Will the liveability of intermediate cities lead to megacity problems?

Secondary cities take the stage at the latest Habitat III thematic meeting, in Ecuador.

A view of the Santo Domingo church in Cuenca, Ecuador, a city of 600,000 that has sought to promote "Not pedestrianization, but friendly mobility,” according to one architect. (Jess Kraft/Shutterstock)

CUENCA, ECUADOR — Big things come in small packages. That adage took on an urban dimension this week in Ecuador’s third-largest city as mayors, local officials, academics and urban experts extolled the virtues of intermediate cities — those with populations of less than one million — as harbingers of a sustainable urban future.

“In intermediate cities, we have the opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of large cities,” said Luis Zomorano of EMBARQ Mexico, which is headquartered in the country’s massive capital, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities]

And these areas can act with more agility, according to Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera. “Intermediate cities can undeniably implement much more direct action” than their bigger counterparts, he said.

The first thematic meeting of the Habitat III process to take place in Latin America also brought delegates for the first time to the host country of next year’s major urbanization summit. The Cuenca gathering — dispersed among theatres, cultural centres, museums and cathedrals in this UNESCO World Heritage Site — served as a trial run for some of the innovative approaches that conference organizers hope to employ in Quito.

[See: Ecuador announces initial funding for Habitat III preparations]

For instance, rather than sequester the several hundred attendees in a single conference hall, the city itself was the venue. A constellation of historical buildings provided opportunities to see Cuenca, a city of nearly 600,000, as a living laboratory of urbanism — including lively street life, sidewalk vendors, popular public spaces and well-preserved architecture.

Planning for proximity

The inherent walkability of Cuenca’s historic centre seemed to prove the point for architect Nestor Vega, who was part of Ecuador’s delegation to Habitat II, which took place in 1996 in Istanbul.

“Up to 500,000 inhabitants, you don’t need overpasses and barely traffic lights. It’s a luxury for residents to walk to work … Leaving intermediate status behind is not an advance.”

Carlos Amastha
Mayor of Palmas, Brazil

Cuenca is “planning for proximity”, he said, by encouraging growth close to the city centre, with its colonial streets showing no signs of storefront vacancies. Of course, there is also the occasional parqueadero, or parking lot in the interior courtyard of a historic facade. Those suggest that many Cuencanos still drive to the heart of the city, a bugaboo for the mayor that pushed Cuenca to dig up some of its cobblestone streets to make way for a 10-kilometre (6-mile) light rail, set to open next year.

“Every planning effort must first consider mobility,” Cabrera said, in one of his recommendations for the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. “In the historic centre, we are pursuing friendly mobility, so that kids and senior alike can get around. Not pedestrianization, but friendly mobility.”

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda spark the local action needed?]

The visiting mayor of Palmas, in the Brazilian state of Tocantins, praised the quality of life that intermediate cities can bring — which, he noted, also tend to cut down on expensive infrastructure. “Up to 500,000 inhabitants, you don’t need overpasses and barely traffic lights,” said Mayor Carlos Amastha of the 265,000-person state capital in the Brazilian interior. “It’s a luxury for residents to walk to work.”

In his opinion, the growth mantra is nothing to which to aspire. “I think leaving intermediate status behind is not an advance,” Amastha said.

Planning for growth

On the flip side, however, the quality of life that a well-planned and managed intermediate city can provide is sure to attract people. “Cuenca is a city that every day attracts more and more people from different latitudes, precisely because our main concern is the well-being of the men and women who live here,” Cabrera said.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been paying close to intermediate cities for several years now through its Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative. The programme  provides growing intermediate cities in Latin America and the Caribbean with planning assistance, as these smaller cities often don’t have the technical capacity of their megacity peers. The bank’s analysts refer to this category of intermediate city as “emerging”.

“Emerging cities in [the region] face many of the same challenges as megacities: a need to build resilience to climate change, reduce poverty and inequality, create employment, increase affordable housing, and improve access and quality of basic public services, to name a few,” said the IDB’s Gilberto Chona. “However, emerging cities, given their scale, have far less fiscal and financial resources to address many of these problems.”

[See: A towering challenge: Habitat III must promote municipal fiscal health]

The IDB has identified 242 emerging cities in the region, representing 74 million people. Thus far, it has prepared or is working on “action plans” for 50 of them, including Cuenca.

In the most urbanized region in the world, these intermediate cities are also the fastest growing. For example, from 2000 to 2010, Brazilian megalopolis São Paulo (population: 11.9 million) grew by 7.9 percent, while much smaller João Pessoa (population: 720,000) exploded by 20.5 percent. The story is similar in Mexico, where the capital grew at 9.5 percent during this same period, while the Baja California city of La Paz, which is 44 times smaller, grew by 32 percent.

While this level of growth has made intermediate cities bullish about their future, it also demands careful consideration of what the future holds. After all, they may not be intermediate forever.

Cabrera acknowledged that despite his best efforts to maintain Cuenca as an intermediate city, there is the potential for further urbanization to generate sprawl. And that would put intermediate cities precisely where they hoped to avoid — dealing with megacity challenges but with fewer resources.

Overlooked actors

Intermediate cities can be thought of as suffering from a form of middle-child syndrome. They are neither the poster children for urbanization’s challenges, like megacities, nor the pastoral setting of rural areas, which generate a different set of policy priorities. Instead, Vega said, “They are invisible in the priorities of national and international development.”

This despite the close proximity of intermediate cities to the hinterland — without the sprawl of megacities, rural landscapes often begin at the municipality’s edge. This could make them a model for “urban-rural linkages”, one of the key issues that Habitat III hopes to resolve in order to generate buy-in for the New Urban Agenda from all 193 member states, many of whom view themselves as predominantly rural.

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

Such was the case of Barbados, which sent to Cuenca its minister of housing, lands and rural development — a portfolio that already implies such a connection. He argued that his country could be “a case study for urban-rural linkages” by highlighting the relationship between rural producers and urban markets in the small Caribbean country.

However, Barbados’s capital, Bridgetown, is also an intermediate city that seeks to benefit from infill housing, heritage preservation and other lessons from Cuenca — decidedly urban concerns. Indeed, Bridgetown is one of the IDB’s “emerging and sustainable cities”.

So, are national governments getting the message about these in-between cities? According to the IDB’s Chona, “We expect that as we continue raising awareness on the importance of promoting sustainable development in emerging cities, central governments turn their urban policy agendas towards intermediate cities.”

[See: Decentralization would boost development, leaders told in Addis]

He added, “This includes, for example, pursuing decentralization reforms that award greater fiscal autonomy to local governments and create incentives to promote better collection of taxes and charges at the subnational level, while challenging intermediate cities to improve local public infrastructure and services.”

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