The Great Challenge for Intermediary Cities



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The urban world is posing a challenge for the sustainability of the planet. Its inhabitants’ comfort, quality of life and levels of consumption, together with the need for large numbers of quality dwellings owing to migrations from rural areas or other countries, have made that world a place where resources are consumed, and where strategic planning and the use and reuse of resources, without abusing them, has become an obligation. There is talk today of a circular economy for cities, of green buildings, of renewable and/or clean energies, and other concepts. In reality, these are all part of the same quest for solutions in an attempt to prevent further abuse of the planet’s resources, and to offer our children an opportunity to build their sustainability, since the two-degree temperature rise we are so arduously negotiating today is in actual fact too high, and has come too late.

In the middle of this landscape are cities, viewed in terms of their mode of management, mode of living, mode of production, and mode of telling everyday human stories.

It is precisely in everyday life that the vital moment now unfolding is most relevant. Several global agencies and institutions are being set up to align and generate a global and planetary vision in which all countries will be involved and in agreement. The New Urban Agenda, the decisions of the COP regarding a new climate agenda, the disaster risk agenda, and other similar initiatives currently taking shape call for local action in order to be realized, necessarily involving local governments but above all requiring increased awareness and participation from all city dwellers on the planet. The answer has to be global because the issue is one that affects all of us in our daily life.

Territorial and urban policies define our everyday life. Cities therefore represent a voice which world institutions can no longer ignore when it comes to negotiating global agreements, owing on the one hand to the national and international importance acquired by certain metropolises, and on the other to the social, economic and safety challenges faced by cities. However, the challenge of the future lies not with metropolises but with intermediary cities. A third of the urban population currently lives in intermediary cities, another third in metropolises, and the final third in rural zones and territories.

Intermediary cities are a key piece, if not a unique one, in achieving sustainability for the planet. There are several reasons for this.



The Figures

According to studies carried out by the UNESCO Chair in Intermediary Cities and World Urbanization in collaboration with UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments), it is estimated that by 2030 half of the world’s urban population will live in intermediary cities (or i-cities).1 That number is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2050.

For that very reason, the importance of cities in the dynamics of world sustainability seems self-evident, and intermediary cities are the emerging strategic force in this scenario. This projection clearly proposes a panoramic image of the planet in terms of urban development for the future, and intermediary cities are crucial in this context for the world’s sustainability. Indeed, as far as the urban world is concerned, the planet’s sustainability will largely depend on the evolution of intermediary cities.


What Are Intermediary Cities?

Intermediary (or intermediate) cities are cities that play a role of intermediation in their regional and/or national territories, with a potential for intermediary dialogue in their national or regional systems between the forces governing the territory, whether political, economic, environmental, cultural, social and/or human. While generally defined by the number of inhabitants (between 20,000 and 1 million), i-cities are distinguished more by the relationship generated with their urban environment and by the concept of intermediation they embrace in order to generate development.

This definition is also applicable to China, a context where an intermediary city can have around five million inhabitants. Indeed, it is expected that by 2030 75 percent of the Chinese population will belong to the middle class. This raises some very serious issues. Middle-class living entails more cars, more air conditioning, more comfort, and more resources to consume. Where will those resources come from, when China is already seeking them in Africa? This shows the issue to be a planetary one that concerns each and every one of us.

Last year, a crucial one for world urban development with the launching of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, intermediary cities have been able to make their voice heard and develop an agenda of their own in response to the willingness of their leaders to collaborate in the sustainability of the planet.

The added value of intermediary cities for the Habitat III agenda has been defined in the following terms: Intermediary cities are a new paradigm in itself that needs its own agenda. Through i-cities, a voice can make itself heard for the population represented by local governments, for the territories and their resources, and for a new path to sustainability on a global scale.

Intermediary cities must have their own voice in discussions on cities and urban development. Intermediary cities must have their own agenda for implementation.

This is a great responsibility for both decision-makers and citizens, and it points to a central role for those who take local decisions in urban and territorial policies and affairs.

I-cities therefore offer a unique opportunity to develop planetary sustainability based on a consensus between the decision-makers and the citizenry, a key element in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.


