Small Urban Areas: opportunities and challenges: Kai Böhme

Dr Kai Böhme

Partner and Director of Spatial Foresight

Dr Kai Böhme is founder and director of Spatial Foresight. He specialises in European regional and territorial research and policies, international comparative studies in the fields of regional development policies, spatial planning, and in the territorial impacts of sector policies. He has a truly European background and considerable experience in policy advice at the European and national level as well as in the management of international applied research and consultancy projects.

To begin, let’s discuss, what is meant by the term ‘Small Urban Areas’, and why did you choose to use it to describe small and medium-sized cities? 

Small Urban Areas (SUAs) are defined as cities with a population between 5,000 and 50,000 inhabitants. The definition of SUAs, however, is very fluent and varies across Europe: on a national and international scale. This definition or terminology is also context-dependent: to talk about SUAs, we must talk about the function that they play for their surroundings, and how they interact with the environment that they’re in.

Overall, we need to be careful when using statistical simple definitions. They can be useful to give structure and indication of differences but we need to treat these definitions with a lot of caveat not to confuse the functions and nature of some areas. 50,000 inhabitants is a threshold but it is quite indicative so no conclusions should be draw from that.

As for why this term was chosen to be put into usage, it came out of a discussion. It is a term which policymakers can relate to. It is also a communication choice – referring to SUAs helps understand documents which include this term and what to relate it to.



What can be done in terms of fragmentation of the definition of SUAs and how they’re addressed in national and international policies?

Firstly, we need to look at the different functions and specific examples of such areas. As mentioned before, these matters are very much context-related and a SUA of 50,000 next to Paris will differ greatly in terms of role and function from a 50,000 SUA in Finland.

A definition also look into the responsibilities, possibilities and power level on a local scale of SUAs also needs to be taken into account in policy documents.

What should be done on a European and national level to have a better understanding and promote the importance of SUAs?

An important point for SUAs is also capacity-building as it is currently overlooked in many areas. SUAs should have their place in traditional regional policy interventions but emphasis needs to be given for those areas to deal with their specific context and situations.  Oftentimes, small urban areas have the same tasks and challenges as big cities and need to deal with those with all capacity available to their size. It does not suffice to make funding available for these places as the correct application of such funds and financial reporting need to be made use of in order to fully benefit from the economic opportunities. Small cities often don’t have the capacity required to apply for international or EU-funds and might be intimidated of formalities related to financial aid.

"One of the most important points for me is that a lot of policies mention SUAs but do not address them directly and practically."

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.