Denmark, small and medium sized cities

Looking for new activities and attractions to maintain vibrant town centres and develop appealing urban areas

ESPON has welcomed the request of Denmark to support small and medium sized cities (SMSTs) with evidence and analysis in order to identify new activities and attractions to maintain vibrant town centres and to develop appealing urban areas.

This study “ESPON TOWN spin-off Denmark” provides supporting knowledge and evidence on the state and development of SMSTs in Denmark by using detailed datasets and by conducting an in-depth analysis of the local context . Based on a quantitative data-driven analysis, it describes the main characteristics of SMSTs in Denmark, how they differ from each other and what role various aspects including tourism and services play. Furthermore, it presents a short update of SMST research as well as a recap of recent Danish policies related to SMSTs. Finally, it provides perspectives on Denmark’s SMSTs within a European policy context.

According to Jeppe Høst, special consultant at the Danish Housing and Planning Authority, in the Danish government and parliament there is broad support for promoting small and medium sized cities. These cities have an important role as regional centres for trade and services – as well as for a balanced development in the country as a whole. The government has announced several policy initiatives and will be redirecting both national and EU funding towards cities with between 4 000 – 50 000 inhabitants.

Jeppe Høst said that “we need better knowledge to identify exactly what the drivers of development are and how development can be better animated and facilitated in small and medium sized cities”. “The Danish Housing welcomes this study on the changing conditions and trends that influence development at a local level”, he added.

Policy needs

Profound knowledge on small and medium sized towns is vital for targeted policy development in Denmark. Researchers from University of Copenhagen and Politecnico di Torino have responded to the following key policy questions:

  1. What are the main characteristics of small- and medium sized towns (SMSTs) in Denmark and how do these cities contribute to the Danish economy and demography?
  2. How do SMSTs in Denmark differ from each other and what are their interrelations?
  3. What is the significance of tourism in maintaining private (and indirectly public) services for local dwellers?
  4. What is the organizational and strategic capacity of town-based local development organisations?
  5. How can state authorities and local governments support the development of SMSTs in a long-term perspective?
  6. Are there any instruments, tools, policies in the EU that can provide interesting “learning from practices”?

A simple typology to highlight shifts in the urban structure

To provide a more detailed view of different types of SMSTs, researchers use a simple typology as analytical lens. By plotting the 111 towns into a coordinate system based on their growth in workplaces and population relative to the Danish national average, four categories arise:

  • Type 1: Relative decrease in number of jobs, relative increase in population size.
  • Type 2: Relative increase in number of jobs and in population size.
  • Type 3: Relative increase in number of jobs, relative decrease in population size.
  • Type 4: Relative decrease in number of jobs and in population size.

By using the national average as reference, the typology highlights shifts in balance compared to other parts of the country more than the actual change. E.g. many Type 4 towns had a slight increase in population and jobs, but growth was lower than in Denmark on average, potentially increasing regional disparities.

111 SMSTs in Denmark – well-known configurations and multi-layered patterns

Type 2 towns had above average population and job growth and were mainly located within metropolitan areas. Type 4 towns had below average population and job growth (or even decline). The two types often represent two extremes in the analysis, e.g., in regard to population and household structure, education, jobs or service provision. Regarding the latter, it is worth mentioning that Type 4 towns have the highest level of shops and services within the town, but regarding the supply on a regional scale (within 20 km) they are lagging far behind. The challenge for Type 4 towns is to find ways for restructuring and conversion. For Type 2 towns, the integration in the metropolitan area is a big opportunity but requires sustainable and resilient development to minimize risks related to its dependency on metropolitan growth.

Type 1 towns had above average population growth, but below average job growth. This group was also the smallest, numbering only 14 towns of the total of 111. The towns include a few medium-sized provincial towns as well as small towns in metropolitan areas. In many variables they achieve average values but have an overrepresentation of the young population and typically also an increase in number of young adults. The latter trend might be related to the high supply of (semi) tertiary educational institutions in the towns. Future challenges here may include maintaining employment to sustain local development.

