Metropolitan economy : what effects for the planning and governance of agglomerations.

Summary of the exchanges of the 2006 session, Basel

Louis-Marie Boulianne, 2006

The fourth platform focused on understanding the metropolitan economy in the context of agglomerations. The first three platforms focused more on the internal problems of agglomerations, on the difficulties of seeing them emerge and function in the context of intermunicipality. This time, it is a question of considering the national and international context, as well as the pressures and challenges facing urban regions.

1. Reminder of the platform

The international platform on agglomerations brings together practitioners and scientists from Belgium, France, Quebec and Switzerland who are interested in agglomeration issues. Organized in collaboration with the ATB and Frédéric Duvinage, the Basel meeting is the fourth after those of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 2003, Namur in 2004, and Toulouse in 2005. The working formula consists of a field visit related to the theme of the platform and a day of discussion to deepen the problematic. A final half-day is used to draw up an assessment and to prepare the next stage of the work.

From Toulouse

The third platform, held in Toulouse in March 2005, focused on the issue of intercommunality in urban agglomerations, with the fundamental question of the usefulness of intercommunality between solidarity and competition.

Intercommunality appears to be an alternative to the merging of municipalities in urban areas, with the practice of supra-municipality tending to develop. Although strongly criticized and judged imperfect, the practice of intercommunality participates in public dynamics that allow for action by combining competencies and territories, often opposing planning to the realization of large projects (the strategy of the blow) in the absence of a more global strategic proposal resulting from democratic choices.

The following questions were addressed :

Answers must be sought and constructed in the articulation between urban planning and land on the one hand, and the public and private sectors on the other. The tension between planning and project is often addressed by communication, contributing to the ambiguous image of consultation and participation procedures.

In Basel

The experience of the Tri-national Agglomeration of Basel (TAB) provides a first-class study ground with an institutional framework that is particularly interesting because of its cross-border aspects and the existence of major projects driven by the global metropolitan economy.

The program of the platform consisted of the presentation of some of the major projects within the framework of the ATB on the first day, including field visits, and concluded with a round table discussion with political representatives of the ATB.

The second day was an opportunity to clarify the concept of the metropolitan economy and to better understand its impact on the planning and governance of urban areas. The summary presentation of current experiences in the countries allowed the debate to be broadened and to return to the concerns of the first platforms on inter-municipality and solidarity within and between conurbations, the participation of actors and democratic processes.

This summary takes as its starting point Nicole Rousier’s paper on the metropolitan economy. In the second part, the agglomerations of Basel, Rhine-Rhone, Brussels-Capital, Montreal and Geneva are briefly put into perspective to illustrate one or other aspect of this metropolitan economy. In the third part, the consideration of different national contexts and of smaller agglomerations (Saint-Étienne, Fribourg, Liège) challenges economic governance in terms of solidarity. This synthesis ends with some questions raised during this Basel platform.

2. Considerations on the metropolitan economy (excerpt from the presentation by Nicole Rousier, PUCA)

«  {A contemporary expression of urban growth, the notion of metropolization was born from an observation : today’s urban spaces bear little resemblance to those of the early 20th century. In relation to the rise of globalization, this phenomenon designates a quantitative and qualitative change in the urbanization process: an increase in the concentration of people and wealth around a certain number of existing urban areas over increasingly large territories, urban sprawl and dispersion of centralities, an increase in mobility, and a progression in fragmentation and social and spatial segregation.

The term metropolization is ambiguous. It characterizes a dynamic of qualitative transformation of cities, both functional (concentration of strategic activities of the global economy) and morphological (urban sprawl, dispersion of centralities, fragmentation and socio-spatial segregation).

Metropolization is « the urban translation of globalization 2  » for economists; it is part of a context of global competition and a selection process in which the « winning cities » of the competition are the metropolises. It is therefore easy to understand why some local authorities claim to be metropolises, why they try to improve their position in the ranking systems, why they aim to appear on the list of indicators used to characterize the phenomenon, and why national policies take up the objective of improving the metropolitan offer in a context of European competition, as is the case in France.

Metropolization, a process of selection and concentration on the largest cities?

English-speaking authors refer to this specific form of urbanization linked to economic globalization as « global cities ». The geography of population notes the increase in the number of « city regions », with a high concentration of population (more than 300 urban regions with more than one million inhabitants and at least 25 with more than 10 million), which are the engines of global development. The book edited by A.J. Scott3 develops all the characteristic features of metropolization : a new economic organization at the global level, a new polycentric territorial organization of urban regions, an increase in social heterogeneity, new modes of governance.

Selection in the context of which competition?

No one seems to question the fact that each territory is in competition with its neighbor or with another region on the other side of the world. But what kind of competition are we talking about?

