Additionally, while some areas are good at picking up the current digital, green and just transition trends, others are occupied with maintaining their status quo as the aforementioned developments also require capacity. The lack of capacity is also why many SUAs often find it challenging to take advantage of cohesion funds and policies or only do so to maintain floating in their existing state of affairs.
On an international level, finding a way to strengthen SUAs’ capacities can begin with smart networks and collaborations to work on long-term sustainable and personalised solutions. What is also needed is a SUA monitoring system. This could show us how these areas are evolving and provide an economic, social and environmental assessment of such places. One of the most important points for me is that a lot of policies mention SUAs but do not address them directly and practically.
Finally, what are the potential opportunities of small urban areas, and how could their potential be reached?
There are numerous opportunities presenting themselves for different SUAs all over Europe. Once again, this depends on their location and context but a common thread for these areas is navigating under uncertainty of the current times. The dramatic changes in the energy sector, climate change, the green transition, calls for radically re-thinking policies to give more emphasis and power to SUAs to deal with such challenges. What makes it that some of those areas are trying to embrace the uncertainty and gather its potential and others seem to be sleepwalking into it?
We know that SUAs often offer a greener, less dense and better quality of life. They offer opportunities for digitalisation and development of urban-territorial linkages as well as opportunities in the bio-economy sector, depending on where they are situated.
It is mentioned that, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people migrated back to SUAs in order to work remotely. This is an opportunity for such areas to attract a younger, skilled population which in the past has been heading towards big cites. Unfortunately, there are a lot of taxation limitations and EU-regulations do not tackle remote working in detail. In order to make use of this potential opportunity, more guidelines on national and especially international levels need to be provided.
Another important field of opportunities for SUAs are ecosystem services. Maintaining the biodiversity of an area can provide enormous benefits for the environment and overall population but also the local area itself. This point is also overlooked in policy-making and needs to be tackled on a local scale, for example harvesting the potential of the Danube delta or preserving one of the oldest forests in Europe located in Poland. SUAs have the potential of becoming centres for ecosystem service development however a systemic change is needed to focus on this.
Small urban areas have a lot of room for growth, development and gaining a voice on a national and international level: with clearer and more targeted policies as well as assessment of their progress, this potential can be harvested and benefit the SUAs as well as their surrounding.