Feature News

Second Cities: Economic Engines of the Future

The concept of second cities, and what they should mean for a country or a region, is evolving rapidly, with more and more ‘second tier’ cities being primed for massive regeneration to act as an effective counterbalance to capital cities.

In early July, delegates from all over the world arrived in Cork for the Academy of Urbanism’s annual ‘Cities on the Rise’ congress.

This gathering of international commentators experts to discuss urban development came at a time where a lot of conversations are happening on how Cork is changing, and how we should plan for this growth to ensure the attractiveness and liveability of the city is enhanced as part of the process, which is in turn part of a larger conversation, happening globally, on the value of ‘second city’s’ and the concept of city-linking.

Cork’s population is soon set to rise to over 200,000 as a result of major, and long awaited, administrative changes in terms of the regions that Cork City Council and Cork County Council will govern. In the wake of the ‘Cities on the Rise’ congress, on social media, passionate Twitter threads developed about how Cork’s core could be improved to become more attractive.

Some commentators singled out the need for making the city centre more appealing to families through the provision of more child- friendly facilities or better quality public spaces and green areas. One thing all commentators agreed on was to have more pedestrian-friendly streets safe for both children and adults.

The last survey on the economy of Cork by Cork Chamber of Commerce included a question about what factors their members considered most important for making cities more attractive locations for family living.The results of the survey were interesting.

In addition to ‘necessities’ such as the provision of schools, a diverse housing mix and local amenities, Chamber of Commerce members identified lower traffic volumes as among the five most important measures which were needed to improve the attractiveness of the city centre and of Cork as an economic performer.

According to William Brady, an urban planner based at the Centre for Planning Education and Research, UCC, Ireland needs Cork to work and for Cork to deliver. “International observers such as the IMF are becoming especially interested in the effects of an overheating Dublin and the underperformance of our second-tier cities.What is becoming clear is that there is now a major expectation that Cork will play a central role in anchoring an alternative development framework for the entire country.

However, this expectation is accompanied by a sense that Cork now needs to step up to the plate and demonstrate that it is ready to fulfil this role, ” he said in an article in the Irish Times in September last year, adding; “The city continues to perform very strongly in economic terms, and has retained its role as the country’s second economic powerhouse through the recession and recovery; the city centre and the docklands area in particular are belatedly responding to the huge opportunities for regeneration and development.”

A successful city centre is absolutely central to the success of the surrounding area and for fulfilling the region’s role as a counterbalance to Dublin. There are now numerous active and imminent projects in the commercial office, residential, hospitality, educational, tourism and retail sectors; there is about €1 billion of private sector development investment under way or in the planning process for 28 substantial projects in the city’s core and the docklands area. However, the State needs to secure this momentum by investing sufficiently in municipal infrastructure to ensure that the city provides the necessary backdrop to support such growth.

Research by Cork City Council has found that two thirds of all city centre traffic represent passing traffic, i.e. vehicles whose end-destination is outside the city centre.To that end, Cork City Council has commenced the implementation of a new City Centre Movement Strategy to encourage more reliable bus movements and improve the city experience of cyclists and pedestrians.

While his strategy can go some way to improve uptake of public transport to get to and from Cork city, it will take a much more dedicated effort from Central Government to make Cork a more liveable place, with much less car dependency, and better public transport.Some fear that removing cars from city centres will have a negative impact on consumer spend. However, research by the National Transport Authority has found that public transport users spend more than twice as much as car users in Dublin.

The same research found that cities rely on public transport users and pedestrians to deliver the strongest cash injection to a city’s economy as a whole. A light rail network opened in Denmark’s second city Aarhus just before Christmas. Aarhus has 320,000 people. Metropolitan Cork has 305,000 people.

The new network links Aarhus city centre with the university and the hospital, and further extensions to the network in its suburban areas are already in planning. The success of light rail in other second cities such as Aarhus, Bilbao and Manchester underline that ambitious public transport visions should not be reserved for capital cities alone. And indeed, recent figures from Dublin show that people will avail of public transport once options are available.

More than half of all commuters travelling into Dublin city now do so using public transport, while only 30% of trips are made by car, which is a record low. The City Centre Movement Strategy is part of an on-going city regeneration initiative intended to position the City as a prime contributor to the national economy.

International Context & the Chinese Perspective

This goes hand in hand with international research, driven by major global organs such as the United Nations and the World Bank, which points to the positives of investing in second cities and developing them in tandem with the development of a capital city, a strategy know as city linking. While the scale of many second cities dwarfs the Irish context, the principles remain valid. Let’s take a look at China.

