Urban prosperity beyond the metropolis: Analyzing small and medium-sized towns in Switzerland

Small and medium-sized towns (SMTs) have traditionally been neglected in the urban studies and regional development literature. Yet, recent research demonstrates that for the EU15-nations, small and medium-sized towns have shown higher economic growth rates than the largest cities particularly since 2001. These findings contradict the dominant scholarly and practitioner discourse about metropolitan regions, which has also influenced Swiss spatial planning and policymakers.

Research questions

The findings suggest a need to focus on small and medium-sized towns and to raise questions about their economic dynamics and the political strategies that may have influenced their development trajectories. Focusing on issues of urban prosperity in small and medium-sized towns will give us a better understanding of those types of urban areas that connect metropolitan and rural regions. We particularly examining the following research questions:

  1. In what ways have Swiss SMTs developed in terms of their economic and political characteristics and how have they adjusted to ongoing metropolization processes?
  2. What types of SMTs can be identified in the Swiss urban system and what are their economic and political characteristics?
  3. Do SMTs adjust to metropolization processes by functionally aligning themselves with nearby metropolitan regions? Or, alternatively, are SMTs actively positioning themselves in order to distinguish themselves from the nearby metropolitan region? Are hybrid forms possible?
  4. What kinds of economic and political strategies do these different kinds of SMTs follow? And under which conditions are these strategies successful?

Research Design

The empirical work is divided into three steps: First, we will analyze the Swiss urban system and identify small and medium-sized cities using cluster analysis methods. Second, we will conduct up to six case studies of selected SMTs that represent the groups we created. Third, we will conduct a comparative political economy analysis and generate insights into different development trajectories. The project will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team of economic geographers and political scientists.


Aim of the research project

The aim of the project is twofold: First, we want to generate scientific knowledge about SMTs, particularly regarding their economic structures and trajectories as well as their linkages to metropolitan regions. Second, we plan to identify economic and political strategies that influence development dynamics of SMTs and their respective success in relation to the metropolitan regions.

An examination of SMTs is important given the importance of polycentric development as a spatial development goal at the European and at the Swiss national level. The anticipated benefit of the project is both scientific and practical in that the project contributes to fundamental knowledge about SMTs and it informs political actors and policymakers at all levels about development strategies and their influence on welfare and prosperity in small and medium-sized towns


Project director: Prof. Dr. Fritz Sager
Researcher: David Kaufmann


This interdisciplinary research project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 159324). It is conducted in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Heike Mayer and Martin Warland of the Center for Regional Economic Development, Institute of Geography, Chair for Economic Geography, University of Bern