“The pandemic is an opportunity to rethink the attractiveness of our intermediary cities”

More than two out of three cities in the world are intermediary cities. Yet, these have often been neglected, despite their relevance for regional and national development. Aziza Akhmouch is Head of the Cities, Urban policies and Sustainable Development Division at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, and she believes it is necessary to raise the profile of intermediary cities in the research and the policy agenda, since they contribute to the goals of achieving smart, sustainable, and balanced urbanisation and growth in countries. Building on a recent OECD report analysing Cities policy responses to COVID-19, she tells us why and how it is urgent to think differently about the urban development of intermediary cities by fostering gender inclusion, productivity, and digitalisation.

Missions Publiques: As we talk, the world is celebrating International Day of Women’s Rights. How can we give women their rightful place in public spaces and especially in intermediary cities?

Inclusive cities should include gender policies, starting from the planning of the city itself. The problem is that every city in the world was designed and built by men although we have seen progress in the past decade. We can change the status quo if we act simultaneously on three levers for making urban environments more women-friendly : education, political leadership, and infrastructure.

  • The first lever to put women front and centre of urban development is education: let’s encourage more women to join engineering, scientific and urban planning curricula and jobs. The longstanding male-domination in urban design has caused both physical and social barriers that we must fight together. There are some counterexamples, such as Vienna, where female architects have been involved, since the 1990s, in designing new parts of the city with significant improvements. However, we are not on track yet.
  • The second lever is getting more women in elected offices. On paper, we have clear aspirational goals: a specific target of the Sustainable Development Goal n°5 on “Gender Equality” aims to “Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life”. But in practice, we are not on track. Of the world’s largest 300 cities only 25 are governed by women, although a number of European capitals, including Rome, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw and Stockholm, now have women mayors. Data from our work on SDGs in Regions and Cities shows there is not a single region in OECD countries where women account for at least half of all mayors. The recent OECD Champion Mayors Initiative podcast on gender equality explored this issue, and made it clear that female leadership significantly improves gender equity because decision-makers  really understand the issues they have to address.
  • Third, we need more inclusive, safe and women-friendly infrastructure. For instance, in France, men only use public transport for 10% of their trips whereas two thirds of public transport passengers are women. In Asunción and Lima, up to 75% and 80% of women respectively have a perception of insecurity while using public transport, particularly at night. To improve urban safety and combat sexual harassment, some cities reserve train carriages, taxis and bus spaces for women. In France, the upgrade of trains and subways provided continuous open train compartments that contribute to a higher perception of safety. But it’s not only up to women to pledge for gender equal and safe places, male allies and champions are necessary too.
“[The] lack of a territorial approach to policy design and implementation usually exacerbates inequalities and reduces the levels of trust citizens have in their governments’ capacity to ensure their well-being.

Aziza Akhmouch

Head of the Cities, Urban policies and Sustainable Development Division at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities

Missions Publiques. Studies have shown that Europeans have been facing a “geography of discontent” even before Covid-19. How can we explain such a phenomenon and where do you see a role for intermediary cities? 

In France, the “geography of discontent” culminated with the Yellow Jackets movement over a year ago. Such discontent stems from the fact that policies have often been “place-blind”. Megatrends such as climate change, demographic change, globalisation and urbanisation have uneven and asymmetric impacts across people, places and firms. This lack of a territorial approach to policy design and implementation usually exacerbates inequalities and reduces the levels of trust citizens have in their governments’ capacity to ensure their well-being. In the past, one could think that most of the discontent came essentially from rural areas as the carbon tax episode showed in France with the yellow jackets. But with COVID-19, such discontent has been magnified in cities, especially large ones, and their peripheries because of poor living conditions and spatial segregation. However, some mid-sized cities based on declining industrial sectors have also entered into a downward spiral of economic decline that exacerbated social tensions and discontent. Therefore, it is important to understand the concept of intermediary cities to grasp the ins and outs of this discontent.