There’s a popular saying in Chinese urban geography and architecture: “If you want to understand 5,000 years of Chinese civilization look at Xi’an, 1,000 years look at Beijing, for modern China look at Tianjin.”

This adage might surprise many readers outside of China as Tianjin, like many cities that don’t bear the Beijing or Shanghai name, continues to live in the cognitive shadow of its larger and well-known counterparts. But this port city to Beijing has played a pivotal economic role for many centuries.

Today, Tianjin is among the country’s five largest urban areas, and is an industrial powerhouse with a GDP per capita that is outpacing the national average. In 2016 alone, more than 400 Beijing-based companies opened offices in Tianjin and are expected to invest $23 billion in the city. Travel between Tianjin and Beijing is so high that a second high-speed rail link is currently under construction.

Urbanists take note: secondary cities like Tianjin will have an outsized role in the coming decades. Intermediate cities are among the fastest growing and most creative places in the world, and often the economic engine of their larger counterparts.

There are about 2,400 second-tiered cities worldwide, and nearly two-thirds are in Africa and Asia. Additionally, about half of all urban dwellers live in cities smaller than 500,000 people. Some are gateways to global trade, while others specialize in valuable sectors such as government administration, resource extraction, heavy manufacturing, and technology. Pittsburgh, Bengaluru, and Barcelona are all must-watch secondary cities,as are Abuja, Medellin, and Stuttgart.

Despite their more limited fiscal capacity, these cities’ ambition to climb the ranks of world cities has unleashed a wave of experimentation with a host of new urban policies, financing tools, initiatives, and partnership strategies. There needs to be more study of the secondary city. Information and data is often lacking, making strategic planning and research difficult. Armed with the right insights, second cities could avoid the earlier mistakes of larger metros, and often act more quickly to implement projects.

One of the highest priority projects underway, as Tianjin has shown, is to build more connectivity as a means to enhance competitiveness and attract talent and investment.

The method and degree of connectivity will vary: some cities will need to focus first on digital infrastructure, while others must invest in physical transport links, potentially a leapfrog technology such as the a rail system that is being devised for moving passengers and/or cargo at airline speeds at a fraction of the cost of air travel and which is currently being shortlisted for piloting in several cities as part of a competitive process.

Defining the Second City

University of North Carolina professor Dennis Rondinelli is credited with coining the term “secondary city” in the 1980s in his research on rural economies surrounding these cities. The characteristics of secondary cities vary across national contexts, and there is a lack of consensus in its definition.

Typically, their population size falls between 10 to 50 percent of the country’s largest city, and they often assume administrative, economic, or logistical roles outside of the country’s leading metropolitan area.

Cities Alliance, a joint World Bank and UN-Habitat initiative, has produced a body of literature on secondary cities, and divides them into three spatial categories: Subnational cities: Centers of local government, industry, agriculture, tourism, and mining. These cities are the most common, and hold important economic and functional roles. Think Vancouver, Philadelphia, Basel, and Milan. In an Irish context, Cork would fit into this bracket.

City clusters: Satellite and new town cities which surround larger metropolitan regions. These settlements usually develop alongside decentralization and firm relocation to areas less than 50km from historic city centers. Corridors: Urban growth centers planned or developing along major transports corridor.

These cities are among the fastest growing and are associated with improvements in transport infrastructure. New cities rising along the Silk Road between Asia and Europe fall under this category.

City linking as a strategy for growth

Decision-makers all over the world are realising the importance of connecting dominant cities with their secondary counterparts to create highly productive and competitive urban clusters. “The functional federation of cities across political borders, united by infrastructure and technology systems, is likely to become a major feature of global cities by the mid-twenty-first century,” says Greg Clark of the Brookings Institution.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative aims to support intraregional connectivity through expanded Bus Rapid Transit Lines. China implemented an aerotropolis-based development strategy in Zhengzhou, the likely birthplace of your iPhone, in just one piece of its colossal New Silk Road project.

An EU report on secondary cities found that connectivity is highly correlated with per capita GDP, which bodes well for Cork, which is in the top 5% of GDP regions in a European context.

The argument for city-city linking comes down to increasing opportunities for economic exchange. Connectivity allows secondary cities to integrate into regional labor and investment pools and access new supply chains and consumer markets.

