Intermediate cities: a missing piece in the climate change puzzle

By Oliver Harman, Cities Economist for Cities that Work, International Growth Centre

Research and debate on climate change currently underestimate the importance of a key group of players: intermediate cities. Currently conversation and studies on climate change often centre on large and relatively wealthy capital cities. Their size in population, data availability and comparatively higher energy use per person are factors that draw attention. In comparison, low income intermediate cities (or small and medium sized cities) – those cities that play a linking role between rural and urban, and between cities of different sizes – are often left undervalued in the debate. This is despite these cities (particularly those equatorial or coastal in nature) facing disproportionate risks to climate shocks and stressors. They are vulnerable, and this vulnerability is increasing with rapid urbanisation, while they continue to face limited human and financial capacities.

Of the 100 fastest growing cities, some with populations under one million, the Climate Change Vulnerability Index shows that 84 of them, primarily in Africa, are at extreme risk. The findings from the 1,800 studied cities highlight the lack of adequate healthcare services and disaster mitigation systems, as well as vulnerable populations, as drivers of this exposure. Lower incomes in intermediate cities are another example of vulnerability with, for instance, citizens in primary city districts in Uganda having three times the GDP per capita (USD 2,440) than those in Secondary Districts (USD 719).

Intermediate cities as safety nets in crisis and drivers of economic growth

Intermediate cities will account for 49% of urban population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2030. Their expansion is driven not only by young populations with high birth rates, but also substantial rural to urban migration. Intermediate cities provide a crucial link between isolated agricultural areas and connected networks of people, activities (including agricultural supply chains), goods, and services. These networks act as a social safety net in times of crisis.

While intermediate cities are vulnerable to climate change, isolated rural citizens are more vulnerable still. For example, hotter days in India reduce productivity and wages in agriculture leading to substantial increases in mortality in rural but not urban areas. The interface, or access to urban services that intermediate cities provide for rural citizens is crucial. Evidence shows one service, access to finance, can reduce the economic risk of short term agricultural failure. Seasonal or circular migration to cities can also ease seasonal agricultural poverty as families evade agricultural downturns. Similarly, large numbers of those with less choice – internally displaced people – often move to, within and between cities for safety, shelter and services.

In addition to safety in crisis, intermediate cities provide longer term economic benefits, as their proximity to the rural poor allows them to be more effective at moving citizens out of poverty. These cities currently provide significant economic dynamism and will likely continue to do so. In order to maximise this development potential, empirically driven place sensitive strategies for their growth are needed. Correctly designed and delivered strategies that aim to enhance prosperity and reduce vulnerability will likely see these cities grow further.

Intermediate cities’ connection with rural areas can help enhance climate adaptation. With the consequences of climate change not stopping at city boundaries, for example the fallout from drought, facilitating a rural-urban flow of goods and services as well as mobility of populations is crucial. Yet, the way in which they are developing might tarnish this link. Particularly with respect to land use planning and ability to invest in the necessary infrastructure underpinning development. Likewise, there may be consequences to locking in undesirable carbon trajectories. These issues are discussed further in the follow-up piece to this blog.

Evidence and partnerships needed to help drive change in intermediate cities

The undervalued role of low-income intermediate cities leaves them with limited evidence on their socio-economic dynamics and potential, as well as fewer partnerships to help deliver change. Gaps in research are among the main challenges facing intermediate cities, as currently there is much less academic work done in these smaller cities. Similarly, intermediate cities might not have capacity to facilitate studies themselves and therefore there is a need to reach out proactively, both from larger city academics and international research organisations.

Partners should also help deliver this change. Again, there is much less support in intermediate cities, this time from NGOs as well as donors. These organisations might suffer from inactivity, not knowing how to reach decision makers within these cities. Or they might suffer from misplaced activity, as studies show there is a tendency for NGOs to cluster geographically or around certain issues in a socially undesirable way. Here again proactivity is critical, partners should geographically spread their programmes and work with central government to help support local government decision makers.

The emphasis on climate and its variation across cities

Climate change is affecting us all, but the burden is not felt equitably. Across a number of quality of life indicators, intermediate cities scored better than their larger developing country peers. These higher scores cover traffic, pollution, property price, income, cost of living, purchasing power as well as health and safety. Yet, the one exception was climate where they scored worse. To counter this, national government and development partners should focus on building resilience in intermediate cities, by accepting and addressing the variation of climate change’s drivers and consequences, both across their sizes and locations. As indicated, in low-income settings, these cities with strengthened rural-urban linkages play an important social safety net in addition to their longer term poverty alleviation ability. If decision makers want to lessen the consequences of climate shocks and stressors, there is much to be done and the role of intermediate cities cannot be underestimated.


The above blog was motivated by conversations and policy dialogue during OECD Development Centre and UN-Habitat’s expert meeting on Climate Change and Intermediate Cities, 17th – 19th November 2020. Views may not be representative of all those present. This article was published in collaboration with the International Growth Centre.