GaWC Research Bulletin 248

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This Research Bulletin has been published in EUROPA XXI, 18, (2008), 47-57 under the title 'Research on Metropolitan Functions: Identification and Definitions According to the ESPON and Alternative Approaches'.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Metropolitan Functions as a Research Question: Definitions and Identifications in the ESPON and Alternative Approaches

E. Korcelli-Olejniczak*



The ESPON projects 1.1.1. (2004) and 1.4.3. (2007) have analyzed European urban space in its functional dimension. The first project, on “the role, specific situation and potentials of urban areas as nodes in a polycentric development” was to research the conditions for a more polycentric urban development of the European urban system, following, with some restrictions, the idea of policentricity manifested by the European Spatial Development Perspective. The main idea was the assertion that a polycentric urban development of the EU27+2 requires a counterweight to the Pentagon, which constitutes a too much concentrated space of European urban power. This had led to an investigation of the state of the urban system with respect to its functional specialization and the degree of its polycentricity. The ESPON 1.4.3., in reference to the postulate of polycentricism has continued the study of functional specialization of urban units, identified earlier in the course of the studies as the FUAs (Functional Urban Areas). Trying to answer the question whether “more polycentric national and European structures could lead simultaneously to more equity and effective regional development, (…), to a more effective, competitive and better integrated European economy, favoring also the sustainable development” (Draft Final Report, Executive Summary, p.8-9). An indirect result of the two studies, serving further investigations, was an identification of a set of variables corresponding with the metropolitan functions of the FUAs. After the ESPON 1.1.1. had developed the FUA typology and distinguished 76 strongest units, the so called FUAs of Excellence (MEGAs) were again tested according to selected factors. This had led to a MEGA qualification, and established a ranking of these functionally strongest FUAs. The ESPON 1.4.3. had then developed the applied criteria of FUA and MEGA qualification by modifying the functional measures of the spatial units.

The indicators selected by 1.1.1. were modified by the second project in line with the aims of urban competition, cohesion and the Lisbon criteria. The comparison and evaluation of the selected variables in the two studies is the starting point and precondition for the primary and direct aim of the present paper, which is to show whether and to what extent the ESPON projects 1.1.1. and 1.4.3. have contributed to the development in defining and identifying metropolitan functions. It has to be stressed at this point that the identification of functions which arose from the proceedings undertaken by the projects cannot be treated as complete, due to the practical fact that the selection of factors was more on less dependent on the accessibility of data. The research questions which seem significant to put at this place are: how the practical aims and the limitations to the study influence the theoretical identifications of metropolitan functions. Are definitions and selections of metropolitan functions restricted by their measures in practice. And therefore, to what extent can an empirical project be faithful to its theoretical assumptions. Are scientific generalizations considering the notion of metropolitan functions and their distinction formulated a priori or a posteriori?

"Metropolitan functions" as a Research Question

In his studies on the transformation of urban systems Bourne (1997, p.7) identifies five most basic urban features, so called logics: communication, circulation, production, consumption and reproduction, as well as control and regulation. As the author puts it, the existing “classic” theories referring to urban systems, such as “the economic base” and the central-place theory, accentuate the special importance of production and distribution. On the contrary, newer theories describing globalization, financial flows and the world city phenomenon, stress the significance of the other three logics, control and regulation in particular. As in the conditions of the early XX century, trade and transportation (Gras 1922), and then communication, finances and management (McKenzie 1933, Bogue 1949) were those activities the specialization and range of which distinguished a central place and a metropolitan city. P.S. Florence (1955) has distinguished metropolitan cities within an “urban hierarchy, which were characterized by such functions as: financial and entrepreneurial services, editorial and printing activities, science, arts and entertainment. Another hierarchical concept was introduced by Vance and Smith (1954) were the metropolis was categorized according to its position as a recipient of the world economy. This had lain only a step behind the definition of world city functions provided by Hall (1966) in The World Cities, were next to the position in the global economy the variety, the multiplex character of a global metropolis was accentuated. A world city performs simultaneously the roles: of centers of national and international political power and trade, as centers of banking, insurance and other related services, but also in law, medicine, higher education, knowledge-based technology, information, mass media, production of luxury and mass-quality goods, as centers of culture, arts and entertainment. The “world city hypothesis' (Friedmann 1970), developed only a few years later identified corporate control and regulation, international finances, global transportation and communication and specialized business services, such as insurance, law, commercials, and additionally ideological penetration and control (dissemination of information, news and entertainment) as functions distinguishing world cities. These indicators were then often used when describing the functional structure of large cities, not necessarily those of global importance. Drawing from the concept of the “world city”, metropolitan functions are usually defined as “highly specialized functions of mostly international, but not less than national importance” (Korcelli-Olejniczak 2004). Some authors however perceive this question less rigorously. A city can for example, perform only some of the functions, and/or have a smaller spatial range (e.g. more than regional) and still count as metropolitan. This leads, on the one hand, to an excessive multiplication of metropolises, on the other, to a development of a hierarchy of metropolitan cities, all performing metropolitan functions of various range, importance and specialization.

