Rapid urbanization is now the norm in Africa: African urban populations nearly doubled between 1995 and 2015 and are projected to almost double again by 2035. On the one hand, urbanization does offer prospects for better jobs, industrialization, and agglomeration economies that confer benefits from firms and people locating near one another. On the other hand, without smart planning, infrastructure investment, and successful service delivery, these areas of urban opportunity can quickly become cities of despondency. As we already have seen in Africa, the rise of megacities is putting pressure on local and national governments to develop and promote the livelihoods of their citizens.
One strategy to better address or even avoid many of these challenges is for policymakers to promote “secondary cities,” defined loosely as those cities whose “primary role is to connect rural and urban areas through the provision of services and facilities.” Typically, these places have a population between 100,000 and 500,000. Proponents often use the term “intermediary cities” too to emphasize those cities’ roles in connecting rural and urban economies. Indeed, many experts argue that secondary cities balance urbanization and regional development, create markets for rural residents, and generate more inclusive growth. Despite such potential, these cities are not given deserved attention and support due to the mounting urban challenges in Africa’s primary cities.
As I argued at a recent expert group meeting on “Secondary Cities in Developing Countries: Towards a policy dialogue for development strategies and resource mobilization,” hosted by the OECD and UN-Habitat, secondary cities can drive inclusive and balanced economic development in a number of different ways. Among other benefits, they can serve as: processing centers for the agriculture or natural resource sectors (Warri, Nigeria); commercial, trade, and service centers (like Garoua, Cameroon); industry hubs (like Huye District, Rwanda); administrative/tourism hubs (like Saint Louis, Senegal); and ports and export centers (like Mombasa, Kenya).
You can find my full presentation, Bridging urban and rural economies in the developing world: could secondary cities be the answer? here.
Given their potential in Africa, policymakers should incorporate secondary cities into their national and sub-national development strategies. Already, some countries have implemented plans to promote secondary cities by placing or relocating certain industries or building special economic zones there. For example, Senegal is expanding its capital Dakar to Diamniadio. Rwanda even has a six secondary cities promotion effort (including Huye mentioned above). When creating these plans, governments must take into account the natural endowment of the city, considering such factors as availability of fertile land, proximity to oil fields, and distance to other vibrant cities. Planners should in turn design policies that support secondary cities, taking into consideration their trade and transport linkages, and devise reforms that will strengthen value chains and promote local skills development, based on their given comparative advantage.
Thus, academics, urban practitioners, national and subnational governments, and development partners must reflect on what steps will enable their secondary cities to reach their potential. In addition to the elimination of bottlenecks, exploration into new and innovative financing sources, and identification of opportunities for rural-urban linkages, they must also consider how partnerships between subnational governments and cooperation agencies be established and strengthened.
Priority recommendations that emerged from the expert group meeting were as follows:
- Academics and on-the-ground practitioners should better share how the cultivation of secondary cities can address many of developmental challenges of rural and urban communities.
- Similarly, researchers must bridge their urbanization research with the needs of on-the-ground policymakers and implementers.
- Policymakers should pursue subnational financing to encourage secondary city growth, which creates not only an efficient city, but also a self-sufficient one.
As I argued in my presentation: No city has zero “locational advantage” in the long term, be it in pushing the frontier or leaving no one behind!