Intermediary cities in Asia: Autonomy and well-being come into focus

Intermediary cities are smaller and less well-known than primary cities like New York, Berlin and Melbourne. However, there are many more of them. This is especially true for Asia, where the sheer number of intermediary cities means that they often combine with mixed-use and agricultural landscapes to form dense, almost continuous carpets of settlement.

Despite their smaller size and relative obscurity, intermediary cities – sometimes referred to as second cities – are likely to be crucial to sustainable urbanisation on a global scale.

Intermediary cities in Asia: Autonomy and well-being come into focus
People walk along the waterfront looking towards the southern Malaysian intermediary city of Johor Bahru from the ‘primary city’ of Singapore. (Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

However, to be effective, efforts to plan for sustainable urbanisation must consider the unique scales, patterns, and development trajectories of intermediary cities.

What is an intermediary city? 

Intermediary cities are urban areas with populations ranging from 50,000 to one million. They are part of larger city networks and act as important connectors between rural and urban areas, providing necessary facilities and services to their inhabitants according to the Monash Commission. Currently, these cities are home to 20% of the global population, and their numbers are increasing rapidly, according to the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) network. 

Furthermore, intermediary cities are experiencing faster rates of urbanisation than the large primary cities that receive the most attention. For instance, lesser-known cities like Wyndam (Australia), Buffalo (US), and Johor Bahru (Malaysia) are growing at faster rates than nearby major urban centres like Melbourne, New York and Singapore. 

Given this, proper representation, and effective efforts to plan for sustainable urbanisation must engage with intermediary cities.

The recently published Monash Commission report highlights the importance of intermediary cities in sustainable development and emphasises the need for a polycentric planning approach that incorporates these cities into our thinking about sustainable urbanisation.

Intermediary cities: an Asian perspective

Given that more than half of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia, and this region is experiencing urbanisation at an unprecedented pace; the question we ask is, how can focusing on intermediary cities help achieve sustainable urbanisation in Asia? 

Intermediary cities in the Asian context are even more important as they encompass a much larger proportion of the global 20% figure mentioned previously because the total urban populations and densities in the countryside are much higher than in other parts of the world. Moreover, the rapid construction of physical infrastructure and virtual communication networks in Asia over the past decade is connecting previously isolated regions into local, regional, and global networks and contributing strongly to economic prosperity. 

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For instance, according to a recent report on sustainable urbanisation in ASEAN, intermediary cities are already expected to account for 40% of GDP growth, and more than 200 new such cities are expected to be built. Finally, it could be argued that settlement patterns in many Asian countries do not just connect rural and urban areas but form vast and intricate carpets composed of thousands of population centres.

Intermediary cities
Population density across Asia (only some country names are included). (Image auto provided)

Taking the perspective of urbanising Asia does not diminish the relevance of polycentric development nor the features crafted by the Monash Commission. Rather, it underscores their importance. But to make them effective, it does highlight the need for a nuanced appreciation for the scales, patterns and development trajectories of urbanisation in Asia.

Balance of autonomy and integration within the larger metropolitan network

Innovative polycentric settlement models are needed to balance the relationship between individual centres and subcentres within larger settlement networks. Polycentric models consist of compact and economically integrated villages, towns and intermediary cities that are well connected to each other and beyond with efficient transportation and communication networks. These features in combination can:

  • support sustainable economic growth through balanced interdependencies between centres and sub-centres, and functional efficiencies
  • contribute to decoupling productivity growth from carbon emissions
  • reduce infrastructure and mobility costs and improve commuting times
  • protect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, foodsheds and wider bioregions

Aspirations for a more integrated polycentric kind of urbanisation in Asia currently lack sustained research, innovation, and often appropriate planning capacity at local and regional levels. Relevant policies that are emerging around the world (ULCG and EU initiatives) need to be studied and their applicability to Asian settings tested. 

Significant differences between metropolitan and agropolitan developmental conditions need to be acknowledged in this process. Insights from these studies need to be combined with innovative local governance practices (regulations, incentives, knowledge exchange and coalition-building) and capacity building based on strong data foundations. Those data need to support credible information on the following settlement aspects:

  • Size: including demographics, density, economic activity, employment, human capital, higher education, cultural importance, and administrative status
  • Morphology: including built form, infrastructure, settlement pattern, physical land-use, compactness, physical concentration, and decentralisation
  • Connectedness: including flows (people, goods, information, capital), functional relationships, accessibility, commuter catchments, isochrones, night light, economic complementarity and integration

Special attention is needed on the temporal, specifically seasonal, relationship of these factors to the densely populated rural landscapes that surround intermediate cities and towns.

Supporting citizen and community well-being

Supporting citizen and community well-being in intermediary cities is crucial given their dynamic role in managing the movement of people, goods and services between urban and rural areas. This sense of well-being is closely implicated in the broader goals of sustainable, inclusive and resilient urbanisation. 

Unfortunately, most intermediary Asian cities face structural barriers that hinder their capacity to fulfil this role and address the challenges posed by climate change. These limitations stem from a lack of information, insufficient funding, inadequate governance and limited transportation infrastructure capacity.

Emissions in intermediary cities have steadily increased since 2000, mainly in the transportation and energy sectors. These cities are expected to continue growing in the future, without adequate planning and with a high risk of sprawl. Some will even become major cities, which poses a threat to sustainability. 

In addition, 80% of South East and East Asia’s population is projected to be affected by sea level rise by 2050. Hence, intermediary cities require special attention in climate change mitigation efforts because they are at risk of becoming unsustainable without proper planning. These cities will also face similar problems that large cities are currently experiencing.

Many of these cities have limited capacity, poor governance frameworks, and poor urban planning, which limit the government’s ability to provide services and a safe environment during increasingly extreme climatic events. Furthermore, as these cities grow and become wealthier, they tend to shift towards carbon-intensive energy sources, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. 

It is critical to include the effects of climate change on intermediary cities in the development agenda as they can promote well-being, job creation, and poverty reduction, and serve as locations for new solutions and social and economic innovation.

To achieve this, local governments will need to collaborate closely with national and regional governments, engage the community, and protect citizens from the challenges of transitioning. 

Cities can become compact and connected urban centres, attracting investment, promoting sustainable economic development through increased productivity and innovation, providing a healthy and secure environment for their residents, and improving the well-being of the community. 

Climate actions should aim to improve the socioeconomic conditions of urban dwellers, such as access to education and training opportunities. Therefore, improving citizen and community well-being is critical for resilience development. 

Since 2000, emissions in intermediary cities have steadily increased, particularly in the transportation and energy sectors. As these cities are expected to continue to grow in the coming years, most likely without adequate planning and with a high risk of sprawl, some of them will even become major cities.

This article by Stephen Cairns, professor urban design, Alex Lechner, professor urban design, Alyas Widita, assistant professor urban design, Diego Ramírez-Lovering, professor of architecture of the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, and Eka Permanasari, associate professor urban design, architecture and South East Asian studies, all of Monash University, Indonesia, is part of a series on intermediary cities in Asia.

The next part will focus on Equitable and sustainable design and Experimentation and innovation, with the final part focusing on a Diverse economic base and Vision, leadership and sound governance.

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