At this point it is useful to recall the question put by Maik (2003), whether metropolises and their functions should be analyzed in a traditional way, basing on the fundamental concepts and using traditional measures, such as the employment indicators, and if this leads to the achievement of the intended goals. Maik stresses the importance of combining various approaches and methods. Metropolitan functions should be researched on the basis of the existing theories and measured by the help of employment indicators, this procedure should however be complemented by the analysis of institutions, urban organizations and the reach of their activity. The Author seeks the identification of metropolitan functions in the semantic model of the ‘metropolis”, i.e. the features characterizing a metropolitan city. The list of these features consists of the demographic potential of the city, its overall economic capacity, its spatial accessibility, economic and financial connectivity, advanced services, its intellectual and cultural potential (Maik 2003, p. 15). Following these ideas a further question should be put forth, namely how the actual studies of metropolitan functions, where the choice of method is dependent on the availability of data, corresponds with their identification reflected by the theories. Theories are seldom actualized, new concepts take place ‘next to them' and seldom replace them, like the concept of the “innovative city” (Domanski 2000) which builds upon classic urban theories and physical theories, placing them within contemporary conditions of requirements and possibilities. But are new concepts created as a result of empirical findings? And, putting a less ambitious question, how do the sets of indicators measuring metropolitan functions correspond with those identified in theoretical models, i.e. those created only for the sake of their existence as a theoretical basis?

Germany 's spatial planning focuses in the last years on developing the concept of “metropolitan regions”, which take the place of cities, as classic locations of innovation, development and competition. These new forms of concentration are a part of a currently arising system of international labor division within the global competition. The spatial delineation of these urban regions is not clear, as they are rather a compound of metropolitan equipment and institutions, a place of exchange of major regional actors, targets, strategies, projects and forms of organization. The concept of “metropolitan regions”, their identification and description is subject to numerous projects which function on the intersection of science and regional policy. A joint program of four leading German Institutes and Institutions1 has provided a theoretical background study aiming at a thorough description and understanding of “metropolitan regions” (Ergebnisse … 2007). One of the results was an a priori identification of functions which the metropolitan regions were to perform in the globally networked flows of goods, capital, information and people. The study identified four major metropolitan functions:

    • Function of Innovation and Competition;
    • Decision-making and Control function;
    • Gateway function;
    • Symbolic function.

The above functions are key fields of activity which aim at sustaining and development of the capability of metropolitan regions. Decision-making and control mean a good position of the urban region as a competitor for location, which provides importance and required interlinking in space. The larger the importance of the knowledge-based economy in the region, the lower the danger of ‘brain drain'. The gateway function has various aspects; it concerns both the capability of infrastructure, in the first place the position of the region as a transportation node and the functioning as a ‘gateway to the rest of the world' with respect to the access to and the exchange of services, information, knowledge, ideas and attitudes. To be metropolitan means also to be characteristic, unique in its medley of internationality and regionalism, tradition and cosmopolitan features, to produce ‘spatial brands', which are then vitalized and disseminated by people.

A similar approach, as the one above was used in the study on metropolitan regions and metropolization by Markowski and Marszal (2006), which ordered the existing nomenclature, defined terms and introduced various identifications. The study distinguished two kinds of criteria which decide about the metropolitan character of a city. Functional criteria, such as population size, economic and innovational potential, connectivity and the performance of metropolitan functions are described here as primary in relation to morphological features, that is the existence of well developed metropolitan spatial systems, the uniqueness and special character of the place, historical or cultural values. The authors provided also a definition and identification of metropolitan functions, which are “functions directed towards the outside, of a more than regional importance, which base on highly specialized service activities belonging to the IV sector of the economy” (Markowski, Marszal 2006, p. 13). The following activities are identified as metropolitan: of a political, religious and administrative center, cultural, scientific and educational node, a tourist attraction, economic and financial center, a place accumulating and radiating information and transportation flows. Especially decision-making and control functions of global importance are perceived here as superior.