As Krugman says, «  cities don’t compete… only firms do "; firms that prefer to locate in urban areas are looking for urban externalities to improve their own competitiveness: we can then talk about collective territorial competitiveness based on an efficient form of organization (competition through organization in addition to price competition, according to Veltz), a hypothesis on which the policy of competitiveness clusters is based, for example.

Nevertheless, we can speak of a competition between territories by international investors and by highly qualified professionals, a phenomenon often overvalued by local authorities in terms of attractiveness. This attraction of skills and capital at the international level is based above all on territorial development capacities, recognized and valued at the international level.

Globalization and urban sprawl, polycentrism and social segregation: what is the relationship?

The question remains as to the link between the integration of local economies in an increasingly globalized economy and urban sprawl with its risks of socio-spatial fragmentation. There is no demonstration of the link between urban sprawl and the importance of the international dimension of cities. There is of course no direct relationship because the relationships between economic growth, increased production and international openness and economic development are complex. The work of L. Davezies4 shows that the strongest demographic growth in the last decade has not been in the largest urban areas and, above all, that the geography of income (development indicators) is very different from the geography of production (growth indicators).

Finally, the relationship between metropolization and social segregation is still under debate. Socio-spatial segregation cannot be denied; inequalities in income and in the allocation of populations in the urban space are increasing. The question is to blame this growth in inequality on globalization. Work on the social polarization of large European cities5 does not seem to indicate a greater social polarization in global financial cities, as Sassen’s thesis on global cities suggested.

The essential question is to specify the content of the metropolitan economy and the territorial scales involved in each case. Indeed, there is no single « model » of metropolization, even if the case of the financial « global cities » is emblematic of contemporary financial capitalism. There are different forms of integration of local economies into the global economy, different types of spaces linked together, different networks and different scales of centrality.

For Nicole Rousier, the objective could be to give an economic content to Michel Bassand’s reflection on the « metropolization » of Switzerland: «  the information society engenders the metamorphosis of a network of cities into a network of urban agglomerations and metropolises… Thanks to the global armature of metropolises, each one can assume a global centrality, the primary factor of its development ". What are the links between centralities at the global or European level and centralities within urban regions, and between morphological networks and functional economic networks?

What is the metropolitan economy?

Based on research on the internationality of cities7, we can distinguish, depending of course on the size of the city, but also on the institutional specificities of each country and their urban history, two main types of trajectory for the inclusion of urban regions in the global economy :

Local policy issues

The spatial representation of the global economy as an archipelago of city-regions, engines of development within a network of metropolises exchanging flows of all kinds (capital, goods, services and information) is dominant in recent work on metropolization. But the spatial scales to which the notions of cities and regions refer remain unclear, and the « regional » spaces to be taken into account in analyzing economic relations are diverse.

If we leave aside the case of financial centers, we can take up the two main types of international development trajectories, which are the dynamics of production-innovation on the one hand, and the management of the circulation of flows on the other, and apply them to development and planning policies.

The dynamics of production-innovation

In political terms, this is the register of local economic development policies favoring local coordination in favor of innovation. If the recognition of the role of research and R&D must be translated into financial terms, local policies have an essential role in the field of training, but also in innovation processes centered on use (transport, environment, efficiency of public organizations, public procurement).

Inter-municipal cooperation is all the more important in this respect when specialization is strong and innovation in a particular technological or sectoral field is recognized as a driver of local economic growth. The problem that local developers face is the risk of this specialization.

Agglomerations that specialize in a particular productive activity have « regions » that are all the larger because of the large number of actors involved in the creation of territorial resources (in terms of skills, technologies, support infrastructures). The extension of urban areas and the influence of certain business services contribute to organizing these dynamics at the level of vast urban regions.

Professional circles directly link local and global, but each professional network is different from the other (European aeronautics network, global automobile network, network of nanotech or biotech cities, etc.). Functional polycentrism (knowledge flows of advanced service networks) is not identical to morphological polycentrism (spatial distribution of cities)8.

Flow circulation, cities «  nodes of diverse market transactions  »

These are large economic regions, consumer markets served by cities and redistribution centers of the global economy, with variable contours according to business strategies and demographic changes.

In terms of development policy, more attention should be paid to the establishment of foreign investors in distribution establishments, « bridgehead » establishments to disseminate products and services over a regional area defined by each firm, the importance of multimodal transport policies at the regional and trans-regional levels, and reflection on the location of logistics platforms and deconsolidation warehouses.

Conclusion on considerations on the metropolitan economy

Attempts to adjust political management territories to these spaces of organization of production-innovation and exchanges of metropolitan flows are difficult, even if they favor a collective mobilization to define common interests, in a context of international comparison where each territorial organization is situated in relation to other urban organizations.

