The Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which is responsible for territorial cohesion, has set increasing the role of small intermediate cities as one of its main priorities. It is particularly promising that ESPON has focused on the role of these polycentric nodes within urban systems and on strategies for territorial cohesion. It is of key importance that intermediate cities gain greater visibility and more relevance within the current political agenda. Intermediate cities have great potential for development and sustainability. They also house a greater percentage of the world’s urban population than large cities and are much more numerous. Intermediate cities are polycentric systems that tend to be located at a certain distance from metropolitan areas and to compete with them in terms of indicators of well-being and quality of life.
Small intermediate cities acquire significance because of the mediating role that they play between the urban and rural scales, and because of their natural resources and ecosystems.
It is very important to focus on small intermediate cities in European, national, regional and local policies. There is also a need for more consistent and supportive policies to help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, the demographic winter and people abandoning the rural environment. Although difficult to apply, concepts such as ‘territorial intermediation’ and ‘multilevel governance’ are essential parts of the rural environment and ecosystem services.
Small intermediate cities acquire significance because of the mediating role that they play between the urban and rural scales, and because of their natural resources and ecosystems. They are also important for providing territories with cohesion and because of their small populations. Furthermore, they are nodes that give value to primary production.
It is important to use the potential of populating cities that are on a human scale; on the other hand, it is necessary to structure their nodal function within both national and international networks.
All intermediate cities are on a human scale and they tend to be very geographically diverse. Whether they are in isolated rural areas or in linear systems, following rivers or coasts, they act as axes for infrastructure.These cities can have different relations with their areas of territorial influence; the nature of the relations varies between countries and regions. They also provide links with rich cultural heritages and the natural environment, which must be promoted and protected.
On the one hand, it is important to use the potential of populating cities that are on a human scale; on the other hand, it is necessary to structure their nodal function within both national and international networks.
Below are recommendations and suggestions for policies to promote territorial cohesion and development.
Work with society to formulate creative and innovative socioeconomic actions. Innovation and creativity are basic requirements for achieving the green transition in Europe.
The Universitat de Lleida United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Chair on Intermediate cities: Urbanisation and Development, proposes that small intermediate cities should serve as nodes and notably improve access to and the quality of basic public services. This will provide local administrations with better economic, technical and human resources. Multilevel governance is key to this process. An example is the grouping of municipal communities (France).
Promote public and private initiatives related to the circular, endogenous and social economies. It is vitally important to first add value to the primary sector and then encourage associations throughout the chain of production. For example, this could involve promoting super-cooperatives for the marketing of agricultural products (Lleida, Spain).
Strengthen the accessibility of and physical and technological connectivity with associated territories. This can be achieved by improving mobility and providing more innovative transport (e.g. community taxis on demand). Special attention should be given to telecommunications infrastructure, which is key for 21st-century solutions, and can help promote innovation and improve the management of ecosystem resources. For example, ICT can serve as a new ‘antenna’ for innovation and technology (Spanish government).
Enhance their functionality in line with the dosage and scale of each node. The capacity of the human capital positioned at very specific locations is particularly important. Captivation frameworks can be used to encourage groups of people to stay in their local territories’? An example of this is carefully administering and applying global policies at the local level through localisation and regionalisation (United Cities and Local Governments).
Take on a role as a driving force for the management of renewable energy policies. This can be achieved through multilevel consensuses, in order to achieve the commitments made in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development with minimal environmental impact from the cycle of production and distribution. For example, this can be through (citizens’) energy communities (Europe).
Work with society to formulate creative and innovative socioeconomic actions. Innovation and creativity are basic requirements for achieving the green transition in Europe. This transition must be achieved at the same time as promoting sustainability thorough the implantation of the circular economy, and successfully handling strategic challenges. Putting companies at the centre of the circular economy process will be key within this alliance with society; it will also be necessary to include trades, professionals, trade unions and social organisations. AEICE, the Efficient Habitat Cluster, is an example of an alliance in this area (Valladolid).
Establish a system of horizontal, multilevel, bottom-up governance. Local governments must have a presence and decision-making capacity within national and regional policies. An example is administrative boards for administering common or rural resources (the Basque Country, Spain).
Shape the local territory and plan for action rather than for control. It is necessary to advance from urban and territorial planning towards strategic management; this will involve defining lines of action and projects for providing the territory with added value.
Finally, we would like to highlight the great opportunities for both Spain and Europe to make small urban nodes visible and relevant, develop local territories and take on the demographic challenge.