Between cooperation and competition: why polycentric development matters

Polycentric territorial patterns encourage more balanced development between regions and more co-operative urban-rural relationships. Critical economic mass is created by combining the efforts of urban centres. Polycentric development is not about cities making massive investments in order to grow bigger. Instead it is about building linkages and joining forces with neighbouring cities and towns in order to “borrow” size and quality, to ensure positive spill-over effects for the development of wider regions.

In this way, polycentric development can contribute to reducing regional disparities at all levels. This avoids further excessive economic and demographic concentration within the core areas at EU and national scales and revitalises less densely settled and economically weaker regions. In the long run, polycentric development contributes to making cities and regions more resilient and diversified, which strengthens the competitiveness of Europe in the global economy.

Supportive policy framework for cooperation

The importance of supporting polycentric development in Europe by promoting more functional links and interactions among places is emphasised in all key EU level strategic documents on territorial development – the European Spatial Development Perspective (1999), EU Territorial Agenda 2020 (2011), the “Pact of Amsterdam” which established an EU Urban Agenda (2016).

In this context, ESPON has published a policy brief based on an in-depth analysis of polycentricity patterns around Europe and selected case-studies. The brief emphasises three major policy messages.

First, at European and national levels, policy orientations should not be aimed at changing settlement patterns but rather at respecting diversity and making the most of existing territorial fabrics by combining resources and assets of different places. Second, in lower density areas, priority should be given to increasing flows and interactions among places over attempts to grow “bigger cities” with more low-return or no-return type investments. Eventually, polycentric plan-making should be stimulated and facilitated by offering relevant capacity-building and specific advantageous regulations.

Vision comes first, not the structures!

For regional and local policy makers engaged in polycentric territorial areas, ESPON provides a range of policy recommendations highlighting that political will and active leadership are crucial in supporting and coordinating cooperation. In this context, both strategic and operational approaches should be drawn to ensure the long-term commitment of stakeholders, ideally before shaping any specific cooperation structure. Eventually, implementing inclusive governance and branding polycentric cooperation practices help building trust towards the place and belief in the ability of local players to use any additional resources efficiently with large potential impacts.