Indeed, the future of cities is part of the debates and political decisions to come. The place of states in relation to the European level of political regulation is a major political issue that will have repercussions on cities that are financial centres and centers of economic power and decision-making: depending on the main level of political regulation chosen in the decades to come, the European urban framework may undergo significant changes.

3. metropolitan economy : questions based on metropolis cases

The presentation of metropolitan cases provided an opportunity to examine in greater depth the specific features of the metropolitan economy and the various ways in which it is embedded in the territory. Indeed, metropolization is multiple and the field analyses confirm this.

The « Basel metropolis » was a particular focus of attention, with visits to projects in the field and a round table discussion with elected officials representing the whole of the trinational agglomeration of Basel.

3.1 Basel

The metropolitan economy of the Basel conurbation (presentation by Frédéric Duvinage) is oriented towards the knowledge economy based on innovation and networks at the interface of different economic sectors. The objectives of the agglomeration are to participate in this global race by developing its exports but also by existing on the cultural scene. For example, the region is moving from pharmaceuticals to biotechnology and life sciences, but also restructuring the city by transforming the port of Basel into a research campus. Private actors are well represented in these processes, especially in the building industry, which is transforming the city’s image.

The public actors also had to concretize their collaboration in a platform that took the form of an association (ATB), both for political and technical governance. It was made necessary to discuss infrastructure and major projects. Although it has no decision-making powers, it is the forum for debate, particularly on cross-border issues and for dealing with the fragmentation of the agglomeration’s fabric.

The challenges posed by the metropolitan economy to the Basel conurbation concern the adaptation of the urban fabric. What kind of future does it want? Is it to become a Manhattan-style metropolis, or a Rhine city? What is the balance between metropolis, quality of life and neighbourhood life?

3.2 Rhine-Rhone Metropolitan Network

This proposal for the creation of a metropolitan network is the response to the CIADT’s call for a European influence for French metropolises. Based on the future high-speed train line that will link the six conurbations by 2011, the conurbations concerned have proposed a Rhine-Rhone metropolitan network project (presentation by Jean-Paul Vogel).

This ongoing experiment is an opportunity to ask questions about metropolitan cooperation:

3.3 Brussels

The Belgian institutional structure is known for its complexity. In the case of Brussels, the creation of Brussels-Capital (presentation by Roger Hagelstein) took over from the Brussels agglomeration by giving it the same competences as a Belgian region. The main challenges are to maintain a diverse population of an international and intercultural character in a sustainable economic development.

In Brussels, the relationship between economy and quality of life is clearly posed. This requires a reduction in the social divide between world city and neighborhood life, but also a rebalancing of the center and the periphery.

3.4 Montreal

The development of the urban community of the Montreal agglomeration (presentation by Pierre Bélanger) challenges the issue of the metropolitan economy. Noting the difficulty of realizing economic assets, the experience of Montreal reminds us that metropolitan development is not self-evident and that it must be integrated into a governance process in order to realize development potential.

In the case of Montreal, the multitude of actors involved in fragmented decision-making processes leads to poor integration of actors, redundancy of interventions, divergence of interests of certain actors who favour the strategic level and others local development, in a framework exacerbated by local taxation based on land.

In this context, how can a forward-looking economic development plan be reconciled with a development plan that localizes the projected developments? The objectives approved at the global level encounter difficulties when it comes to localizing investments.

3.5 Geneva

The Franco-Valdo-Geneva conurbation (presentation by Marianne Baudat) is a good example of an institutional response to the challenges posed by the metropolitan economy. By bringing together two Swiss cantons and the neighbouring French region, and by combining the model project formula of the Swiss Confederation with the metropolitan project of France, Geneva is trying to reconcile the different stages of metropolization.

The agglomeration project aims to strengthen the metropolitan coherence of the « Geneva » area in terms of transport and economic promotion, and to improve international positioning, particularly by identifying possible collaborations. This is an important challenge that comes up against difficult institutional conditions that will require a major communication and participation effort.

4. national context and governance of territories

Swiss agglomeration policy (Georg Tobler) is characterized by a model-project approach that allows for extensive experimentation in the implementation of agglomeration projects such as those in Basel, Geneva, Fribourg and Neuchâtel. But this diversity of cases does not allow a clear visibility of what agglomeration governance is, especially in terms of the actors present, which vary greatly from one agglomeration to another. For example, in the case of Basel, there are institutional actors (ATB), economic circles (Novartis) and citizens (districts).

The project approach with its strong economic connotation focuses attention and resources on large, visible projects. Promotion is ensured by self-proclaimed elites who act as messengers of metropolitan governance. These approaches impact on territorial planning and can short-circuit the democratic processes developed in master plans or SCOTs. The ambitious « Jura Music Hall » project is part of this phenomenon.