Sustainability Linked to Democracy

Cities are an expression of the type of local democracy that combines the democratic identity of a country with the specificities of its processes. This expression requires a democratic dialogue between the decentralized systems within said country. I-cities thus also become a force of urban democracy, both at a local and national level.

Since intermediary cities are the meeting point between the rural and urban worlds, they provide an opportunity to generate a civic and democratic space that large cities or metropolises can no longer permit themselves so easily, owing to their pace of life (and its management) and growth. In this way, cities become a place in which democracy and cohesion can find expression in an urban setting. This opportunity for safe and cohesive management is offered through an urban democracy that offers secure institutional channels of expression. I-cities, with their advantage of proximity and their potential for urban management, make it possible to give serene and pedagogical consideration to matters such as questions of gender (especially on public transport), the participation of citizens in the city’s life and decision-making, and other key aspects of issues currently affecting us.

The concept of urban democracy is made easier by a city that has proximity as one of its defining factors. The participation and involvement of citizens is essential for the implementation of urban policies stemming from the international recommendations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

In the same way, i-cities are a necessary element for the implementation of the SDG through global agendas, for three specific reasons:

  1. The implementation of global agendas will have to pass through the local level, whether the focus is on projects, raising awareness among the population, management, or finance.1) The implementation of global agendas will have to pass through the local level, whether the focus is on projects, raising awareness among the population, management, or finance.
  2. They represent the largest urban area where agendas can be applied, offering a greater geographical urban impact.2) They represent the largest urban area where agendas can be applied, offering a greater geographical urban impact.
  3. Since they are an element of dialogue within the territory, both in terms of vertical governance and in terms of proximity to citizens and the rural world, intermediary cities make policy implementation possible in large territories, resulting on a greater impact on the natural environment with a view to its sustainability.


Dialogue, the Essential Strength of Intermediary Cities

One of the greatest strengths of intermediary cities is their potential for dialogue on the levels of geography, governance, territory and population. Intermediary cities must boost dialogue if full advantage is to be taken of their potential for human development.

Space materializes this potential for dialogue. At the territorial level, intermediary cities are by definition an element of dialogue. Until now it has been a stage in migration from the countryside to the metropolis, where opportunities are sought for work and personal and family development. Today’s metropolis is looking for solutions that will allow it to enter a logic of sustainability, such as the concept of the smart city, an experiment that started with the integration of numerical technology into the management of the city and that is finally focusing and materializing around the notion of a “more human city.” The human factor, the human scale and proximity are part of the essence of the intermediary city. In this respect, India, with its capacity, potential and youth in terms of information technology and numeracy, is developing a smart city program for its intermediary cities. It has understood on the one hand that its metropolises cannot hold a larger population, since this will generate more poverty and inequality, and on the other that the smart city experiment is naturally applicable in i-cities. It is also hoped that people will become more aware of the priorities of sustainability through information technology systems and through the mobilization of human resources.

“The intermediary city is the solution to the metropolis,” said the minister of Housing and Sustainability of Costa Rica at the session of Habitat III devoted to i-cities in Quito in October 2016. This is becoming a reality under its own momentum. In view of the dynamics in the north of the world, where Homo urbanus is trying to approach nature once more and regain a more human environment, the sense of identity and belonging, and the quality of life enjoyed by Homo ruralus, reverse migrations are now occurring from the metropolis to more “livable” cities.

In this territorial dialogue, we must also pay attention to the rural environment. Intermediary cities can support small towns and villages, which in effect are the nursery of a culture in proximity to nature. The question is whether a dialogue can be generated to connect these different urban dimensions among themselves. In this regard, horizontal dialogue and city-to-city cooperation on the territorial level are urgently needed to open the door to sustainability. Territorial dialogue could (or should) materialize in a mastered and systemic management based on collaboration, with interconnected cities forming systems or constellations within more or less specific surrounding territories and natural environments. From an economic, cultural, social and ecologic point of view, these need to be managed in the context of knowledge of the territory, and this in turn requires a strategic vision that will value the existing territorial resources.

I-cities will thus be enabled to play their role to the full by their integration in the development of the territory that surrounds them. Human development and local economic development go together in a territory whose leadership is given value by the intermediary city. These rural links and connections allow the intermediary city to cover an urban and natural (rural) space within the framework of a horizontal dialogue, a development of particular importance for the implementation of the SDG and the New Urban Agenda.

