Connecting Systems of Secondary Cities: The Role of Infrastructure and Inter-City Collaborations

Secondary cities perform essential sub-national functions within national economies as centres of government administration, education, health, resources, and industry production. Both national policies and international programmes need to be adapted accordingly, write Rene Peter Hohmann and Brian Roberts.

While many secondary cities, especially in Sub-Sahara Africa have become major hubs of sub-national urban growth as regional markets and service centres for their rural hinterlands, their significance is only marginally reflected in national policies and programmes of development partners.

In addition, many economic development policies are outdated and not customised to the reality and opportunity of secondary cities. A recent book published by the Cities Alliance argues that through a focus on soft and hard infrastructure enhancing and promoting an inter-city collaboration in marketing, production, and service provision, a more equitable and sustainable economic growth can be achieved.

What are Systems of Secondary Cities?

Secondary cities perform an important role in value-adding to national production, logistics, and the efficiency of supply chains. Their performance influences national flows of goods, services, and resources. With a world approaching 60 per cent urbanisation, a well-functioning system of secondary cities is crucial to the overall national performance and well-being of countries – especially those disadvantaged parts of countries that are not serviced well.

Secondary cities, however, face many challenges in terms of underinvestment in strategic infrastructure, urban services, and human capital development. Infrastructure, education, health, economic output per capita – especially in Sub-Sahara Africa – fall well below national averages. Gross Domestic Product, income, and fiscal transfers per capita in large metropolitan regions often exceed that of secondary cities by a factor of 1.5 or more.

The gap between the rates of development of secondary cities and metropolitan regions is widening both in developed and developing economies. Many secondary cities in developing economies are growing at rates faster than metropolitan areas. On the other hand, in many post-industrialised economies, such as Eastern Europe, populations of secondary cities are falling.

Connectivity in terms of transport, communications and information, trade, travel, and governance between cities is becoming more metropolitan centric, leading to hierarchical systems of cities. The hierarchical pattern and dominance of metropolitan regions result in many growing unsustainably, creating unbalanced national spatial patterns of urban development .

What Could be an Alternative Growth Paradigm for Cities?

To ensure a more balanced system of cities, we argue for a policy change and shift of mindsets regarding the way in which national governments envision their systems of cities. In particular, national governments and their financing partners need to better ensure that secondary cities become more interconnected, focussed on their regional markets and sensitive to their public infrastructure needs — to support the activities of both metropolitan regions and regional hinterland economies.

Improved connectivity, collaboration and trade between secondary cities and regions is necessary also to overcome economies of scale, reduce transaction costs and create new sub-national regional systems of trading cities and markets.

Countries must move away from hierarchical systems of cities to economic development based on each city seeking to achieve collaborative advantage. This involves an economic model where city governments, firms, institutions and people work together to innovate, market, trade, produce goods and services which are of mutual benefit to the cities and organisations involved. Collaborative advantage can lead to the creation of regional networks of trading cities.

A good example of collaboration between cities is in Colombia, where the cities of Armenia, Pereira and Manizales have collaborated with the coffee industry on collaborative marketing and a collective focus by the cities on reducing local business transaction costs. These efforts resulted in the significant growth of small business in all three cities.

For example in the Bratislava Region, a coalition of five cities has witnessed firms engaged in industry clusters and value-adding activities, leading to more specialised regional products and services through shared services, infrastructure, and assets, and sharing the cost of marketing, innovation and development of skills to support the growth of smart regional industries.

Systems of Secondary Cities © Cities Alliance

Why is Hard and Soft Strategic Infrastructure Important to Enhance Connectivity among Cities?

Hard and soft infrastructure are key enabling environment elements, which support drivers of development within city and regional economies. They help to build networks which support connectivity and exchanges within systems of cities ─ especially rural urban linkages in secondary and smaller cities.

Hard infrastructure includes the construction of transport and utilities infrastructure and assets that are crucial to support the logistics and value-adding within national production, logistics, and trade flow systems. Soft infrastructure includes technology and information technology services, governance, social and cultural capital to ensure that networked systems effectively meet the demands of the 21st century economy.

Examples of Hard and Soft Infrastructure © Cities Alliance

To support the development of hard and soft infrastructure, secondary cities need access to external services, data, and information. Hard and soft infrastructure in secondary cities are both essential to developing and maintaining forward and backward linkages in value-adding and supply chains. If this linkage infrastructure is not operating effectively within systems of secondary cities, the overall performance of national economies will be adversely affected.

The world economy is currently in a state of flux and uncertainty, which will have a direct impact on the future model of economic development for city and regional economies. What the next development model will be is unclear for economics, but it will likely focus on the development of more localised growth opportunities, such as circular economies involving trading cities. The effect of disruptive technologies and international trade policies, degrading ecosystem goods, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, and reshoring of firms closer to markets using capital and less labour-based production is likely to see cities, especially secondary cities, playing a crucial part of shaping the new economy.

Towards a New Economic Paradigm based on Collaborative Networks of Trading Cities

The economic model for national and regional development focussed on exogenous trade and investment is rapidly changing. A new model is emerging, focused on a balance of exogeneous and endogenous growth, where trade, investment and technology-based production in cities and regions is occurring within national systems of cities and regions.

For the new economic model to succeed, secondary cities must become intermediaries in acting as the conduits and hubs for national development. National Policies and support are needed to develop stronger networks of sub-national trading cities, which are well connected and serviced by effective hard and soft infrastructure. This will require improved connectivity and accelerated flow of goods and services within systems of secondary cities and will be crucial to the development of more sustainable national and sub-national economies for all countries.

Rene Peter Hohmann
Brian Roberts
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