‘Polycentric urban regions’ (PURs) have become a key concept in regional studies, both as a frame for capturing empirical realities and as part of normative visions in development policies. In its most basic guise, the PUR notion applies to regions characterised by the presence of multiple, more-or-less proximate urban centres without pronounced hierarchical differentiation. Although the PUR notion has been around for a while, sometimes using slightly different terminologies and often focusing on allegedly archetypical examples such as the Dutch Randstad or a range of Chinese ‘urban agglomerations’, in recent years it has become an increasingly important organisational framework for conceptual, analytical, empirical, and policy-oriented regional studies research.
The PUR research network was proposed because, despite the rapid growth in size and scope of PUR research and policymaking, the literature often lacks coherence. We argued that the absence of a coherent framework risks leading to a literature that is wide-ranging and blossoming, but also assumption-rich, disjointed and lacking analytical depth. To facilitate the development of a more concerted PUR research agenda, the research network – which ran roughly from mid-2018 to late-2021– engaged in a range of complementary activities that collectively expanded our understanding of the prevalence, significance, future development, and policy implications of PURs. In the process, the research network has arguably acted as the chief organisational context for cutting-edge PUR research, and this by bringing together major research groups and traditions and the key themes/approaches they represent.
Alongside an opening session during the RSA’s annual conference in Lugano in 2018 and a panel session during the Regions-in-Recovery E-festival in 2021, the research network’s main activities were three thematic workshops and two special issues in RSA flagship journals. Thematic workshops were held in Delft (January 2019), focusing on PUR identification, measurement, and analysis; in Loughborough (September 2019), focusing on PUR policymaking and governance; and in Guangzhou (December 2019), focusing on PUR experiences in the Global South. Collectively, the different conference sessions and workshops brought together more than 100 researchers working in different contexts and having different backgrounds, thus creating durable connections across geographical and disciplinary borders. The workshops were (loosely) used as the input for special issues in Regional Studies (RS) and Territory, Politics, Governance (TPG), respectively. The RS special issue was published in early 2022, and offers a cross-section of state-of-the-art research on three fundamental PUR questions: How can PURs be conceptualized? How can we identify them formally? And what is the impact of this regional form on people and places? The TPG special issue, in turn, will be published later in 2022, and aims to renew debates surrounding the governance of PURs and the polycentric model of spatial development more generally. This special issue reveals a significant body of what might be called ‘hidden PUR research’ and identifies dimensions of a future PUR+ research agenda which has critical governance questions at its centre.