The policy of French metropolitan networks constitutes a new orientation of regional planning in France (Jean-Michel Malé). It is the recognition of the dynamism of metropolises in the economy on the one hand, and a reflection on the competitive positioning of French metropolises in Europe on the other. This is what motivated the CIADT to launch a call for the creation of metropolitan networks aimed at stimulating forms of cooperation and combating the fragmentation of inter-municipality.

In this context, the difficulty undoubtedly lies in effective governance beyond the response to the call for projects, enabling intentions to be transformed into concrete projects that are translated into contracts. It is the search for a governance that works. The delay in the organization of elected officials compared to other actors is obvious, hence this effort to organize political governance.

The discussion on the metropolitan economy gives rise to reflections (Yves Hanin) on the post-Fordist society and on the post-nation society. It requires a look at the global and the agglomeration on the one hand, and the local and the question of the new identity on the other. Perhaps we need to think about a recomposition at another level, which could be the European district ?

5. economic governance and solidarity: questions about the actors ?

The last debate of the platform focused on governance influenced by the metropolitan economy and the necessary intra-metropolitan solidarity. This return to the concerns discussed during the first platforms made it possible to question the place of actors in these governance processes.

The case of Liège (Jean-Marie Halleux), which represents a medium-sized European agglomeration with fragmented political powers and no agglomeration structure, is a good example of an urban region subject to the effects of the global economy that is obliged to restructure itself following the decline of its traditional industry. As Liege is not able to attract metropolitan activities (services) compared to Brussels, the city has to find new fields of activity, for example in multimodal logistics (air freight, TGV). A foresight exercise launched by a group of local actors has made it possible to identify possible and desired trajectories on the one hand, and to reflect on a light agglomeration structure to take advantage of the dynamics of the metropolitan economy.


The case of Freiburg (Corinne Margalhan) is based on a completely different dynamic of actors who are involved in a legislative process through a constituent assembly to build an agglomeration. There has been an evolution in the involvement of actors, which is reflected in the greater participation of executives as delegates at the expense of legislative representatives. This substitution illustrates the link between the structure of the agglomeration project and the projects as they approach implementation.

The intervention on the participation of the social partners, i.e. the trade unions in St Etienne and in France (Rémi Dormois) showed their absence on the urban scene, whereas they are very active in other fields. The lack of expertise in urban issues on the part of the trade unions limits their participation in these new scenes of deliberative democracy, whereas the economic actors are more present.

6. Concluding questions

The work of this fourth platform on the metropolitan and agglomeration economy in the Belgian, French, Quebec and Swiss context shows a weakening of the social theme, as Jean Ruegg points out. With a reduction in the financial resources of the States, urban policy is becoming more incentive-based, with an abandonment of the logic of redistribution. Territorial solidarity quickly comes up against the definition of the perimeter, in an internal (payer, beneficiary, active, proactive) and external (competition) debate. It is also confronted with the capture of growth and resources with several experiments in equalization and disentanglement of tasks between the different institutional levels. It is the question of sharing growth versus solidarity in metropolises focused on the global economy, and of the mutualization of territories, where one of the main obstacles to intermunicipality is taxation.

The discussions also revealed a certain mimicry in the metropolitan projects in terms of objectives and themes developed, revealing a deficit in the specific contextualization of each agglomeration, as Rémi Dormois pointed out. The approaches inspired by the metropolitan economy are largely based on a supply-side logic that makes development the sole target, neglecting local social demand. The case of the Basel agglomeration was illustrative in this respect, divided between projects on an international scale led by major economic players and concerns about the quality of life of neighborhoods defended by citizens in a still open debate.

The fifth platform, which will be held in Liège on 15-17 March 2007, will continue to address the themes outlined in Basel. The main theme will be mobility and metropolization in its economic, social, environmental, land and symbolic dynamics. It is said that mobility makes the agglomeration! This will be an opportunity to examine travel policies, the participation of citizens and user-inhabitants, and urban governance appropriate to the functioning of agglomerations.

[#note 1] Les cahiers de la métropolisation, PREDAT DRE PACA et Languedoc, Agence d’urbanisme du pays d’Aix, La métropolisation dans l’espace méditerranéen français, January 2005

[#note 2] Lacour, Puissant, La Métropolisation, Anthropos, 1999, p.74

[#note 3] Global city regions, trends, theory, policy, Oxford University Press, 2001

[#note 4] cf. L. Davezies and P. Veltz, «  Territoires : nouvelles mobilités, nouvelles inégalités ", Le Monde, pp.24-25

[#note 5] Martens, Vervaeke, La polarisation sociale des villes européennes, Anthropos, 1997

[#note 6] cf. M. A. Buisson, N. Rousier, «  L’internationalisation des villes : métropolisation et nouveaux rapports ville-région « , RERU n°2 1998

7 K. Pain, POLYNET program