What we talk about when we talk (again) about Secondary Cities

A new book is out with contributions from Rodrigo Cardoso (SPS, Urbanism) and Evert Meijers (Utrecht University, formerly TU Delft Urbanism) and it opens up wholly new ways of thinking about the secondary city experience in the Global North. Secondary cities “are intuitively obvious but empirically slippery”, claim the editors. They are the smaller cities located close to the large core cities that gather most of the attention of scholars and policymakers. They are the cities that are integral components of urban regions, often with unique historical trajectories and local characteristics, but are somewhat collapsed into the overall ‘hinterland’ of the urban region defined by its dominant city. They are Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, not Greater Manchester. They are Wadenswil, Dietikon, Winterthur, not Greater Zurich. They are Delft, Zoetermeer, Schiedam, nor Rotterdam-The Hague. In this book, their importance lies not in their features as ordinal objects but rather in their relational qualities across a particular region. How did they become and remain secondary in relation to a regional hierarchy and to they negotiate their role in that hierarchy?

The project departs from the claim that these cities are not a homogeneous or passive background to their large neighbours and from the effort to make sense of why they have such divergent experiences. Most of the important questions raised by the book were explored in a workshop in Tacoma, WA, in 2018, an excellent example of a once buoyant secondary city now in the shadow of Pacific coast star Seattle. Why do some secondary cities seem to profit from their urban region and proximity to a large core, while others are emptied out by more able competitors? Why do some metropolitan development strategies spill over to integrate these cities and others remain spatially selective? How did the ‘old’ urban crisis turn to urban renaissance in a way that the ‘return to cities’ left so many of them behind? How do some secondary cities manage the inflow of core-periphery displacement of people and activities and the suburbanization of poverty? Why are all cities still regarded as moving towards a (supposedly) desired end state exemplified by the successful and competitive urban leaders, and are these really ‘golden gooses’ of urban and regional development? And in what sense are regional problems truly regional if the voices of the people, firms and institutions that live and work in secondary cities are not included in the debate about regional futures? Are we talking about a (distributive) region of cities or a (polarized) city’s region?

The book chapters tackle several of these problems with examples from Europe, North America and Australia. Rodrigo and Evert contribute with two chapters. One evaluates the cities and towns in the Dutch Randstad as to how they fare in a spectrum of urban region economic dynamics ranging from borrowing size to lying under an agglomeration shadow. Then they search for common features of these cities that may explain their performance. The other chapter looks at 64 secondary cities in eight British city-regions, placing them in a matrix of demographic and functional traits that illustrate which ones may be benefiting from a metropolisation process and what features may enable that, finding that a vast majority struggle with rather than enjoy their city-regional role.

But there is more. Heike Mayer, Rahel Melli and David Kaufmann focus on how two Swiss secondary cities find a unique economic identity beyond their default role as residential outposts of Zurich and Bern. Louise Johnson explores similar relations in the Australian urban system to find small cities taking advantage of their position vis-à-vis their dominant neighbours. Mark Pendras and Charles Williams (also the book editors) reflect on the winners and losers of borrowing size in their home base of Tacoma and on the uneven experiences of different population groups within a secondary city, as it moves across the ‘shadowed’ to ‘borrowing’ spectrum of relations with Seattle. Gary Hyrtek investigates how relational patterns of secondarity have shaped the politics of social justice activism in Long Beach, CA, just outside Los Angeles. Yonn Dierwechter departs from the economic focus of interregional relations to address climate action and the role played by secondary cities – and the region as a whole – in the sustainability plans and actions for which large cities tend to take credit.

The book explores a wide range of contexts and challenges for secondary cities and points to the importance of paying attention to a broad scope of urban experiences and relations often flying below the radar of scholars and policymakers. Understanding urban region relations, their constraints and opportunities, and including the voices of secondary cities in the debate about urban futures is key to achieve tighter networks of regional solidarity, responsibility and cooperation.

Secondary Cities: Exploring Uneven Development in Dynamic Urban Regions of the Global North, edited by Mark Pendras and Charles Williams, Bristol University Press, 2021, 240 pp.,