The Importance of Small Urban Centers and Large Villages

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In the developing world, over 50 percent of the urban population resides in cities below 500,000 inhabitants, and more than a quarter of the world's total population lives in small urban centers or “large villages” (UN-HABITAT 2006, 2009).

Moreover, “the bulk of new urban growth globally is occurring in smaller, and often institutionally weak, settlements of 100,000–250,000 people, which have absorbed much of the rural labour power made redundant by post-1979 market reforms” (UN-HABITAT 2009). “Problems in many such cities include a lack of provision for infrastructure (including all-weather roads, piped water supplies, sewers, drains, electricity, etc.), urban social services (such as health and education) and a lack of institutional capacity” (UN-HABITAT 2011). And “much of the rural population depend on small urban centers for access to goods and services and many of the schools and health care services needed to ensure that the health and education Millennium Development Goals are met are in small urban centers” (UN-HABITAT 2006).

Percentage of urban population by city size in Africa (left) and Latin America (right). Source: UN-HABITAT 2009

Despite this reality, most urban debates and research are focused on mega-cities. These cities might be more aesthetically attractive, as they have become global cities concentrating large proportions of foreign investment, infrastructure mega-projects and tourists. These cities are also known for their extreme inequality and are home to globalized social movements claiming the Right to the City. While megacities present management problems of their own, it is the smaller cities that suffer particularly from a lack of planning and services to cope with growth.

In the face of this eluded challenge, there is an urgent need to refocus the attention of central governments, international development cooperation and urban researchers towards supporting small cities, where the bulk of global urban problems reside.

Credits: Image of Babahoyo, Ecuador from For more information on small urban centers and large villages, see: UN-HABITAT 2006, UN-HABITAT 2009, UN-HABITAT 2011.


  1. Great summary article, secondary cities in Africa and Asia will are of great importance to urban sustainability initiatives and should be a primary focus of sustainable development in the future. What will also be of importance are the connections these cities form with larger ones - secondary cities have the potential to be sites of modelling and experimentation because of their size relative to infrastructure.