Descriptive and systematizing assumptions are applied also in most monographs on metropolitan cities or urban systems. The works analyze metropolitan features, evaluate the criteria of their typologies, qualify metropolises according to chosen rules (e.g. Bassand 1993; Kunzmann, Wegener 1991; Dematteis 1997 or Jalowiecki 1999). Most often the identification of metropolitan functions is a secondary procedure, a way of defining a metropolis. The performance of metropolitan functions is described as one of the criteria which decides about the metropolitan character of the city. Metropolitan activities are also treated as criteria of hierarchical (according to their range and variety) and non-hierarchical (estimating the dominance of a particular activity) classifications of metropolises. Parysek (2005, p.48) stresses the fact that there is a reciprocity and interdependence between morphological (the development of spatio-structural systems) and functional features (development of metropolitan functions) of a city. He also points to the fact that a precondition for classifying a city as metropolitan is the co-existence of a number of metropolitan functions of various character, e.g. cultural, scientific, political. A city performing one specialized activity cannot therefore qualify as metropolitan.

Identification versus Application

What happens when the variables identified as metropolitan functions have to be measured? How do we proceed when the study reaches beyond descriptive goals? Is there an interdependence between the choice of indicators defined as metropolitan functions, the availability of methods chosen for their quantitative or qualitative measurement and the accessibility of data? These questions, also relevant in studies analyzing only chosen metropolitan functions like control and regulation, air connectivity, network linkages or cultural institutions (e.g. Taylor et al. 2002; Cattan et al, 1994; Sleszynski 2002; Lijewski 2003; Domanski, Guzik, Gwosdz 2000; Roloff-Momin 1995) in this case are directed towards those research attempts which concern the general functional structure of the city. As on their basis the relation between empirical studies and the a priori identification of metropolitan functions can be evaluated.

Gawryszewski, Korcelli, Nowosielska (1998, p. 103) identify 14 following groups of metropolitan activities:

    • Publishing and printing activities;
    • Wholesale trade;
    • Hotels and restaurants;
    • Transportation;
    • Postal activities and communication;
    • Finances, stock exchange, insurances;
    • Entrepreneurial services;
    • Computer services, information, electronics;
    • Science and R&D;
    • Political and administrative power (above local scale);
    • Higher education;
    • Entertainment, art, museums, expos;
    • Diplomatic posts;
    • Research institutions, offices, branch offices of foreign companies.

According to the authors, “metropolitan functions” are highly specialized functions of the III and IV sector of the economy. Their selection corresponds with some exceptions with the Standard Classification Index (SIC) which lists certain types of employment. The data from the Polish Index (PKD), collected by the Central Statistical Office are constantly accessible.

The list, however, includes also those functions not present in the index. As the study aimed at estimating the number of persons employed in the respective metropolitan activity, the lacking statistical data was achieved via other methods. It seems therefore that the research methods and data accessibility were treated here as secondary in relation to the a priori composed list of metropolitan functions.

Basing the definition of metropolitan functions on the ‘world city concept', and on the reworked identification of metropolitan activities (logics) by Bourne (1997) in a comparative study of Berlin and Warsaw (Korcelli-Olejniczak 2004), the present author has attempted at a possibly faithful analysis of all metropolitan functions identified.


Metropolitan Function Activity
Transportation node
Mass media center
Distribution and Circulation
City of knowledge and innovation Production and Reproduction
Cultural center Consumption and Reproduction
Seat of government and parliament
Location of headquarters
Financial center
Regulation and Control

Fig. 1. Metropolitan functions as components of urban activities
Source: Korcelli-Olejniczak 2004


The methods chosen were mostly qualitative; a comprehensive in-depth interview with 30 experts was completed by a statistical analysis of employment data. The balanced relation between theory, concept and empirical studies, which was one of the aims of the work, could quite easily be sustained here.


Theory <---------> Concept <---------> Perceptual Studies

Fig. 2. Relation between theoretical models, descriptive concepts and perceptual studies

This is the track which the present author follows while exploring the findings of ESPON 1.1.1 and 1.4.3.

Metropolitan Functions and the ESPON Approach

A primary goal of ESPON 1.1.1. was the identification of functionally strong urban nodes, which, dispersed throughout the continent, could potentially be treated as a possible counterweight to the Pentagon. The functions chosen for the sake of the analysis were:

    • Mass function (population);
    • Transportation;
    • Tourism;
    • Industry;
    • Knowledge;
    • DDecision-making;
    • Public administration.

