England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Housing and planning

Intermediary cities

How can smaller cities be part of the devolution movement and indeed might they even find it easier to engage locally that some of the obvious urban powerhouses? Chris Naylor looks at some of the thinking to emerge from a recent cities conference. 

With so much airtime given to the UK’s major cities at the moment, it’s good to see attention also to the roles and needs of other cities within what one might call the ‘city ecosystem’. New categorisations have now been created for ‘intermediary’ and for ‘peripheral’ cities, and the former were debated in an event hosted by UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) in Barcelona last week.

The seminar attracted key players from around the world, including elected mayors from Lebanon, Morocco, Brazil, Philippines; think tanks and research bodies such as Australia’s Urban Frontiers, India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs and Russia’s Institute for Urban Economics; and local government associations including LGiU.

Perhaps frustratingly, participants were encouraged from the start not to spend long on what the term ‘intermediary city’ meant (except for an acknowledgement that these were cities from 50k-1m population). And as with other multi-national discussions, the concept sometimes seemed even more elusive as speakers talked almost interchangeably of ‘intermediate’, or indeed ‘intermediatory’, cities.

But after two days clarity began to emerge. Intermediary cities were not the obvious capital cities or regional powerhouses, the big metropolises and conurbations making big individual contributions to GDP and international profile. Nor were they the small satellite cities on their margins, the so-called ‘peripheral cities’ whose raison d’être was intrinsically linked to these major urban hubs. No, you’ve guessed it, ‘intermediary cities’ were…well…in between the two. And yes, you’ll also have realised, they were more easily defined by what they’re not than by what they are.

More positively, however, ‘intermediary cities’ were identified as often being regional capitals – with a crucial regional or sub-regional role, working with a rural hinterland to embody a definable, semi-independent sub-economy. Intermediary cities, by virtue of their smaller scale, were seen as often better places to live, with higher local engagement and the potential for more effective local democracy – manifest, for instance, in community-led planning, or participatory budgeting. Or indeed: ‘in a small city poverty talks to you directly in the face’. The ‘proximity’ entailed in a smaller urban context brought both challenges and opportunities: trust, an essential pre-cursor to effective engagement, was more likely to flourish there.

By virtue of their size they could offer distinct identities and specialisations, opportunities for creativity and innovation. In terms of environmental sustainability, the likelihood of a more immediate return to local residents from behaviour change – for instance, in terms of air quality and waste management – meant that intermediary cities could be more effective. Their smaller scale could also mean they were more efficient in terms of resources consumed by transport and travel around the city. And as intermediary cities were likely to house c 50% of the world’s population going forward (estimates varied) their wellbeing needed to be taken seriously.

While it was agreed that major cities today had significant political clout, many national politicians were seen otherwise to have a rural bias – and so less interested in the cities in between. As with their elder siblings, intermediary cities wanted more autonomy and recognition, but they had particular problems which urgently needed to be resolved. For instance, the lack of legal basis for intermediary cities in some countries to co-operate with each other – ‘we’re allowed to twin with other cities internationally, but we can’t co-operate with neighbour cities internally’; or the requirement for many NGOs to fund through central government rather than deal direct, reinforcing the top-down status quo – ‘qui donne, ordonne’.

Ongoing urban agglomeration is now increasingly overlaid with packaging into city groupings or regions (for example the UK’s very own nascent ’Northern Powerhouse’) for reasons of international marketing and internal bureaucracy. In this context, intermediary cities need to fight their corner. Their capacity for individual specialisation and identity is key to their success in global markets but also leaves them more vulnerable. But whether a call to arms under the banner of ‘intermediary cities’ will win due respect and support across the ‘cities ecosystem’ is questionable. Time to call in the branding consultants, maybe.

For more information take a look at UCLG’s current consultation or contact Kate Shea Baird at UCLG.