City centre living has made a come back – and Manchester is leading the way

Manchester, as seen from Oldham. Image: Getty.

City centre living has made a comeback. After decades of people quitting the centre of cities for the sanctuary of suburbs and more rural areas, this pattern has reversed.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people living in city centres increased by 37 per cent, compared to 8 per cent and 6 per cent in suburbs and hinterlands of cities respectively.

But this return to city centre living wasn’t seen everywhere – as the chart below shows, it was principally led by our large cities.

Image: Centre for Cities.

And it was driven by young professionals and students. Of all the people who moved to the city centres of large cities between 2001 and 2011, around half had a degree, with the majority of the rest studying for one.

Manchester was at the forefront of this growth. In the decade to 2011, its city centre residents increased by 20,000 – growth of 83 per cent (see chart below). This was matched by a boom in apartment building – around 7,000 new homes were sold in the city centre during this time.

Image: Centre for Cities.

The demographic of the people moving into Manchester city centre tells us something interesting about the return to urban living more generally, and why it has been much stronger in some cities than in others.

Manchester’s growth was mainly driven by young professionals. Of all the residents moving into Manchester city centre in the decade to 2011, nearly 60 per cent had a degree; and the majority of them were aged under 35.

This has come at a time when Manchester’s city centre economy has also seen a resurgence. Between 1998 and 2011, the city centre saw growth in private sector jobs of 44 per cent – the second fastest growth seen in any city centre. And this was driven by knowledge-based services jobs, which tend to be high paid and high skilled. They accounted for three quarters of this growth.

This strong growth of the city centre economy has vastly improved its appeal as a place to live. So it is no surprise that in the survey work we conducted as part of our research, residents of Manchester city centre listed access to work as one of the key benefits of living where they do.

Not every city centre offers this benefit. While Manchester and other large city centres have seen strong private sector jobs growth, many medium and small sized cities have seen their centres contract. And this has weakened the attractiveness of their city centres as places to live – why choose to live in a flat and commute out of town, when you can live in a house with a garage and garden in the suburbs instead?

It’s the same reason why Sheffield’s city centre residential growth – while large – was driven by students. It has been the only city to see a decline in its city centre economy in recent years, with the result being that it has been much less attractive to young professionals than central Manchester.

As the UK continues to specialise in more knowledge-based services jobs, the city centre locations that they prefer will play an ever larger role in the national economy. And so it’s likely that Manchester city centre will continue to be the engine room of the wider city economy in the coming years as it has done in the recent past.

This has two big implications for policy. The first is that, as the economy increasingly concentrates in one small part of the city, commuting by car will become ever less practical. In central London, home to 1.4m jobs in 2011, 90 per cent of workers commuted either by public transport, by foot or by bike. And so to support the continued growth of the Manchester city centre economy, continued improvements will need to be made to public transport – both to get people into work each day, and to widen the net of people that city centre employers can hire from.

The second relates to decisions on how space is used across a city. People value amenities differently at different stages of their lives, and this means that they choose to live in different parts of a city – be that the city centre, the suburbs or the fringes of a city. This means that the geography that planning decisions are taken should stretch across a city, rather than individual local authorities.

Meanwhile, planners will also need to balance the competing demands for residential and commercial space within the city centre. The introduction of Permitted Development Rights under the last Parliament potentially skews planning law in favour of residential development; this may start to restrict the supply of commercial space if Manchester’s city centre economy continues its recent strong growth.

Manchester city centre has gone through a rebirth, both in terms of its economy and its attractiveness as a place to live. And as the city as a whole continues its revival, the role that its centre plays will become ever more important. The challenge for Greater Manchester policy makers will be to continue to improve public transport links and balance commercial and residential demand for city centre space to support the city centre’s future growth.

Paul Swinney is principal economist at Centre for Cities. This blog was originally posted on the Place North West website.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.