Some of the most successful intermediary cities are those that developed as key hubs for innovation and research, being attractive for highly productive activities and highly skilled jobs – thus activating multiplicative effects for the urban economy.  Cambridge and Oxford are amongst the wealthiest cities in the UK, despite the relatively small urban size. Europe offers other exemplary cases of “prototypal” intermediary cities. For instance, Dijon in France (160 000 inhabitants) has been successful in terms of attractiveness with a GDP per capita higher than some large cities in France. Mid-sized cities in Northern Italy also successfully developed around industrial clusters, like those in the Emilia-Romagna region (Modena, Reggio-Emilia, Parma), characterised by a more balanced development. But not every intermediary city is like Cambridge or Dijon, and many are trapped into a weak economic structure, such as some cities based on industries that are not able to generate innovation and work any longer, because they failed to scale-up or diversify their existing economic base. As a consequence, some areas exhibit long-term economic decline or stagnation, urban shrinkage, or are at risk to be caught into a “middle-income trap”. Today, in the metropolitan century, policies seem to have underestimated this phenomenon – which has often been hidden behind what looks like positive national growth rates. As a result, within-country inequalities grew, and some territories were left behind where populist voting has increased. A place-based approach aimed to exploit the potential of all territories should be applied more systematically in order to trigger local economic development. Intermediary cities may effectively contribute to this approach, by acting as local “hubs” by means of virtuous urban-rural linkages and ensuring a balanced national growth.

With the pandemic, (…) many Mayors have seen an opportunity to re-think the urban street as a social space where proximity to services and amenities is the key to providing opportunities for all.

Missions Publiques. In your recent TedX Talk you provide three solutions for the city of tomorrow, including digitalisation. What is the role of digitalization regarding accessibility in intermediary cities?

With the pandemic, the need to shift from a mobility approach to one of accessibility has gained traction worldwide. Concepts such as the 15-minute city (Paris), the 20-minute city (Melbourne) or the 10-min city (Brussels) proliferated around the globe. From one day to the next, people discovered the benefits of streets without cars, and the combination of the “Zoom effect” induced by the teleworking revolution, and the “Greta effect” largely contributed to accelerate citizens’ environmental awareness. To support such a green transition while striving for inclusion, many Mayors have seen an opportunity to re-think the urban street as a social space where proximity to services and amenities is the key to providing opportunities for all.

The concept of accessibility encompasses both the physical and the digital sphere. However, physical and digital accessibility are not complete substitutes. At the beginning of the global lockdown, many thought that urban dwellers in large metropolitan areas would massively settle down in mid-size cities or rural areas since 40% of people could work from wherever they had an Internet connection. In France, we read plenty of articles about the revival of towns and rural areas, and “digital nomads”. After a year of Covid-19, we see that although the digital revolution has slightly shaken the spatial equilibrium, the reality is that digital nomads represent a relatively small share of the workforce. This is explained by the fact that the vast majority of people gather in large cities not only because of jobs and productivity but also because of a wider range of agglomeration benefits including services and amenities. For sure, there will be some urban dwellers who, in search of a better quality of life, will probably relocate to intermediary cities that are close to large metropolitan areas. And it’s a good thing.  Intermediary cities hold much potential to become more attractive if conditions are in place in terms of attracting firms, investing in required infrastructure, boosting local public services, and strengthening fiscal and governance capacity. The digital revolution holds potential to minimise the pressure on land, public services and natural resources if we individually and collectively make drastic changes to the way we move, live, produce and consume in cities of all sizes. This also implies revisiting our relationship with time, resynchronising our social and working lives outside the traditional peak hours so that we do not all have to do the same thing, at the same place, at the same time. New forms of chrono-urbanism will be essential to shift faster towards multi-purpose infrastructure, strive for a better work-life balance, and rejuvenate the concept of well-being against the backdrop of the valuable lessons this pandemic has taught us, so we can create the cities of tomorrow.