Today, in fact, the approximately nine thousand existing intermediary cities cover the broadest geographical area on the planet. Surely this is a unique potential for the implementation of the global agendas on sustainability and climate change.

What is at stake in today’s intermediary cities is urban sustainability for the viability of tomorrow’s planet.

To fulfill this mission, a vertical dialogue is also required between various levels of governance, integrating the various hierarchical levels into a single dialogue with a common interest: sustainability for all.


A Critical and Strategic Mass

The critical mass of these cities constitutes a key challenge for the cities of the Global South, and is fertile terrain for a dynamics of South–South and triangular cooperation, interchange of management and technical expertise, and development of local democracy and new experiences in local governance.

On the national level, intermediary cities can be a force for the proposal of national as well as international policies within the framework of a vertical dialogue, thus making them strategic partners. Hence the need for organization and the importance of the working group, whose objective was spelled out by its chairman, Mohamed Sefiani, mayor of the city of Chefchaouen in Morocco: “To advance together toward the same goals in consensus for a more sustainable planet.”

The goal is still to bring integrated policies and the means to ensure their own sustainability to the citizens of the world and their leaders, with respect for their environment, culture and identity, on a worldwide scale.

Intermediary cities pose a key strategic challenge on a global level. They allow a wider band of the world’s population to be affected, they allow urban development to be accompanied by human development, and they allow the urban world to be given a dignified form that will accelerate in coming years in terms of equity, equality of opportunity, urban quality, democracy and expression, culture and identity, innovation and apprenticeship, within the framework of a professional, political and human dialogue.

There is much talk today of city rights—that is, rights of and to a city. In my view, it is in fact the human rights charters that have allowed us to construct the world so far. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have to go further, thinking and projecting a world of greater generosity, with cities that embrace and open themselves to their populations. When we speak of more human cities, we should be talking of what makes the strength of human beings: giving, receiving, and offering from the heart, with generosity. This “city attitude” already exists in many intermediary cities around the world, and needs to be generalized. That is why in the i-cities community we speak of “good living.”

With the vocabulary of “rights,” it is suggested that we request the natural and already-integrated “right to” a city. Citizens must also remember that they have responsibilities toward their natural environment, their living space, their city, their fellow citizens and their planet.

The implementation of these global agendas therefore has to pass through the local level, with the involvement of citizens as individuals and as groups. All of us are professionals, consumers, members of civil society, men or women, and each of us is trying to live better. That is why intermediary cities are of key importance in the implementation of the path to sustainability.

Making of this implementation a coherent planetary strategy is the next challenge.



Mohamed Sefiani, mayor of the city of Chefchaouen, Morocco

The urban world has understood the importance of intermediary cities: by 2030, 65 percent of urban development will be located in i-cities. This development represents a challenge in every dimension: economic, social, cultural, patrimonial and, above all, that relating to sustainability. It is important to raise awareness at national and international levels of the added value of facilitating, promoting and listening to the leaders of i-cities, since the challenge facing them is the same which faces us all.

In these crucial times, when world agendas are conceived globally and acted upon at a local level, answers must also be found for how the local can contribute from the bottom up to the global level, then returning to the local for effective implementation.

More than ever, coming together and forming a worldwide critical mass among those of us who lead intermediary cities is becoming a strategy to provide us with better conditions for responding to the needs of our citizens and assuming our responsibilities in the face of our planet’s challenges.


1. Within the framework of its scientific and political organs, UCLG, in partnership with the UNESCO Chair for Intermediary Cities and World Urbanization in the University of Lleida, has launched a global working group on intermediary cities, which since April 2014 has been chaired by the city of Chefchaouen (Morocco).




A Moroccan architect and urbanist, and a lecturer of philosophy of architecture, a discipline that allows her to study human development through sustainability and culture. She is a member of the UNESCO Chair in Intermediary Cities: Urbanization and Development, and the secretary general of the Global Forum of Intermediary Cities of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) corporation. She has been a member of the International Union of Architects and is the director of international relations of the African Union of Architects, whose objective is to build bridges with national and international institutions in a new South–South and North–South dialogue that would lead to sustainability. As such, she is currently assisting mayors and institutions in sustainable development strategies.

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