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This article was originally posted in the CIVIS series by the Cities Alliance (No.7 – 2014)

We inhabit a world where an increasing number of people live in cities, all of which are becoming intricately connected to a global system of cities. Modern cities are part of a new economic geography which makes them increasingly dependent on fast communications, trade, finance, and investment systems to support their development. However, many parts of the global and national systems of cities are not benefiting significantly from the ‘new age’ and economic geography of cities.

Barranquilla 2Barranquilla, Colombia.Read a case study about this city in the new publication by Cities Alliance and the IDB

Most of these are the secondary and small cities of less than a million people. Many of these are struggling to create or retain jobs; have high levels of unemployment; and find it difficult to diversify and revitalize their economies, retain capital and attract investment. Others are rapidly growing cities which do not have the capacity to manage urbanization. Many of these face a huge backlog in demand for infrastructure, housing and other essential urban services.

Secondary cities are growing the most but with fewer capacities to plan and manage urban development and promote employment and economic growth. Due to their sheer growing number, it is systems of secondary cities, such as cities with fewer than one million inhabitants, which will have a greater influence upon the future economic development of nations and larger geographic regions.

Globally, there are more than 2,400 cities in the world with populations between 150,000 and 5 million which could be loosely described as secondary cities. Nearly two thirds of these are located in Africa and Asia. Secondary cities range in form and size from 150,000 to 5 million people and perform a wide range of functions in national and international systems of cities.

What is a Secondary City?

“Secondary city” is a term most commonly used to describe the second tier, or level, in the hierarchy of cities below the primary level. Some countries have several orders, or levels, of cities. A primary city is defined as “the leading city in its country or region, disproportionately larger than any others in the urban hierarchy” (Goodall, 1987). The definition of secondary cities, however, is contextual: it can relate to population size, administrative area, political, economic, and historical significance of a system of cities below the primary order of cities within a country or geographic region.

The term “secondary city” was popularized by Rondinelli (1983) in the 1970s. His definition characterized secondary cities as urban settlements with a population of at least 100,000 but not including the largest city in the country. His research was originally intended to help develop policies to stimulate the economies of rural areas surrounding secondary cities.

secondary cities 2

UN-Habitat defines a secondary city as an urban area generally with a population of 100,000 to 500,000. This definition is based on the classification of cities4 developed in the 1950s. However, a secondary city today can have a population of several million people. In China, some secondary cities have populations of over five million. These cities are not comparable to secondary cities in Ethiopia, which have urban populations of less than 200,000. Other authors5 suggest secondary cities as not so much defined by hierarchy, but as part of an integrated functional system of national or global system of cities.

Secondary cities fall into three broad spatial categories:

  1. Sub-national cities that are centers of local government, industry, agriculture, tourism and mining;
  2. City clusters associated with expanded, satellite and new town cities which surround large urban metropolitan regions;
  3. Economic trade corridors that are urban growth centers or poles planned or developing along major transport corridors.

Secondary cities will play an important role as catalysts and secondary hubs in facilitating the localized production, transportation, transformation, or transfer of goods, people, trade, information, and services between sub-national, metropolitan, national, regional, and global systems of cities. They will likely demonstrate the presence of industry agglomeration and clusters; a system of well-developed, localized supply chains and networks; a diversified economic and employment base; and a broad housing mix.

In this sense, there must be a greater focus on supporting endogenous growth in secondary cities since many do not have the capacity or advantages to engage in exogenous, export-orientated growth. New combinations of exogenous and endogenous growth strategies are necessary to develop secondary cities in poor regions.

As part of this effort, with the support of the Cities Alliance and the Inter-American Development Bank, we have produced the Spanish version of Managing Systems of Secondary Cities (Gestionando Sistemas de Ciudades Secundarias), a publication that redefines the term “secondary city” in the context of the role they play in global and national urban systems. This edition contains nineteen regional case studies—five of them from Latin America—that illustrate the way countries in developing regions have approached urbanization, decentralization and other developments in support of secondary city development.

Libro_Ciudades Secundarias

Are you in DC?

  • Join us on September 30 as we launch Gestionando Sistemas de Ciudades Secundarias at the Latin American and Caribbean Mayors Forum. The Forum is part of the Cities Week events that will take place at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. Find more information about this event here.
  • Join a panel discussion on October 1 where academics and experts from Cities Alliance, the IDB, the State Department and the World Bank will discuss strategies for national and local governments to generate inclusive growth and improve livelihoods in secondary cities. Find more information about this event here.


Brian Roberts is an Urban Management Specialist from Land Equity International. He has worked as a professional planner, project manager, academic and adviser for 40 years, on a wide range of urban and regional planning, urban management, institutional capacity building, land management and administration and economic development projects in 30 countries. He has held senior positions with the United Nations Center for Human Settlements, Queensland state government (Australia), two academic institutions, and the private consulting industry.

Rene Peter Hohmann is a Senior Urban Specialist at the Cities Alliance Secretariat and is particularly interested in poverty oriented development approaches in cities. He has extensive research and consultancy experience in evaluating urban regeneration schemes in Europe and slum-upgrading programs in developing countries. He holds a PhD in Geography from King’s College London and a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin.