St. Pölten as role model of a mid-sized town worth living in

What can Europe learn in and from St. Pölten?

Today, more people worldwide live in cities than in rural areas. In Europe, the figure is as high as 80 percent with as many people living in mid-sized cities as in large ones. The public generally perceives only large metropolises as role models for how cities in Europe might develop. And yet it is not they who shape the vast majority of cities in Europe, but the small and mid-sized towns and regions whose future development, quality of life, dynamism and attractiveness make the greatest impact on European city life.

In the competition between cities, it is the small and mid-sized European cities that find themselves particularly called upon to react to changes in lifestyle, demographic structures and rapidly advancing economic and structural change brought about by digitalisation. 

St. Pölten’s bid to become the European Capital of Culture 2024 can seize this precise moment as an occasion and opportunity to develop its creative and substantial aspirations and programme. A variety of demands on the growing importance of art and culture as essential forces and stimulus for spatial and functional change must be taken into account. As a representative example for many other European mid-sized cities, St. Pölten can and wants to create clear, sustained impetus in this regard. The conditions for this are extremely good, as the city can build on a unique European history, excellent cultural offerings and outstanding civic commitment.

“Mid-sized city” model – between city and countryside

What is a mid-sized city anyway? Mid-sized cities generally fall somewhere “in between”. They are not too big and not too small, with 20,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. Moderate urban density, a child- and family-friendly atmosphere and high standard of living go hand-in-hand with good recreational opportunities and comparatively varied cultural offerings and jobs. It’s no wonder a mid-sized city like St. Pölten holds a powerful draw for families in particular: what better place to work and live! It’s big enough to enjoy urban life, but not too big, making it seem safer, more neighbourly, and more manageable than large metropolises.

One important characteristic of mid-sized cities is their overwhelming importance in the region. This is evidenced by the presence of trade, service, educational and cultural offerings that go far beyond the needs of the respective city and define its centrality – as is particularly the case with the provincial capital of St. Pölten. Many of these key offerings and facilities are located in the centre of the city and thus have a decisive effect on St. Pölten’s urban qualities.

What is interesting, however, is that we usually only associate the words “city” and “urbanity” with large and very large cities. In focussing on the pulsating life of the metropolis, its aesthetic qualities and diverse cultural offerings, we are quick to lose sight of the specific urban qualities of a mid-sized city.

St. Pölten and the Capital of Culture Region

Historically and until relatively recently, it was precisely small- and mid-sized cities that became the symbol of urbanity for the neighbouring regional population. These cities played an important “mediating role” in the modernisation and urbanisation of rural society. This could also be said of St. Pölten’s regional microstructure, though its status has changed profoundly over time.

The once contradictory understanding of “city-urban” on the one hand and “village-rural” on the other has long since become a thing of the past. Thanks to a progressive change in lifestyles, cultural diversity, mobility and economic structures, the “urban” can now be found in the “village”, while the “village” is increasingly finding its way into city neighbourhood developments. The boundary is both fluid and dynamic.

Highly complex processes have had the most significant impact on the regional structure for a very long time. St. Pölten: a mid-sized city – urban, yet still rurally influenced, provincial in the best sense of the word, surrounded by highly-charged regional vicinity in terms of culture. Such cities are few and far between in Europe, and this is precisely what we need to be thinking about when it comes to the European Capital of Culture 2024 application.

Enhanced visibility of specific idiosyncrasies, qualities and talents in the dynamic area of tension between city and countryside are becoming a key point of focus for the cultural (capital) region of St. Pölten’s self-conception and the cultural profile. The aim is to open up scope for regional development and cooperation, both in the context of tourism concepts and strategies and in the development of this economic and cultural region as a whole.

Aspiring to be a model city

Integrated into the region, the mid-sized city of St. Pölten wants to break with the one-sided tendency to measure urbanity and a city’s qualities against those of a large metropolis. St. Pölten can and wants to become a model city, reference point and lab space for a creative examination of the urban/rural qualities of European mid-sized city regions. Working from an idea developed by Brigitte Schmidt-Lauber, St. Pölten can and wants to make “urban life beyond the metropolis” the object and creative striking surface for developing our cultural profile and the European Capital of Culture 2024 application.

18 May 2018

Guest author

Rudolf Scheuvens

Cooperation Network of European Medium-Sized Cities

The Cooperation Network of European Medium-Sized Cities was founded in St. Pölten in 1995. The network sees itself as a forum for inter-municipal cooperation and as a platform for the discussion and development of approaches to solving local political challenges in mid-sized cities. The number of members has more than tripled during the time of its existence.

Under the chairmanship of the City of St. Pölten, 34 member cities from a total of 13 European states are currently represented in the network (as of 2018) – and counting! Its member cities feel committed to the project of European integration and support the European idea to the best of their ability. A “citizens’ Europe” is about “learning from each other” and “getting to know one another”.

The cooperation network sees the challenges of the future in confronting prejudices, and in overcoming the barriers that still exist in the minds of many people, counter to the European idea. The Cooperation Network of European Medium-Sized Cities aims to help establish a firm foundation for Europe, our shared home. The “European Capital of Culture 2024 application” project brings new dynamism to this task. What we must do now is bring new impetus and facets into the cooperation of European mid-sized cities through the fields of art and culture.

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