The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities

The story of the coming urban explosion is one of the rise of medium-sized cities. But the world’s planners and authorities have yet to accept this fact.

Lorelyn Medina/Shutterstock

Since the entry into force of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population growth has been concentrated in low- and middle-income economies — some 926 million new urban inhabitants. Further, 87 percent of this growth took place in geographies of inequality, in the urban agglomerations of low-income municipalities of the Global South.

The magnitude of these figures would lead one to assume that this growth is taking place throughout the metropolitan areas of the developing world. But in fact, a very significant part has been absorbed by what are variously known as intermediary, intermediate or secondary cities.

[See: Habitat III process turning toward intermediate cities]

Despite the increasing importance of these areas, the intermediary city remains difficult to define, referring to areas that are physically, socially and functionally varied. It is complicated to generalize about even their size, with populations ranging from 50,000 to a million inhabitants.

Nonetheless, their numbers are very significant, and the role of the intermediary city looks set to become increasingly central. In the Global North, these include the galaxy of urban areas within the Rhine-Alpine industrial corridor, the aerospace and mobility clusters of Toulouse and Stuttgart, and the smaller intermediary cities of Silicon Valley inside the San Francisco Metropolitan Area.

These also include the emerging and transitioning economies of the Global South, where the intermediary city offers important services to rural populations. These include, for instance, Tamale in Ghana, Lichinga in Mozambique, the constellation of Nigerian cities within 150 km of Lagos, or the Tangier industrial cluster in Morocco.

These also include Qazvin in Iran, Diyarbakir and Çanakkale in Turkey, Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and the Silicon Wadi cluster near Tel Aviv. In the Americas, there are heritage cities such as Cuenca in Ecuador, Cusco in Peru, the Havana-Santiago inner corridor in Cuba, and the Colombian “coffee axis” formed by Pereira, Manizales and Armenia.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

What commonalities could these disparate areas possibly share? It is perhaps the nebulous definition of the intermediary city that has resulted in its near invisibility in the context of metropolitan economies. Regardless, these medium-sized cities now concentrate more than 1.5 billion inhabitants — some 43 percent of the urban populations in low- and middle-income countries. And their number is rising incredibly quickly.

In Africa, the number of the largest intermediary cities — those with population between 300,000 and 1 million — has doubled to 145 in less than a decade. That figure is expected to rise to 230 by 2030, of which more than three-quarters will be in sub-Saharan Africa.

The situation in Asia is even more incredible. The past decade has seen the number of Asian intermediary cities explode from 342 to 629 — a far faster rate of expansion than seen for the region’s larger cities, which grew from 137 to 267 during the same period. The numbers for the rest of Asia’s intermediary cities, those with population between 50,000 and 300,000, appear to be even more spectacular, according to new research.

[See: Montréal Declaration: Metropolitan areas key to sustainable urbanization]

To a great extent, then, the story of the coming urban explosion is one of the rise of the intermediary city. But the world’s planners and authorities have yet to accept this fact. For this reason, next year’s Habitat III cities conference will be a key opportunity to finally come to terms with this looming reality. One way or another, the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III — will have to deal head-on with this future.

Inclusive governance through planning

Beyond their fast-rising populations, intermediary cities are particularly important on the global level for their positioning between urban and rural economies. The intermediary city strengthens connections between citizens and local governments as well as connectivity between vast rural areas. Thus, these cities often become strategic nodes in the provision of specialized goods and services, not only within their own community but to a far broader population.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

At the same time, the high level of informality that characterizes today’s urbanization process in the main cities of the Global South has created significant uncertainty for many communities. Intermediary cities are thus seeing a great amount of their growth come about due to migration or displacement out of the surrounding rural areas. As such, the New Urban Agenda will offer an important opportunity to correct some of the severe regional imbalances that threaten to make ungovernable both the bulging emerging metropolises and the increasingly deserted rural areas.

“What commonalities could these disparate areas possibly share? It is perhaps the nebulous definition of the intermediary city that has resulted in its near invisibility in the context of metropolitan economies.”

For Robert Muggah, one of the world authorities on the study of urban violence, a city’s fragility — or outright failure — is directly related to three key factors. The first is the speed of the “conurbation” process, referring to the ways in which individual cities grow to the point where they eventually merge with one another. The second major factor is the level of public discontent with poor governance. (The third is the expansion of information and communication networks.)

The first two of these factors offer significant caution in the face of low-income migration into the already-fast-expanding urban areas of the Global South, particularly into intermediary cities. Such concerns should only underscore the importance of and challenge in strengthening inclusive governance — an issue that will need to be a central focus of the Habitat III discussions.

[Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

Yet intermediary cities are globally important not just due to concerns around migration. These are also areas of significant potential innovation in local economic development. In order to realize this potential, however, the New Urban Agenda must offer greater manoeuvrability in political, administrative and financial management to local governments traditionally conditioned by a weak decentralization processes.

This can be greatly facilitated by allowing territorial and urban planning to become a central tool for collaborative management among government and citizens. A good example of this is an initiative jointly developed in the recent years by UNESCO, the U. N.’s cultural agency, and United Cities and Local Governments, a global network.

This initiative, Basic Plans for Intermediate Cities, is a notably simple urban-planning tool that is able to synthesize many different perspectives. (Here’s an example of such a plan in Santa Fe, Argentina.) The idea here is to strengthen cooperative work between a province and municipality in a context of low technical resources, to prioritize decisions without putting local finances at risk.

Acknowledging potential

Global governance is today in the midst of a grand geopolitical collision between the old guard of the Global North and an emerging Global South that includes some of the most active economies in the world. Next year, these two sides will need to agree on the adoption of a New Urban Agenda that will guide urbanization strategy for everyone for the coming two decades.

Indeed, these entities will not only need to agree on this new strategy. Both will also need to understand it as a roadmap for the development of those economies most exposed to the risks of today’s urbanization process — a process that can make unsustainable the governance of cities that have become the main contributors to national wealth.

[See: How can we ensure Habitat III delivers on citizen priorities?]

In this, all sides will need to discover the potential of intermediary cities as agents of achieving territorial balance. Intermediary cities are inherent to ensuring better economic, social and environmental integration between rural environments that are currently being abandoned and large urban agglomerations that will likely be unable to provide decent work for a significant part of the coming generations.

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Borja M. Iglésias

Borja M. Iglésias is an architect and urban planner with the Department of Urbanism and Regional Planning at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, BarcelonaTech. He is also co-founder of the Network for Strengthening the Informal City (NSIC).

Since 2013, Borja has been an associate consultant with the UNESCO Chair in Intermediate Cities, working on strategic planning, urban resilience and disruptive technologies. Since 2015, he as worked as a data analyst for United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) on research into intermediary cities for HABITAT III.