What "underbounding" means – and why you should care about it

Sometimes the boundary is just too tight. Image: Broc, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cities are on the up. More and more people want to live in them; innovation and economic growth are increasingly emanating them. So is designer coffee, come to that.

Cities aren’t just getting bigger; they’re getting more competitive. Countries aren’t where it’s at any more: cities from different continents are competing directly with one another. If this were the Olympic Games, you could forget the country parade at the start, it’s every athlete for herself.

So is it all about cities now then, is it? Well, no. Although cities may be wonderful places, they’re dependent for many things on the areas round them: open space for recreation, housing for workers who travel in from outlying suburbs or commuter towns, office space for businesses which want to locate outside the city but within easy reach. And above all, cities need space to grow.

That’s because, all over the world, the way cities are run has not kept pace with this brave new world. In particular, in many countries, cites are underbounded: a technical term which translates as “having a boundary too close in”. What this means is that, in many parts of the world, the areas around cities are governed by independent organisations.

The OECD has published a list of what it really takes for a city to be successful these days. One of their key abilities is “governance for functional geographies”: in other words, those which are most successful are those which have worked out how to cooperate with their immediate neighbouring.

In England and Wales this no less necessary than anywhere else. Many of our cities are underbounded, included those with the best prospects for substantial future job growth. These maps put together by Matthew Spry, of the planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners expresses the problem graphically. The grey is the built up area, which, in many cities, runs right up to the boundary. Much of the green space is flood plain.

Oxford and Cambridge

Reading and Norwich

Southampton and Northampton

In a report out last month the Royal Town Planning Institute looked at planning for housing, jobs and transport and the environment over areas wider than a single council – a process we call strategic planning. The report looked at 14 case studies in the UK, Ireland, France and Australia: cities which had in different ways got to grips with this challenge.

Here’s what we found that cities should be focusing on:

  • Setting agendas so that all parts of a wider area – especially the outer areas – stand to gain from cooperation;
  • Letting areas – such as counties and city regions – devise their own means of cooperation;
  • Making sure the cooperation arrangements  cover a wide range of activities – not just housing, but also jobs and transport;
  • Getting strong buy in from local politicians  and businesses;
  • Making sure you look beyond the edge of the area over which you’re cooperating.

In England we haven’t always got this balance right. Some governments have enforced co-operation, others seemed unbothered as to whether it happens much at all – to the detriment of housing supply.

Government could help this process along by rewarding the hard work on getting joint plans for enough houses agreed – but at the moment there is no mechanism for doing this. Perhaps when the government gives grants in City Deals or Growth Deals, it should stipulate that genuinely providing enough houses is required.

Richard Blyth is head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


*See Rt Hon Greg Clark & Greg Clark Nations and the Wealth of Cities Centre for London 2014



Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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