Climax City

Random writing on cities

The Urban Renaissance Happened – its official!

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In the last couple of months census data has been published in the US and UK that provides evidence that the urban renaissance really did happen in the 2000s, as we predicted it would!

In July William H Frey from the Brookings Institute published his analysis of US census figures to show that between 2001 and 2011 US cities grew by 1.1% compared to their suburbs which grew by just 0.9%. Not startling figures – I hear you say – but this is after-all the US, the country of endless urban sprawl. It is in fact the first time that cities have outstripped their suburbs since the 1920s and it happened in 33 of the US’s 51 metropolitan areas.

Earlier this month the UK census figures were published for England and Wales so that we can compare and contrast. The extraordinary conclusion is that despite the credit crunch, the collapse of urban apartment markets and a deep recession, the cities in the UK’s six metropolitan areas (on the table above) grew by 10.6% between 2001 and 2001 compared to their suburbs that grew by just 5.6%. If that isn an urban renaissance I don’t know what is!

Our book contains the above table of city populations in the UK from 1911. It is a sorry tale of urban decline that shows the haemorrhaging of population from inner London, Manchester and Liverpool. The other cities do better, particularly Birmingham and Leeds – partly for economic reasons and partly because their boundaries are drawn to include most of their suburbs.

When we updated our book in 2009 we used mid census figures from 2006 to update this table. This was because they were the most up to date figures at the time. However there was apparently also a technical problem with the 2001 Census (that managed to lose 250,000 young men!). As well as being more reliable , the 2006 figures were also slightly more effective in backing up the central thesis of the book, namely that the turn of the millenium would herald an urban renaissance of a magnitude similar to the suburban explosion triggered by various factors at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the  2001 figures (shown on the above table) all the UK cities outside London were still shrinking. In the five years that followed to 2006 they appeared to have stabalised (plus or minus less than 1%), the exception being Manchester which had grown by 2.1%. We concluded tentatively that a century’s worth of urban decline and suburban sprawl had finally run its course and that while not yet growing, UK cities seemed to have turned a corner.

In this light the 2011 figures paint an extraordinary picture. They were heralded in the Manchester Evening News with the headline ‘Boom City’ prompted by the growth of the city’s population by very nearly 20% in a decade. Inner London had grown by 13%, Birmingham by 9%, Sheffield by 7% and Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle by 5-6%. Overall the 6 metropolitan areas in the table grew by 1.4 Million people a significant proportion of the 3.7M growth in the overall population of England and Wales.

As to why this has happened, commentators in the US have cautioned against pronouncing the end of the suburb. They suggest that the sub-prime crisis has been mainly a suburban problem. As people struggle to get mortgages they are putting off having families and staying in their urban apartments. However they also concede that it is a function of economic trends that have seen jobs growth in urban areas outstripping the suburbs as cities become economic drivers. This we predicted in our book. We argued that demographic change (in which 80% of new households did not have children), environmental issues (such as the rise in fuel prices) and social trends (people seeking different forms of community) would combine with economic factors to create a strong pull factor to urban areas. At the same time the closure of polluting industries and the regeneration of many inner city districts would make cities much more appealing. There were many who argued that this was wishful thinking, which of course it was, it is just that some times wishes come true.

The question now is whether these trends will continue at a time when the housing industry is retrenching and the UK government is toying with loosening the constraints on suburban development. In the book we concluded that the jury was still out on the robustness of the urban renaissance, the 2011 census figures give cause to be slightly more optimistic.

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