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The magic of intermediaries

Much hullabaloo was made in 2007 when the world’s urban population surpassed its rural one for the first time in human history—and rightfully so. Never before had more momentous symbolic totem been raised to humanity’s ability to feed, clothe, protect, and govern itself on a colossal scale. And yet most attention since then—and arguably before—has been on the ever-present and seemingly ever-victorious march of the world’s mega cities: Manila, Seoul, Istanbul, Lagos, Mexico City. However, many forget one very crucial fact: the fact that 20% of humanity and a third of all urban dwellers live in ‘intermediate cities,’ i.e. conglomerations of between 100,000 and 1 million inhabitants. Colombia alone has nearly 60.

Though often overlooked in the national (and international) context, cities such as Bucaramanga, Manizales, Pasto, and Pereira are crucial to both national and regional development, especially when it comes to closing the gap between rural and urban human development levels. The key to not only strong regional health and education; intermediate cities’ ability to generate sustainable sources of income is also important. This is why the country is looking to ensure they have the best urban planning and provision of quality services.
The Financial Development Agency (Findeter) is perfectly aware of this. To counteract the creeping centralization in Colombia since the late 1980s—away from the country’s historic ‘cuadricefalia’ or ‘quadripolar’ urban balance between Barranquilla in the north, Cali in the west, Medellí­n in the coffee axis, and Bogotá in the east, and toward an overwhelming centralization in Bogotá—Findeter is now developing a smart and comprehensive plan in conjunction with the Inter-American Bank of Development to boost the urban sustainability, development, modernization, and quality of life in eight intermediate Colombia cities: Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales, Pereira, Monterí­a, Pasto, Cartagena, and Valledupar. Once these have been implemented, the plan will extend to include Armenia, Villavicencio, and Santa Marta, too.
What does this entail? Apart from meeting inhabitants’ basic needs, the sustainable intermediate cities of the future must provide good employment opportunities, security and education, confidence between citizens, investors, and municipalities and guarantee the efficient use of natural resources by anticipating and adapting to the consequences of climate change.
Specifically, in the case of Colombia, this means placing top priority on modernizing ports (in the case of Barranquilla and Cartagena), investing in hydroelectric energy, greatly boosting public transport, setting aside and incorporating forested and agricultural zones into mid-sized cities, equipping sustainable airports, anticipating the construction of viable secondary and tertiary roads, and integrating regional logistics to enhance cross-country economic activity.
After all, without proper planning, there is nothing to prevent well-placed mid-sized cities such as Pereira and Manizales from ballooning into the Medellí­ns and Bogotás of the 21st century. This is why growth must be controlled and sustainable, transport safe and accessible, governance smart and transparent, and public finances more responsibly managed than ever. The importance of this cannot be overstated—for not only politically, but economically, socially, and environmentally, mid-sized cities are potentially far-better equipped to deal with the fallout of increasing environmental breakdown, pandemics, and supply chain shortages. And with closer ties to the surrounding countryside and agricultural regions, they all stand to better survive shocks to global logistics networks. The time to invest heavily in their development and ensure their continued sustainability could not come sooner.

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