What is a city, anyway?

This, believe it or not, is London. Image by Tom Tired of London

Okay, there's a question we're going to be wrestling with a lot at CityMetric. I'm not saying we're going to answer it any time soon, but the least we can do is ask it, and explain why it constitutes a problem. Here it is:

What, actually, is a city?

At first glance this probably looks like a stupid question, the sort of thing you'd get from a four year old, like "What are unicorns made of?" or “Why is the sky blue?” But (spoilers) it's not.

To explain why, it helps to have a worked example or two. London, official figures tell us, has a population of somewhere around the 8.3 million mark. Paris has a population of roughly 2.3 million. So, one might naturally conclude, London is a lot bigger than Paris.

Except, if you look at a different set of figures, it's very clearly not.  Demographia has been publishing a statistical guide to the World's Urban Areas for a decade or so now. Its latest edition, published in May, has Paris on 11 million – four times larger than the official statistics and well ahead of London's 10.1 million.

Then you look at this dataset from the official statistical agency of the European Union and the figures get even bigger but the order's swapped again. Eurostat has Paris on 11.9 million and London on 13.6 million.

You don't have to be a geographer to guess that these three sets of figures are working from different definitions. You can probably even make an educated stab at what each set of figures represents. They are, respectively, the population of the region governed by the city's own authorities, of the continuous built up area, and of the larger metropolitan region.


But which of these is ‘right’? The answer is, infuriatingly, all of them – or, if you prefer, none of them.

To most people, most of the time, none of this is actually a problem: no one ever failed to understand the concept of London because they were unclear on whether you were counting Watford or not. But there are two contexts in which it matters a great deal.

One is its impact on the workings of city governments. If you're the official charged with coming up with a strategy for meeting an area's housing or transport needs, say, then it would help to have some control over the whole of that city.

Very often, though, you don't, so infrastructure investment is likely to focus on the city proper: not only is official power strongest there, but its population get a vote in local elections. Administrative borders can thus end up warping the fabric of the city itself. Just look at the apparently arbitrary places where the New York Subway terminates.

The other reason why which this definitional confetti matters is that it poses a massive barrier to anyone who actually hopes to analyse the urban landscape. Professor Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, who in recent years has conducted a number of comparative studies on cities. “You'd think by now all the urban planners would have an operational definition of a city that you just could look up,” he says, with some exasperation. “Well that doesn't exist."

As a result, the moment you start trying to quantify any aspect of city life – or worse, compare two cities – you run into difficulties. How many people live in Mumbai? What's the size of New York's economy? Which is more densely populated, London or Paris? All too often, the answer is ‘it depends’. "It's a problem that's plagued a lot of our research," West adds. "And it reflects how little work has been done to quantitatively, analytically, and scientifically understand cities."

The upshot of all this is that what a city is, and where it ends, is a surprisingly subjective matter, and any attempt to nail it down is likely to throw up anomalies. All you can do is keep track of which definition you're working from, and make sure you never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones.

Here, for future reference, is a quick guide to the main ways of defining cities, which we’ll be trying very hard not to mix up.

 

The municipality

The political definition of a city. Paris is 20 arrondissements, New York is five boroughs, London is 32-plus- that-awkward-finance-y-bit-in-the-middle.

The advantage of this definition is that it’s nice and straightforward and easy to exert political power over (or find data on, come to that). The disadvantage is that it tends to throw up anomalies: some municipalities exclude large swathes of suburbia; others include sudden patches of countryside. The official definition of London includes North Ockendon, a tiny Essex village outside the M25, but excludes Buckhurst Hill, a contiguous central line suburb well inside it.

 

The urban area

This, one might think, is the contiguous urban sprawl: the thing you can point to on a satellite photograph, or from a plane by night.

Life, though, is rarely so simple. For one thing, areas of development separated by less than 200m of open space will generally be bracketed together as a single urban area, on the grounds that anything you can cross in under two minutes doesn’t count as ‘the country’.

For another, there are features like parkland and forests to contend with, so sometimes you’ll notice a distinction between ‘urban area’ (which includes suburban open spaces) and ‘built up’ area (which doesn’t).

There is also no single universal definition of what counts as an ‘urban area’. Most countries define it as one with at least 400 inhabitants per square kilometre. In the US it’s 1,000 people per square mile, which is nearly identical; in Australia, it’s 200 people per square kilometre, which isn’t.

 

The metropolitan area

A city's effective economic footprint, typically measured by commuting patterns. Satellite towns and ex-urbs may not look like part of a city – but since they wouldn’t exist without it, the thinking goes, they should count.

There are two problems with this idea, however. The smaller one is that you end up counting a lot of people who reject the idea they live in a city at all, if only because they made a conscious decision not to (hello, Surrey).

The bigger problem is that it's largely subjective. What proportion of people need to commute into a city to be part of its travel-to-work area is a matter of judgement. And what if a town between two cities contains large numbers of people who commute to both? Is Warrington a satellite of Manchester, or one of Liverpool? Does Princeton belong to New York or Philly?

The consequence of all this is that different countries use different definitions. While agencies like Eurostat have attempted to harmonise these, there's no current data set that does so worldwide.

Here’s an example of all these various definitions at work. This is Paris, c2008:

That tiny maroon nucleus is the city proper. Surrounding it you have the larger built up area (red), the official urban area (orange) and the metropolitan area (yellow). Suddenly, you can understand why the figures for the city’s population seem to vary by a factor of four. 

 

Just to make things more complicated...

While a metropolitan area will typically contain more than one urban area, the same can be true in reverse. Look down from an aeroplane, and you might think that San Diego and Tijuana are a single city. But there’s a whopping great international border between the two, which most of the area’s population aren’t free to cross. So is it one city, or several? How do you define them? As ever, the answer, awkwardly, is “it depends”.

 

Lastly, some definitions we won’t be using

The bizarre official phenomenon of British city status, an honorific handed out by the queen, which means that Ely (pop: 20,000) and St David’s (pop: 2,000) have the same official status as Manchester. The equally bizarre habit in some parts of the US, of appending the word ‘city’ to any cluster of four broken down sheds and a dog. What of these, eh?

Well, these are silly and we intend to ignore them. So there.

Images: Photo of Pratt's Bottom courtesy of Tom Tired of London, taken from Flickr under a creative commons license; map of Paris adapted from Wikimedia Commons.


 

 
 
 
 

“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.


As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.