The place of small towns in the Metropolitan Area of Wallonia

Marche-en-Famenne, 6 December 2017 [1]

Contrary to the ideas of those who see cities as the centre of the world, I believe we must gradually abolish the distinction between urban and rural areas through the concept of metropolisation. I see this metropolisation as the ability to connect societies and people with the global economy through the willingness and capacity of players and, of course, the support of digital technologies that allow networking and therefore synergies, complementarities and co-constructions. In fact, with adequate connectivity, understood as accessibility within a network, either physical or virtual, we can trade and work from any location. We can even say that connectivity nullifies the two categories – urban and rural, city and non-city – which together have accounted for all space in the past; these two poles of a relationship that economist Camagni considered as the defining features of human society [2]. This shift obviously takes place in a new economy. The Cork 2.0 Declaration, entitled Activating Knowledge and Innovation pointed out that rural territories should participate in the knowledge-based economy with the aim of making full use of the advances made by research and development [3].

As early as 1994, Bernadette Mérenne already highlighted, with François Ascher, the very close links between metropolisation and the new economic and social context, in an international framework. The professor from the University of Liège already showed how this process brought development, but also social and territorial disparities in that it concentrated the means of development in cities, and even in certain neighbourhoods, to the detriment of other cities or neighbourhoods: this type of metropolisation inevitably creates winners and losers. The geographer thus wrote, metropolisation generates a ternary structure in social groups, lifestyles and value systems: affluent sections in direct contact with the international economy, populations in difficulty often corresponding to those excluded from the new system and concentrated mainly in the metropolitan areas and an intermediate group, not included in the international metropolitan dynamics, but which has managed to find niches allowing them to integrate themselves (local production, leisure economy, etc.) [4]. In addition to these societal disparities, there are also environmental fractures. While historians have long cultivated, with sociologist Max Weber, [5] but also Roberto Camagni [6], the medieval principle of law and old German adage saying that city air makes you free (Stadtluft macht frei), we also know today, even more than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that this same air kills. And this factor could become decisive in any propensity to locate activities and therefore as a factor of attractiveness. I have often used as a prime example here, ESPON’s map of emissions due to interurban road traffic for its scenarios up to 2030. This work shows that, by this time, Wallonia – and in particular the Famenne and the Ardenne Massif regions – could have major advantages they could exploit [7].

The Small Networked Town

If I take the example of Marche-en-Famenne, whose dynamism has been well described by the president and former minister Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb, the general manager of IDELUX Fabian Collard, as well as the mayor André Bouchat, we can see this small town in different configurations. Thus, we can look at Marche-en-Famenne as an urban centre with a small rural hinterland that provides it with resources and that is structured according to its needs: both its supply and service areas, and the area of influence of its public and private infrastructure, catchment areas, and areas of care, education, training, employment, etc. [8] We can also see Marche as a territory associated with others in an area with a population of nearly 60,000, created in 2007 and called « Pays de Famenne », a network of mayors of surrounding communities that transcend the provincial administrative boundaries of Namur and Luxembourg: Durbuy, Hotton, Marche-en-Famenne, Nassogne, Rochefort, Somme-Leuze. The Destree Institute and, in particular, my futurist colleague Michaël Van Cutsem took on the long-term task of working alongside the dynamic team led by Yves-Marie Peter. We can finally design Marche-en-Famenne as part and one of the nodes of a network of larger cities contributing to a vast network between, on the one hand, Luxembourg – linked to Metz, Nancy, Trier, Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern, Arlon – and, on the other hand, Liège – linked to Hasselt, Maastricht, Aachen and Cologne. To the north, Namur, capital of Wallonia, opens the way to Louvain-la-Neuve-Ottignies-Wavre, and then Brussels. At these urban nodes, it would be necessary to add infrastructures to connect the space and thus make them factors of metropolisation: examples are the Euro Space Centre in Redu-Transinne with the new business park Galaxia, the Libramont Exhibition & Congress (LEC) at Libramont and its internationally renowned agricultural Fair, or the Bastogne War Museum, which has partnerships with Texas. The purpose of this group is, of course, to participate in the dynamics of the Greater Region of Saarland, Lorraine, Luxembourg, Wallonia and Rhineland-Palatinate. We should remember, of course, that Lorraine has just joined the Grand Est Region on 1 January 2016 by merging with the Alsace and Champagne-Ardenne regions. The metropolitan influence of this Greater Region is considerable: it is on the edge of four European capitals – Brussels, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Strasbourg – and includes, as the forward-looking exercise Zukunftsbild Vision 2020 has shown, more than 40 universities and colleges, with potential for major education and R & D.

