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Until recently, it was rather common to perceive the hinterland of cities as ‘rural’, directing research to the study of linkages, relations and dependencies between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ (for example, see Hoggart, 2005). This widespread traditional conception of cities having a predominantly rural hinterland needs to be challenged, as processes of spatial upscaling and expansion have made many cities find other cities in their hinterland, suggesting that a focus on regional urban–urban relations is just as valid as a focus on urban–rural relations. Put simply: many functional urban areas or metropolitan areas – terms traditionally used to denote a city and its surrounding commuting area – are nowadays composed of multiple cities. It makes sense to address these regions as multicentric urban areas or as ‘polycentric urban regions’ when these cities do not differ widely in terms of size or overall importance.

Champion (2001) has distinguished three modes through which such multicentric urban regions arise. First, he distinguished a ‘centrifugal mode’: some smaller cities in the sphere of influence of larger cities may have risen as satellite towns of the latter, as a result of core city expansion and redistribution. Second, an ‘incorporation mode’ is discerned when a larger city extends its sphere of influence to include a formerly rather self-sustaining surrounding town or small city, or a set of several such cities. Third, the ‘fusion mode’ denotes that previously distinct and independent cities of rather similar size become integrated due to the advancement of connective infrastructure and technology, and the spatial extension of activity and travel patterns of people and firms.

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The attention given to secondary cities by scholars, policy-makers and businesses has been steadily increasing in recent years (OECD, 2012; Dijkstra, 2013; Camagni et al, 2015; Parkinson et al, 2015; Cardoso and Meijers, 2017; Meili and Mayer, 2017). This is a welcome development that expands debates beyond the dominant interest in the spectacular successes and failures of the largest cities, popularized by ideas about how we now live in an ‘urban age’. Secondary cities can be defined both at national and regional scales. In Europe, national secondary cities are those lacking the economic weight, political voice and attractive pull of primate cities (generally capitals) but still important enough to play a relevant role in national and international contexts (ESPON, 2012). Regional secondary cities, the focus of this chapter, are small and medium-sized cities that are part of an interdependent urban region and often lie in the sphere of influence of a larger core city, fuelling its economy, cooperating and competing with it for population, activities and resources, and interacting with it through various flows (Chapter 1, this volume).

While both types of city may share similar problems – policy neglect in comparison with more ‘successful’ cities, emptying out of functions, population or activities due to the dominance of a larger competitor, incapacity to profit from synergies with other cities nearby (Hodos, 2011; Cardoso, 2016a) – the existing literature on regional secondary cities is thinner on the ground. Although urban regions are recognized as relevant arenas of economic activity, institutional cooperation and functional interaction, the small and medium-sized cities that constitute them are often seen as a rather indistinct, semi-dependent hinterland of the core city (Servillo et al, 2017).

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