#72 - 19 March 2021


Our recent work on mid-sized cities showed that many French people were ready to move to a mid-sized city... but also that employment remains the number one factor required to make this dream come true. A new report by the Institut Montaigne points to the profoundly unbalanced development of the French territory: “the fifteen largest metropolises concentrate 81% of economic growth while making up only 30% of the French population. The ‘scattered territories’, i.e., territories located outside the major metropolises, represent 70% of our country's population and are experiencing stagnation or decline in their economic growth and even in their standard of living.As the French statistical institute (INSEE) recently showed, job creation was concentrated between 2008 and 2017 in just ten very dynamic employment areas (Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, Rennes, and Saclay), all of which are metropolitan areas, while at the same time two-thirds of all areas lost jobs, mainly in small and mid-sized cities. However, some of those cities have proven to be particularly dynamic, such as La Teste-de-Buch, Libourne, Lamballe, Pornic, Brignoles, Draguignan, Bayonne, Manosque and La Roche-sur-Yon, confirming the coastalization of the French territory on its Atlantic and Mediterranean sides. This imbalance, one of the sharpest among OECD members, is found in other countries such as the United States, as shown by the concentration of employment growth in 95 dense metropolitan areas (+17% between 2010 and 2018), including the “super-cities” of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle (+25%), mainly in the fields of innovation and technology.

While the issue of employment and economic recovery will become central in the coming months, how can the desire to live in a medium-sized city be reconciled with a geography of employment which has proven very inert? Will the rise of telecommuting allow for the creation of a gap that could boost local employment linked to the face-to-face economy? Will the recovery plan sufficiently support the economic fabric of mid-sized cities? Relying on a spontaneous dynamic, just like relying on support for the economic structure without adapting it to local disparities, will not be enough to reverse the trend.  A new model of fine-tuned articulation between spatial planning at different scales and economic development is needed to create resilient local economic systems that are networked and alive.

Several courses of action have been identified: the deployment of broadband, a sine qua non condition for remote work and for and connecting to global economic networks; the strengthening of transport infrastructure networks, because a territory is stronger when it gives access to other places and other employment areas, allowing inhabitants to feel that they are not locked in with no other choice; the development of cooperation between different local economic actors as well as between public and private actors to reinforce the network logic that has made the German model successful, based on a strong local anchorage. Several initiatives are already moving in this direction, as Dominique Mockly, CEO of Terega, a major French actor in gas transport and storage infrastructure, reminds us, referring to the “Territoires d'industrie” initiative in Lacq-Pau-Tarbes in the south of France: “We can see all the possibilities that are opened up by bringing together industrialists, [...] with the emergence of very innovative projects in many fields, especially in this period when we have to reinvent ourselves. This is the case, for example, in aeronautics and the challenge that manufacturers must take up to manufacture less polluting planes. We can see to what extent, by federating local energies, we can release very important means and capacities.”

It is now necessary to design a more resilient territorial organisation that can respond to both environmental challenges and increasing socio-spatial inequalities. The context is favourable. The seeds of change are there, with mayors and local economic players committed to their territories and a population in search of a new type of quality of life. Companies and entrepreneurs considering settling down in mid-sized cities can be reassured, explains Emmanuel Rivière, Managing Director of the Public section at Kantar France: “they will have no trouble attracting talents. If there are jobs, there are many good reasons to come live there and bring your family.” – Chloë Voisin-Bormuth, Director of Studies and Research


No time to read? La Fabrique de la Cité has got you covered.

TURNING THE PAGE ON QUAYSIDE – Almost a year after the scrapping of Sidewalk Labs’s highly debated smart city project in Quayside, Toronto, the body in charge of developing the area has just launched a new international call for projects. The winner should be known by the end of 2021. In this upcoming project, particular attention will be paid to issues of aging, accessibility, and affordable housing, rather than to the deployment of digital innovations. – Sarah Cosatto, Research Officer

→ Related: our publications on Toronto and the Quayside project.

A MATTER OF SCALE A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has warned the federal government that raising “the urban population criteria for metropolitan areas from 50,000 to 100,000” would cause funding risks for some localities, as such criteria define eligibility to certain federal programs. At a time when the extent of the economic and social consequences of the pandemic remains unknown and when stimulus programs are being designed and launched, the question of funding for cities is far from trivial. – Sarah Cosatto

In the United States, the effects of the pandemic on metropolitan economies could be felt for a whole decade in certain areas. A national north-south divide is expected between areas heavily dependent on tourism-related industries and areas dedicated to tech and manufacturing activities, which could prove more resilient to the current crisis. Forecasts on an intra-metropolitan scale would also be very enlightening to anticipate the widening of inequalities. – Sarah Cosatto

SOMETHING IN THE AIR In the UK, one in four homes is located in an area where air pollution exceeds the safety limits set by the WHO, especially for particulate matter and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide. While environmental associations are mobilizing and calling for action by public authorities, what action plans can cities develop on their own scale and with their competences to act on the determinants of air pollution? – Sarah Cosatto

→ Related: our study project about healthy and active cities.

AS EASY AS ASSEMBLING A BOOKSHELF Helsingborg, in the South of Sweden, will be home to a project named “H22”, aimed at “co-creat[ing] the sustainable city of the future, that will associate the city’s authorities, IKEA, and Helsingborg’s inhabitants. The project will feature “innovative solutions” in retail, manufacturing, housing, urban farming, circular economy… Will ensuring the social acceptability of the project be as easy as assembling one of IKEA’s famous bookshelves? To be continued. – Sarah Cosatto

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