbanizing world, scholarship has devoted much attention to the emergence of world cities as focal points of the global economy. Intermediate cities, in contrast, have only recently gained more traction in urban research. They are the "other" – medium-sized – cities, in between global metropolises on the one end of the urban-rural continuum, and small cities, towns and rural settlements on the other end. Intermediate cities are home to 20% of the total global population – this corresponds to 36% of urban dwellers worldwide. In Europe, as many as 41.9% of all urban dwellers live in medium-sized cities.1

Different terms referring to this (intermediate) type of urban settlement are out there: medium-sized, secondary, second-tier, or intermediary city. While overlapping to some extent and often used interchangeably, they refer to slightly different understandings of the roles that those cities play in urban systems. So let us take a closer look: What is the intermediate city all about?

A multi-faceted concept

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) defines intermediate cities as medium-sized cities between 50,000 and 1 million inhabitants. But size is just one side of the coin when it comes to defining the intermediate city. From a qualitative angle, the definition of intermediate cities hinges on their relative position in the national urban system in terms of what is called a hierarchical dimension as well as on the functions that they perform for their larger urban regions, their functional dimension.

Intermediate cities are, to some extent, secondary cities. They are neither a country’s primary city in terms of population count, economic performance, or historical importance, nor are they capital cities. They are the "middle" of a country’s urban system, "lacking the economic weight, political importance and attractive pull of first-tier cities (generally capitals) but still important enough to play a relevant role in national and international contexts".2

In fact, another approach to define the intermediate city is to look at their functional role as a mediator between different territories and scales –the intermediary city, or regiopolis. Within their broader region, intermediate cities are centers of administrative, social, and cultural services, infrastructure hubs, planning nodes, as well as economic supply and distribution centers. They are thereby considered to connect, horizontally, the rural to the urban and, vertically, the local to the regional, the national and, in some cases, the international scale.

Intermediate cities: why care?

It is this latter, regional integration aspect that makes intermediate cities a particularly interesting phenomenon to study in urban research. In our globalized economy, large urban agglomerations have long attracted the lion’s share of political and economic attention. To date, only 600 large cities account for more than 60% of global GDP. This puts pressure on smaller territories to stay competitive. Small and medium-sized cities generally dispose of fewer financial, administrative, and political resources as compared to their larger metropolitan counterparts. Against this background, regional integration may be a beneficial strategy for intermediate cities and their surrounding hinterlands to generate agglomeration advantages which allow them to overcome such resource-related drawbacks and to enhance their regional competitiveness. There is a growing understanding among researchers and policymakers that through acting as coherent entities, sharing and complementing resources, intermediate city-regions can create development opportunities for both urban residents and the population living in the suburban and rural surroundings.

Thus, in the European political and academic discourse, intermediate cities are increasingly seen as cornerstones for fostering territorial cohesion and sustainable regional development. They are ascribed a key role in maintaining a polycentric and balanced urban system in which political, social and economic development opportunities are not only concentrated in large metropolitan areas but are spread across a network of larger and smaller urban regions.

What is needed from urban research now are more systematic studies in as far as intermediate cities are actually able (and willing) to work toward regional integration. Do some cities exchange more with their surroundings than others? Which are the factors that drive or hinder integration? How does this impact the positioning of intermediate cities in national urban systems? And above all: does regional integration really lead to a more balanced urban system? As intermediate cities are increasingly taking on a more prominent role not only in research but also in national and international development agendas, a solid evidence base will help to formulate urban policies that are tailored to the needs of territories of varying sizes and their populations.

1: All data in this section are taken from: Brian Roberts, Borja M. Iglésias, and Josep Maria Llop Torné, “Intermediary Cities: The Vital Nexus between the Local and the Global,” in Co-Creating the Urban Future: The Agenda of Metropolises, Cities and Territories, ed. UCLG, Fourth Global Report on Decentralization and Local Democracy (Barcelona: UCLG, 2017), 131–221.
2: Rodrigo V. Cardoso and Evert J. Meijers, “Contrasts between First-Tier and Second-Tier Cities in Europe: A Functional Perspective,” European Planning Studies 24, no. 5 (2016): 996–1015, https://doi.org/10.1080/09654313.2015.1120708.
Theresia Morandell

Theresia Morandell

Theresia Morandell is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, and the Research Group on Spatial Development and Urban Policy, ETH Zurich. Her main research interests relate to local government, multi-level governance, and urban-rural relations in spatial planning. While much of her research revolves around cities, in her free time she loves to leave the urban sphere and hike in South Tyrol’s beautiful mountains.

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https://doi.org/10.57708/bby6vymuos9aiscqw1eeddq
Morandell, T. Intermediate cities key to regional competitiveness? https://doi.org/10.57708/BBY6VYMUOS9AISCQW1EEDDQ

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