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Empowering future-wise small urban areas

April 2022

Small urban areas are often overlooked in policy making and public debates. Still, a substantial share of the people lives in small urban areas, more precisely about between 25% and 43%, depending on the definition. This makes small urban areas an important part of Europe’s territorial, social and economic fabric, as e.g. outlined in the Territorial Agenda 2030. They are centres for the provision of services of general interest and places with a good quality of life. However, their attractiveness is increasingly under threat due to demographic change and grand societal transitions in Europe.

That small urban areas are often overlooked is also due to the fact, that they are very diverse and there is no generally accepted definition. In general terms, urban areas with 5,000 to 50,000 inhabitants can be understood as small urban areas. About 43% of the EU population lives in such municipalities. Excluding areas with a population density below 300 inhabitants per km2, small urban areas are still home to about 25% of the population.

A recent study to the European Committee of the Regions (Opens in a new window) shows that in many cases small urban areas do not have sufficient capacity to tackle the transitions challenges ahead. In general, there is little knowledge about how to address the transitions in small urban areas. This is particularly challenging given the high diversity of small urban areas, their demographic and economic profiles as well as their territorial context and role therein.

To address local development challenges and proactively approach the green and digital transitions as well as demographic change, requires the capacity to act. This means the capacity to mobilise people and resources to develop and implement strategies and ideas. In times of crises, transitions or abrupt changes, it also requires the capacity to navigate under uncertainty. In particular for smaller places this usually also means the capacity to ‘punch above their weight’ to make things happen rather than following a ‘laissez-faire-approach’.

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