Special Issue

Unlocking potentials in urbanised territories

Unlocking potentials in urbanised territories

As big cities are grappling with ideas on resilient futures, it is also high time to put the potentials of wider urban areas back on the agenda. In many regions outside the large cores everyday life has been “urbanized” by the absorption of growth, modification of infrastructures and experience of social disparities. In the broader system and due to its low density dispersion change has been less obvious, albeit persisting. In addition, the global “hinterland” manufactures the goods, stores the data, harvests food and energy, provides resources and stocks ecological functions and recreational space. These territories also need to substantially contribute to translating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into practice and follow clear paths to transformation. As the grand narrative of metropolitan urbanization prevails – wider urbanized territories as well can create an enduring story beyond backwardness, exploitation and competitive tug of war.


“If we solve the transformation of the big cities, we are just half way there” – Alexander Wetzig, Former Mayor of Ulm, Upper-Swabia, Germany


Conceptualizing the urban periphery has a long history

Fragmented and polycentric areas are a typical urbanization pattern across Europe, and efforts to analyse and conceptualize the phenomenon have a long history. Thomas Sieverts’ approach to Zwischenstadt or Bernardo Secchi`s and Paola Viganò’s work on Città dispersa date back to the late 20th century. Already then, they were building on a much older interest in urban-rural potentials, expressed amongst others in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. 5th Studio’s work on the Oxford-Cambridge Corridor, Karl Ganser’s Emscher-Park concept or Studio Basel’s image of urban Switzerland have inspired and influenced national planning policies and left traced over decades. Disaster driven concepts or landscape based readings, like the one for the entire NYC bay area, uncovered strong levers – and increasingly, projects like Paola Vigano’s Brussels 2040 – A radical project further elaborate the vision of a Horizontal Metropolis as an additional model for sustainable transition at times of urgently needed global change.


Transformation as a field of collective action

The diversified character and multi-faceted challenges of peripheral urban territories will need custom-fit procedures that exceed a mere adoption of urban planning routines. It will be crucial, that approaches build on specific potentials of existing urban-rural symbiosis, integrating and developing functions within a comprehensive idea on resilient development. Just as important is a re-thinking of institutional organization: spatially, socially and politically.

From an economic perspective, there could be scepticism on the “elongated” use of territory and dispersion of both population and activity that does not provide the density and replicability inscribed in many spheres of urban sustainability paths. Ecologically, resourceful land-use and wasteful energy consumption in housing and production threaten the ecosystems, the high quality of life standards inscribed in medium density depend on. And on a social and administrative level two positive aspects of strong local ties often come hand in hand with a scattered regionalism that overburdens local players.


Against this background, approaches to complement the planning paradigm of the compact city need radical attention. Solutions, that incorporate intricacies and singularities of these territories can overcome reflexes to surrender to complexity and merely apply by-products from metropolitan innovations. They can unleash effective strategies for urban-rural transformation on eye-level.

Here is the hope: Creating a climate resilient world needs holistic views across governmental institutions and legislative borders anyway. In urbanized territories, functional proximities, demographic challenges and the pull effect of metropolitan urbanization can create levers to bind together public and private actors. Cooperating, they can cultivate new social and economic stabilities in a region. Changing industrial and infrastructural landscapes can facilitate new business models, cross-sectoral land-use, a layering of functions on the same plot and circular processes. Digitalisation and local production can help to balance and distribute pressures, allowing urban nodes a relief from overheating and commuter routes from congestion. The idea of a common project for all actors involved, could best be experimented with outside the big city – generating new formats, processes and modes of co-production.


Five key tasks to promote transition

The goal is twofold: in many places sustainable and powerful economic and social structures are already there and must be strengthened – and challenges like exuberant land-use or irrational mobility patterns must seriously be addressed. Five tasks can be specified to create resilient, liveable and balanced regions:


Make use of spatial characteristics

Virtually anywhere in Europe any half-hour ride by car, bus or train will reveal an intermingled patchwork of infrastructures, agriculture and production, businesses and housing. Tap in these proximities of functions and infrastructures, complex facets of local traditions and economic history. Use available spaces creatively and uncover how the pervasion of urban functions in rural territories can leverage symbiosis, multi-layered or circular business and consumption models or support equity issues. Don’t miss the opportunity to use the current global taste for large scale mobility planning to reinterpret, reequip and requalify existing and new settlement structures.

Address local identification and create authentic narratives

The local sphere often serves as a valuable anchor for identification and provides a sense of belonging. At the same time, many daily routines extend to regional, international, sometimes global frames. The latest pandemic experience has made two things clear: We can stay in one place and reach far beyond. But also: In a global world it is better to know and utilize systemic interdependencies rather than surrender to a seemingly overwhelming complexity. Understand the extended catchment areas of urbanized territories as zones of joint and coordinated future aspiration. Create care and responsibility for processes outside local precincts and parish-pump decision making.

Expand views to wider relations

The constant entanglement of urban and rural functions will need radically new readings to unlock systemic potentials of proximity and circulation. Comprehensive visions across institutional silos can create a “common dream” and re-define the relationship between the built and natural environment. Also, outside urban cores planning policies have to seriously integrate economic, spatial and social aspects to allow for resilient aspirations. Look for potentials and threats on a regional scale and create procurements to communicate the findings across scales down to the individual municipal level.

Form new collaborations across boundaries

Different actors from the rural and urban realm face common challenges. Bring them on eye-level. Help to establish new alliances between public and private and facilitate the teaming up of bottom-up and top-down initiatives. Include players who face negative balances or have been isolated in their attempts to stimulate co-ordinated behaviour. Find ways to communicate that interests and challenges are complex and in any negotiation there is one and a half cakes to share, although only one is visibly on the table.

Learn to experiment and be bold

Experimentation in the public domains offers learning opportunities for society’s most complex problems. For experiments to flourish, critical masses of actors, problems and ideas need to be brought together – something usually attributed to the concentration in cities. Extend this understanding to urbanized territories, where rooted local societies and entrepreneurs often find stamina and commitment for a change. Collect energies and experiences together to create common causes.

“We need to move beyond academics and be an agent that also dares to propose. We need to think what is politically possible and what not.” – Philipp Rode, LSE Cities


Sharing knowledge and experiences 

Various characteristics of urbanized territories offer a starting point to develop levers for sustainable development. In academic research, the spatial phenomena have extensively been analysed across Europe. At the same time, conclusions for political decision-making and procedures of implementation have been scarce. In a step forward, it will be necessary to collect and connect the knowledge and experience already accumulated in the field, and force its impact on planning policies. Collective projects outside big city power frames must be shaped and drive change from a second front. For that, actors have to reach across the aisle, building strong networks across municipal boundaries, professional silos and spatial scales. If the urban and the rural are no longer opposites but contribute as equal partners to common goals, the project of an equitable productive landscape becomes tangible.


Ute Meyer, urbanes.land

Ute Meyer is founder of the urbanes.land initiative. She is professor for urbanism and design, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Energy-Engineering at Biberach University and a LSECities fellow. She is convinced that evidence-based analysis, political dialogue and critical participation are the three key elements to shape an innovative planning practice outside urban cores.


Martin Spalek, urbanes.land

Martin Spalek is programme coordinator and research associate at the urbanes.land initiative. With a background in architecture and industrial engineering he has worked for infrastructure corporations, non-profit organizations and in academic research. He combines his soft spot for large scale infrastructure with approaches to cooperative production of space.


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