Future of Cities: Small Cities, Big Challenges

Authors: Greg Clark, Chair of JLL Cities Research Center, with Emily Moir

In this series of blogs and the essay, The future of cities: what is the global agenda?, we explore the future of cities. Here we examine the challenges that the future holds for small cities – which are, and will continue to be, home to most of the world’s urban dwellers.

In previous posts we have looked at the future challenges facing the world’s largest cities. Smaller cities face many of the same problems as their larger counterparts, and indeed often experience these problems in an aggregated form, because they generally have fewer human, financial and technical resources at their disposal. Small cities also face their own unique future challenges, which need to be tackled if they are to thrive. Three examples are:

Strengthening weak economies and forging links with more economically dynamic cities

A major challenge for smaller cities is developing an economy which meets the needs of citizens and local firms and has good links with larger trading centres. As globalization has opened up cities of all sizes to global competition, it may be difficult for smaller cities to carve out globally competitive niches.  The largest cities within a national system of cities are generally predisposed to a global market orientation, scope and function: they are important logistical centres and trading hubs, and the size of their labour markets generally makes them particularly attractive to businesses and workers. Smaller cities on the other hand may face greater difficulties in forming globally competitive offerings and attracting foreign investment, workers and visitors, being limited by the diversity of their economies, the size of their workforces and their restricted ability to benefit from agglomeration economics and economies of scale. As Richard Florida has put it:

Rampant globalisation exposes smaller, niche cities to an onslaught of ferocious global competition…..the world is heading toward a single globalized system of cities, with ever large cities at the top and much more volatility and turbulence for small and medium size ones.  This will likely reinforce the position of the New Yorks, Londons, Tokyos, Sao Paolos and Shanghais of the world, while smaller and medium size cities face far greater turbulence and volatility.”[i]

Reflections on High Rise Buildings

Economic Restructuring

Cities in developed nations have been experiencing transition to post-industrial economies over recent decades. Some smaller cities (particularly in Europe, North America and Japan) which generally have less diverse economies than their larger national counterparts, have found it difficult to adjust to the decline of manufacturing industries, to diversify and revitalise their economies, and to retain capital and attract investment. These problems threaten to persist in future as these declining cities face out migration and becoming increasingly disadvantaged and disconnected from their national system of cities. Cities which have historically been dependent on single sectors, especially traditional manufacturing or raw material based industries, are among those facing the stiffest challenges.

Inadequate infrastructure for provision of basic public services

Smaller cities can be under-served in housing, transportation, piped water, waste disposal and other services. As populations in small cities grow in coming years, inadequate infrastructure will put additional strain on public service provision.

All challenges facing small cities can be compounded by weak urban governance – including poor urban planning capacities, deficient institution building and failure to adjust to changing land development conditions. Strengthening local institutions and governance in small cities will be a key means of securing bright futures.

The future of small cities is of course the responsibility of national, as well as local, government. National leaders must manage their state’s system of cities to ensure that both small and large cities prosper. Small cities must be supported in national systems which show a high degree of primacy, whilst in polycentric systems, national leaders need to ensure that cities develop complementary rather than competing roles. They may calculate that it is better for cities within a given region to work together in clusters, so as to gain sufficient critical mass to be internationally competitive. This ‘cluster’ strategy is being developed in China and considered in the North of England, and is one example of how national and local leaders are working together to think about the future of their cities. The remaining blogs in this series will look at some specific examples of future city thinking at the national, supranational and local level.



[i] Why Some Cities Lose When Others Win

About the Author

Greg Clark has spent more than two decades putting his passion for cities to good use, by advising and mentoring global cities, firms and institutions. He has worked with over 100 cities around the world and holds senior advisory roles at international bodies including the OECD, Brookings Institution, ULI, and the Future Cities Catapult. A prolific author, Greg has published ten books to date on cities and investment practices, with three more in the pipeline for 2016-17. And as Chairman of The Business of Cities research and intelligence group, Greg leads a small high calibre team that advises and reports on global trends and changes in cities. In his academic life Greg is Hon Prof of City Leadership at UCL and co-chairman of the UCL City Leadership initiative, Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University, and Global Fellow at LSE Cities. He has received international awards for his work from cities as far afield as Barcelona, Brisbane, London, and Toronto and in 2016, Greg was honoured by HM Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE for his services to city and regional economic development. Meanwhile, outside of the day jobs, Greg is an avid tennis player, wine enthusiast, and lifelong follower of Arsenal FC.

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