The vast majority of British cities are less productive than the European average

Nice: a dead ringer for Sheffield. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Today sees the publication of a major new report from those chaps at the Centre for Cities. “Competing with the continent” compares the economies of Britain's cities with those elsewhere in Europe.

There's a lot to unpack in there – the report examines 330 cities across 17 countries, including 62 in the UK – and it comes with a whole new database, too. So we're going to be coming back to this one over several weeks.

But the headline conclusion – the key message, the thing you need to take away from this write-up – is this: Things are bad. Things are really, very bad.


Here, to brighten your day, is a litany of badness:

Fewer than one in 10 British cities are more productive than the European average. Just six out of 62, in fact: London, four cities that are essentially satellites of the capital (Reading, Milton Keynes, Aldershot, and, unexpectedly, Slough), and oil-rich Aberdeen.

The other 52 – the vast majority of British cities – are less productive than the European average. In fact, well over half the UK cities examined – 38 out of 62 – are in the bottom quarter of the league table.

To put this another way: outside the rich south east, the productivity of Britain's cities is closer to those of East Germany or Western Poland than to those of France or Spain. Look:

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The UK is also more reliant on a handful of rich cities than other major European nations. London is responsible for 25 per cent of the UK economy; Paris contributes 20 per cent of the French one, and Berlin just 4 per cent of the German one. It’s hard to see this as a good thing.

In what probably isn’t a coincidence, more than three-quarters of UK cities (48 out of 62) have a lower proportion of high-skilled residents than the European average, too:

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In other words – the Centre for Cities doesn’t quite put it this way, but I’m damned well going to – by European standards, the UK is no longer a rich country. It's a middle income country with a couple of rich regions in it.

Still, I'm sure Brexit will sort that out in no time.

There's loads more in this report – seriously, it's going to keep us busy for ages – but we'll save that for future weeks.

For now, though, we'll end with a map that the Centre for Cities made for us specially. (You lucky people.) It shows 62 British cities with the name of their  “twin”: the European city whose economic structure is most similar. So Amsterdam and London are both big cities with diverse service economies; Groningen and Cambridge are both small, university cities with a lot of high-end manufacturing.

Click to expand.

But there's a catch. You can probably guess what it is. From the report:

Using this index shows that 46 of the 62 UK cities have a lower productivity than their ‘twin’ city. This means that, for a similar economic structure, these cities produce less output per worker than their nearest comparator. For example, despite their similar economic structure, productivity in Manchester is 35 per cent lower than in Hamburg.

Here's the map. It's probably the only time you'll ever see Sheffield compared with Nice. Enjoy.

Click to expand.

You can read the full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.