Here we can highlight the idea of innovation gardens, which I have presented elsewhere [9]. This operational model, of Finnish origin, makes it possible to design large integrated spaces that encourage a culture of collaboration rather than competition, by promoting innovation (technological, social – such as circuit courts (short circuits) in agriculture or teleworking and third places for services – and close ties between players and institutions. The examples of Espoo (Espoo Innovation Garden) or Wallonia Brabant are typical. This province constitutes with Braunschweig, in Lower Saxony, and Stuttgart, in Baden-Württemberg, the first European territory (EU28) in terms of Research & Development, mobilising 6% of its GDP. With Inner London and Helsinki, this territory is also the one where the number of higher education graduates is the highest in Europe, more than 41% among 25-64 year olds [10].

Crucial social innovation

In my opinion, building large, networked spaces like metropolitan development areas is crucial social innovation. This idea has not been able to establish itself in Wallonia, like in other regions or States where cities look too much in distorting mirrors and see themselves as smaller versions of Los Angeles or Shenzhen, confusing territorial marketing and a solid project, co-constructed and implemented on the ground. The logic chosen is very often the old one of hierarchical systems, urban frameworks where population and spatial sizes still seem to be the key indicators.

However, the real power of development would be to no longer consider Wallonia as we did in the past, as a large hinterland of external metropolitan areas: Lille, Brussels, the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion and Luxembourg, but as a vast metropolitan area in itself where nothing is really rural or (peri)urban any more, but where everything is largely interconnected both internally and externally. A space which, as Michèle Cascalès wrote, is of territorial excellence because it is supported by the realisation of a common project shared by the majority of actors in a territory so that the global and integrated approach will have to mobilise on a large scale and will require the emergence of a new equilibrium and the establishment of appropriate operating rules [11]. Wallonia has remarkable assets in terms of landscape and quality of life to claim the garden idea. It also has significant disadvantages in terms of innovation, research and development, the quality of education and training, employment and above all mobility and connectivity. But we are working hard on this … I trust.

Thus, the future of these metropolitan areas will lie in our ability to integrate these factors as well as all the players, including dynamic small towns like Marche-en-Famenne, into a common project. This can be done by creating metropolising [12], urban-rural partnerships [13] with the strong ambition of a dynamic policy of development, appeal and economic, social and territorial cohesion.


Philippe Destatte



About the same topic:

Ph. DESTATTE, Quel(s) rôle(s) pour les territoires ruraux en Europe ?, Blog PhD2050, Couvin, le 31 mai 2017.

Ph. DESTATTE, Métropole et métropolisation : entre honneur archiépiscopal et rêve maïoral, Blog PhD2050, Liège, le 24 novembre 2016.



[1] This text is a copy of my speech given in English during a GFAR/South-North Mediterranean Dialogue Foundation workshop, which took place at InvestSud’s office in Marche-en-Famenne on 6 December 2017, under the chairmanship of Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb on the theme of Small towns in rural territories of the Mediterranean as catalysts of inclusive rural development and migration curbing

[2] Roberto CAMAGNI, Principes et modèles de l’économie urbaine, p. 8, Paris, Economica, 1992.

[3] Cork 2.0, A Better Life in Rural Areas, European Conference on Rural Development, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, Sept. 2016.

[4] Bernadette MERENNE-SCHOUMAKER, La métropolisation, une nouvelle donne ? in Acta Geographica Lovaniensia, vol. 34, 1994, p. 165-174.

[5] Max WEBER, The City, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.

[6] Roberto CAMAGNI, Principes et modèles de l’économie urbaine…, p. 3.

[7] ESPON Project 3.2., Spatial scenarios and orientations in relation with the ESPD and Cohesion Policy, Final Report, October 2006.

[8] Jacques LEVY and Michel LUSSAULT dir., Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés, p. 455, Paris, Berlin, 2003.

[9] Ph. DESTATTE, Des jardins d’innovation : un nouveau tissu industriel pour la Wallonie, Blog PhD2050, Namur, 11 November 2016,

[10] My Region, my Europe, our future, Seventh report on Territorial, social and economic cohesion, p. 31 and 37, Brussels, European Commission, Regional and urban policy, September 2017.

[11] Michèle CASCALES, Excellence territoriale et dynamique des pays, dans Guy LOINGER et Jean-Claude NEMERY dir., Construire la dynamique des territoires…, Acteurs, institutions, citoyenneté active, p. 66, Paris-Montreal, L’Harmattan, 1997.

[12] Ph. DESTATTE, Quel(s) rôle(s) pour les territoires ruraux en Europe ?, Blog PhD2050, Couvin, 31 May 2017.

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