The study failed to separately or jointly analyze the spatial range of the given functions. In some categories though, the way they were chosen allowed for an evaluation of the city's importance in the spatial dimension. This concerned for example the decision-making function, as measured by the location of the largest companies in Europe, or the administrative role of the FUA, where the importance of the city was identified as local, regional, national or transnational. When the FUA held European or other international institutions, the range was treated as transnational. Transportation was measured according to traffic levels at the main airports, which said nothing about the origin and destination of the passengers and therefore could not characterize the spatial importance of the airports investigated. By analogy, the measurement of the knowledge functions of the FUA provided good know-what on the degree of polycentricity of science and education in the respective country, and evaluated the national importance of the region with respect to this category, but no information whatsoever whether the range of the function was mainly regional, or national, or transnational. Such knowledge could be attained by in-depth survey studies.

The functions identified differ with respect to their scope; some carry more information and are more objective than the others (Korcelli-Olejniczak 2007). Some functions, identified by most other studies were clearly omitted. This concerns in particular culture and mass media. It seems that the reason for this lies beyond the conceptual level, that the lack of easily accessible data was decisive here. There is no ambiguous relation between the presence of a university and the performance of cultural functions, as some small university towns have limited cultural importance. The transportation measures (air connectivity) and the tourist function elevated some small summer resorts like Palma de Mallorca to high positions.

The 76 MEGAS (FUAs which qualified as best in the study) were in the next step tested according to eight variables, components of metropolitan functions. Those were population, GDP in millions of EURO, GDP in Purchasing Power Parity per capita, location of Top 500 companies in Europe, number of passengers at airports, the multimodal accessibility indicator, education level and R&D share of employment. The selected criteria were to measure the mass, competitiveness, connectivity and knowledge basis of the MEGAs. Here especially the results concerning urban competitiveness are questionable, as the chosen criteria (e.g. location of Top 500 companies in Europe) are rather positive consequences of the city's competitiveness than components of their development potential. As this is not the place for a further analysis of the MEGA qualification, it can only be stressed that the classification achieved corresponds, with some restrictions, but all in all, with other rankings of European metropolises.

Continuing the efforts of 1.1.1., ESPON 1.4.3. has attempted at deepening the studies of the functional structure of FUAs. In the course of the analysis five functions were selected which, on the one hand, were to evaluate the city regions, on the other, were easily measurable due to the accessibility of data. The chosen functions were:

    • Administrative functions, both national and international;
    • Decision functions;
    • Transport functions, measuring connectivity via air, rail, road and sea;
    • Knowledge functions, including the localization of important universities, research centers and knowledge-based production;
    • Tourism functions, encompassing potential conditions and factual usage of tourist facilities, when available also other cultural criteria, such as information on congresses, theaters, festivals and the like.

The results were presented on maps showing the spatial distribution of FUAs and their position according to each of the selected functions. The identification of functions was conditioned by data availability but considerably improved in comparison with the former project. The selection corresponded to a great extent with the functions present in most theoretical models, though the FUA classification was in some cases still distant from that presented in most existing rankings of cities and city regions.


The analysis of the functional structure of FUAs, carried out in the framework of ESPON 1.1.1 and 1.4.3. was severely restricted by practical limitations. The choice of indicators was in the first case more random, while strictly pre-conditioned by the availability of data, in the second example more theoretically based, although also restricted by measurement possibilities. This clearly shows that these limitations in some – though only immeasurable way – influence the results, but more directly shake the balanced relation theory – concept – empirical findings. This is a negative phenomenon, as this model constitutes the spine of scientific research. It is however positive that studies treading on the marks of their predecessors tend to improve; both as far as the overcoming of limitations and the balancing of the above relation are considered.


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* Ewa Korcelli-Olejniczak, Institute of Geography and Spatial Organization, Polish Academy of Sciences, E-mail:

1. Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung (ARL, Hannover), Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik (difu, Berlin), Institut für Landes- und Stadtentwicklungsforschung und Bauwesen des Landes NRW (ILS, Dortmund), Leibniz-Institut für Regionalentwicklung und Strukturplanung (IRS, Erkner)


Edited and posted on the web on 31st October 2007

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in EUROPA XXI, 18, (2008), 47-57 under the title 'Research on Metropolitan Functions: Identification and Definitions According to the ESPON and Alternative Approaches'.