Type 3 towns had below average population growth but above average job growth. The group includes small and medium-sized towns in metropolitan areas with a high concentration of jobs that serve the big labour market. The group also includes small towns along the coast or located in other areas of interest. Furthermore, some towns might be centres of a less populated area, providing jobs for the region.

Phases of regional policy in Denmark

The development of small and medium-sized towns in Denmark has been affected by a series of policies and societal development trends. On the one hand, SMSTs have been targeted by policies driven by development goals; on the other hand, they have been affected unintentionally by policies dealing with broader societal problems. Denmark’s modern history of spatial planning and regional policy is marked by the application of a diversity of principles. A timeline covering the modern planning of the welfare state, from 1949 to current day, reveals a diversity of policy responses to ideas and problems related to urban and regional development. It also shows that changes and developments in society have called for new instruments (such as municipal mergers) as part of general administrative reforms.

Timeline showing the rationales behind regional planning policy in Denmark

Policy recommendations

Working with SMSTs – policy approaches in Denmark

Researchers identify three national policy approaches (since 2007) addressing the geographic balance of the urban system including SMSTs in Denmark. The first approach was used for the organisation of the health sector, still based on regional units. The distribution of services was therefore defined by regions functioning as service areas.

  • During this period regional authorities turned into implementation units of national policies. In line with this, it is recommended to carefully define the role and responsibilities of the regional authority in order to avoid any uncertainties as to the role of the regional government – as a regional authority overseeing the municipalities or as a national implementation unit.

The second approach addressed redistribution of public institutions, based on an anticipated dichotomy of growing and lagging behind areas, mainly the capital region in contrast to other areas in Denmark. The third approach targets specific urban settings (e.g. town centres, housing areas, coastal areas) by defining global criteria, without predefined regional division.

  • During this period, several national programmes were launched inviting local authorities to apply for governmental support. Some of these programmes were akin to a tendering process. We recommend this kind of tendering – from ‘soft’ tendering on legal support for local projects to ‘hard’ tendering on governmental financing local initiatives – to be developed further. In particular, tendering involving local networking seems to facilitate a step forward from voluntary networking having weak results to dedicated networking focused on results.

Lessons from Europe

The European context points to several paths for placing towns strategically on the policy agenda and provides insights that can be sources of inspiration to Danish authorities for supporting SMSTs’ development.

In general, a growing trend sees the reinforcement of town networks, enabling a broad set of possible forms of cooperation between them. This may go through institutional tools, such as the CLLD approach, or through more bottom-up approaches.

Other important directions of policy evolution can be traced in terms of the integration of policy measures. Integrated approaches for towns and tailored areas of cooperation are gaining momentum. The new European Urban Initiative, among other initiatives, indicates a shift from a metropolitan focus to a broader understanding of urban configurations, offering the possibility of sparking innovation in methods through the promotion of place-based approaches to local development.

Hence, seizing the opportunities offered by integrated European tools and policies in the 2021–2027 period, e.g. integrating EU funds for CLLD, and networking to access innovative funding opportunities, could contribute to support the development of a balanced and cohesive urban structure in Denmark.

Further info


TOWN DK_Final report_20220824.pdf

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Fig_5.1_time line.jpg

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Map 3.1_towns in Denmark.png

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Map 3.2_typology.png

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Map 4.1a_population change.png

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Map 4.1b_pop 18-24 change.png

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Map 4.2a_hh with children change.png

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Map 4.2b_hh singles change.png

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Map 4.3a_airbnb nights.png

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Map 4.3b_jobs hospitality.png

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Map 4.4a_residential floor area growth.png

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Map 4.4b_housing prices change.png

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Map 4.5a_shops.png

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Map 4.5b_sec schools.png

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Map 4.6_voter turnout.png

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Map 4.7a_commuting.png

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Map 4.7b_jobs.png

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TOWN DK_data tables.xlsx

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  • Excel Document | 23KB