Urban policymaking overlooking medium-sized cities, researchers warn at Habitat III

‘Intermediary’ cities host 70,000 new people a day, a trend expected for decades. But lawmakers have yet to fully recognize this reality.

Autorickshaws line up in Mek'ele, an Ethiopian town that hosts a major manufacturing "cluster". (Rweisswald/Shutterstock)

QUITO, Ecuador — Mayors have showed up in force at this week’s Habitat III summit on cities, where they have sought to send a strong message to national governments that sustainable urbanization will not take place without empowering local governments. Their main message to national governments: Work with cities.

But who exactly should national authorities be working with? Even in the rising global conversation on increased dialogue and partnership between national and local governments, much of the focus has been on cities’ major contributions to national gross domestic product, or as enormous opportunities for fighting inequality and carbon pollution.

Such contextualization, however, leads to an outsize focus on the largest and most politically and economically important of cities. One widely bandied figure notes that today’s 34 megacities (those with a population of over 10 million) are expected to grow to 41 by 2030.

Yet meanwhile, the number of intermediate cities also is rising — in many places, far more quickly than any other type of urban expansion. Despite their growing importance, however, these medium-sized cities have been neglected in much international analyses of urbanization to date.

That’s a point that some are seeking to emphasize here this week, as nearly 50,000 people have gathered to take part in the Habitat III conference — the one time every 20 years that the world gathers to discuss its cities. The four-day summit will result in the adoption, by 193 countries, of a new strategy on how to nurture sustainable urbanization, a document called the New Urban Agenda.

“There is not enough technical and financial resources to deal with the new responsibilities. Local governments must be more empowered,” said Mercè Conesa, president of Barcelona province.

Conesa spoke at the local release of a major new report that is widely seen as an international benchmark in the analysis of local and regional governments worldwide. The 4th Global Report on Local Democracy and Decentralization (GOLD IV) reflects the concerns and ideas of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network and its partners.

The 368-page document seeks to offer underlying arguments and evidence to advocate for the centrality of local and regional governments in addressing some of the most critical concerns facing the world and in supporting the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Mayors warn sustainable cities are impossible without their direct input]

“The point of the report is to encourage debate,” said Edgar Pieterse, professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and founding director of the African Centre for Cities. “It looks at inter-locked complexities between economic and social crises, climate change, xenophobia. It tells us to re-imagine our institutions.”

70,000 a day

The GOLD IV report focuses on multiple urban scales, including metropolitan areas and territories. It focuses particular attention on what it calls intermediary cities (or i-cities), here defined as having a population of between 50,000 and 1 million people. Critically, these areas often play a primary role in connecting important rural and urban areas to basic facilities and services.

“Intermediary or secondary cities are going to be increasingly important as countries urbanize,” said Ayat Soliman, a practice manager in the Middle East and North Africa with the World Bank.

The report urges policymakers at all levels to recognize that it is imperative to focus on intermediary cities. These areas will host more than 400 million new urban dwellers over the next decade and a half — more than 90 percent of them in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. That’s an increase of some 70,000 people a day.

[See: Will the liveability of intermediate cities lead to megacity problems?]

These flows thus function as key buffers in what has become one of the world’s most pressing concerns — migration and refugees.

“Intermediate cities often play a gateway role in the migratory process toward metropolitan areas,” the report states. “In most cases, however, the migrating population tends to remain systematically excluded from a full right to enjoy citizenship, creating pockets of concentrated poverty and triggering precarious sub-urbanization and informality in all aspects of daily economic and social activities.”

Meanwhile, intermediary cities are quickly growing in economic importance, as well. In Africa, many of these medium-sized cities not only are experiencing rapid demographic growth but also the establishment of new economic activities and specialized services.

This process has led to the emergence of economic “clusters” — for instance, in Mek’ele, an intermediary city north of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. There, a new concentration of over 250 companies is involved in the manufacturing of furniture, construction materials and agricultural machinery.

While that’s a powerful engine for jobs and economic growth, analysts warn that policymakers do not yet have a good understanding of intermediary cities and these cluster arrangements outside of the metropolitan core — a major potential gap in understanding how best to guide and use a country’s resources.

National urban policies

National government policy toward intermediary cities also is intimately linked to broader decentralization trends. Over the past few decades, decentralization reforms have given local authorities in intermediary cities increased responsibility for service provision and infrastructure — elements that often form the basis of local quality of life and general attractiveness to outsiders.

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

Nevertheless, many developing countries continue to lack enabling environments for good local government performance, the report states. Many intermediary cities are suffering increasing budgetary pressures, particularly in regions that are lagging.

Finally, one of the key priorities for the organizers of Habitat III and the subsequent implementation of the New Urban Agenda is to push national governments to work to create national urban policies. Yet while some feel optimism that this aim will gain traction in the aftermath of this week’s conference, early data in this regard suggests that national urban policies will again tend toward prioritizing countries’ largest cities.

“In most cases, national sectorial urban policies are primarily designed to address the problems of larger urban areas and booming economic regions, and to strengthen their competitiveness,” the report warns. “Beyond the few exceptions … NUPs tend not to consider systematically the specific issues facing i-cities and smaller municipalities.”

Despite the vast majority of urban growth in coming years expected in Africa and Asia, the researchers found that only Europe has any tradition of “associating urban policies and territorial cohesion with specific programmes that try to build on the role of intermediary or mid and small-sized cities.”

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Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee is  a Delhi-based, award-winning journalist and columnist. She has written extensively on Asian cities.