City-city links could also lead to rebalancing growth and mitigate the capacity burdens on larger cities in housing and transport infrastructure. Lastly, linked municipalities could result in more coordinated economic and infrastructure strategies for regional development.

With the definite advent of the hyperloop, the potential impacts are even greater, allowing for wider spatial opportunities for employment and living, and the creation of ‘mega-regions’.

Several of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge semifinalists have offered routes that connect key secondary cities to primary cities. In South Korea, a team has proposed to link Busan, an important port city, to the capital Seoul, which contains almost a fifth of the entire country’s population.

In the United States, a regional planning commission wants to link Chicago to Columbus and Pittsburgh, creating a Midwest mega-region. An architecture firm also proposes to connect Guadalajara to Mexico City, and a student-led team in the United Kingdom wants to link Edinburgh to London.

From a digital perspective, and from an EU context, May 2018 saw the Second City Academy Seminar for the European Commission’s Digital Cities Challenge with representatives from over 40 European cities gathering in Brussels, together with urban development experts, city managers, industry and policy advisors, to shape their strategic vision and smart growth policies.

The Ambition Academy Seminar was the first time all 15 Challenge cities could take part in an Academy session, and they were joined by a host of fellow cities, who are also following the programme on their own resources, as well as mentor cities that volunteer to inspire and share success practices with the group.

The Academy fostered exchanges of good practices among 41 cities showcasing their numerous initiatives and experiences gained. Among the topics discussed were strategic vision, digital transformation governance, open data platforms, and digital transformation of city tourism. Participants were able to draw on best practice examples from the mentor cities and share insights from their own projects such as on Granada Tech City in Granada.

Cities and experts were also able to peer review each other’s digital transformation vision and ambition statements. The innovative training session was successful in creating a network of cities committed to digital transformation and working groups of joint thematic interests were formed between cities of different digital maturity levels.

With the Digital Cities Challenge now well underway, training to the digital transformation trajectory methodology for the next phases was provided to facilitate the work of cities until the next milestone, the next City Academy Seminar is scheduled for October 2018.

“The stakes for the Digital Cities Challenge are high. If we want Europe to win in the global race for tech leadership and growth, this has to start in EU cities. This is not just a project. It is the kick-starter of a long, exciting journey and we are partners in this journey. The Challenge gives you international exposure and world-class support to create your territory’s future. But you are the principal actors” said Dana Eleftheriadou, Head of the Advance Technologies Team in the European Commission.

The Dynamics for Cork

In terms of the dynamics of the Cork situation, Legislation is due soon to give effect to the extension of the city of Cork in effect, which will see the County Council cede vast tracts of land to the City Council and the city’s population increase by some 100,000 to almost 220,000. In advance of this major change, both the City and County Councils are seeking a stimulus package would facilitate the transition during the boundary extension process and help forge a fresh approach to driving economic performance.

In a joint statement, they said: “We both want Cork to prosper and grow and ensure that both councils can hit the ground running when legislation is enacted. “As was the case with the reconfiguration of the Limerick councils — with the support of then finance minister Michael Noonan — we are calling on Government and our local ministers Coveney, Creed, and Stanton to provide Cork with a multimillion-euro stimulus package to ensure we can thrive in the boundary reconfiguration and can operate effectively right from the off.

According to William Brady of UCC: “Cork city should have a rate base commensurate with its size and standing as an urban centre. This will allow the city to help drive regional economic development and investment and to evolve as a real counterbalance to Dublin. Cork County will continue to function as the largest local authority outside the greater Dublin area, with a strong mix of metropolitan, urban and rural economic functions.

All of these aspects have their own particular economic profiles, with important industrial, commercial, agricultural and tourism services that produce rateable income – including one of the most important clusters of economic activity in the entire State in Ringaskiddy/Cork harbour.”

Cork performs so strongly at an international level – the region’s GDP in 2014 for example was double that of the EU average (euro per inhabitant) and ranks in the top 5 per cent of EU regions in economic performance. This is a testament to the strong partnership between City and County councils, which created the conditions for this remarkable but often overlooked regional success story. It is time now to recalibrate and renew this partnership and make sure that both councils are governed in such a way that protects their best interests, and which secures the joint approach to the city region’s planning and development.

“Cork’s success and prosperity is thus clearly aligned with the State’s basic economic interests, and it is clear that Ireland needs Cork more than ever to drive the regional development agenda for the southern part of the country. Equally, Cork needs explicit public policy supports to complement its credentials as Ireland’s key opportunity for effective regional development,” Brady added.

Related Posts