Which cities would be most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse?

The undead take part in a traditional Zombie Walk in Stockholm, in August 2014. Image: Getty.

The received wisdom is that, once the dead rise and walk the earth, city dwellers won’t stand a chance. We’re too self-obsessed to notice the bloody handprints on our neighbour’s door. Polluted drinking water, feral lap dogs, roving gangs: it’ll all conspire against us, and we’ll be zombie fodder within a couple of hours.

Rather than stay in our death-trap cities, the default advice for urbanites is to retreat to a perfectly stocked and secluded rural retreat. But what if I don’t want to leave my cosy apartment and collection of carefully neglected houseplants, only to die of exposure in a hedge? Is staying in the city really Darwin Award-worthy or could it actually improve our chances of survival?

The question of whether city-dwellers stand a chance in a zombie strewn world was tackled in October 2015 by CareerBuilder and labour data source EMSI. Their researchers developed the Zombie Apocalypse Index (ZAI), which looks at which US cities would survive a zombie outbreak.

The ZAI works on the assumption that every US citizen is either a member of the armed forces or owns multiple guns. But for those of us who don’t have a sawn-off shotgun stashed in the biscuit tin, a different set of criteria will determine our survival. Population density, housing, government funding, crime rates, geographical location and cycling infrastructure (bear with me) will all play a role in determining which UK cities survive a zombie outbreak.


Potential for total isolation

During the first wave of an outbreak, when zombies and future zombies are clogging up the local infrastructure, the city-dweller’s best chance of surviving is to behave like they’ve got a terrible hangover.

Those weekends when you don’t leave your apartment and start talking to the plug sockets and wondering if the entire outside world is Schrodingers Cat? That’s your life now.

Once you’ve stacked your cupboards with baked beans and topped up the Netflix account, survival is possible for the most entrenched city-dweller. For a while at least. Assuming Deliveroo doesn’t survive the apocalypse, at some point you’re going to have to forage for food, and this is where total isolation starts working against cities.

Those closest to natural sources of food (the coast, rivers, forests, the yogurt sample cart outside King's Cross station) will be fine. Ish. City-dwellers living more than a day's travel from the wild will probably have to move apartments – a stressful enough activity when the undead aren’t attempting to crack open your skull – or start developing a taste for pigeon.

Population density

A city’s survival rate can usually be tied to its population: the more people living there today, the more undead walking the streets tomorrow.

Working out the largest UK city is surprisingly difficult, but if we’re going by the number of future brain munchers currently in residence, London comes out top with 8.5m. Meanwhile Preston, Oxford, Peterborough, York and Portsmouth all look like safe bets, with populations comfortably below 200,000.

The zombies take Sydney. Image: Getty.

Survival isn’t just how low or spread out your population is, however – and those of us living in densely populated cities still have a chance. Highly populated cities tend to have more apartment blocks and apartments are easier to defend than houses (more people, more food, staircases, etc). It’s also harder for people outside the building to steal your supplies.

And speaking of crime...

Budget cuts

In The Zombie Survival Guide, zombie-handler Max Brooks points out that:

“Buildings in poorer, inner-city neighbourhoods tend to be more secure than others. Their reliance on high fences, razor wire, barred windows, and other anti-crime features make them readily defensible. Buildings in middle– or high-income areas tend to emphasize aesthetics... if the situation permits; head away from the suburbs and toward the inner city.”

George Osborne’s decision to remove the central government grant in April 2016 will leave local councils facing a £18bn cut in funding. In response many cities are talking about closing libraries, museums, parks and community centres.

What critics are failing to appreciate, however, is that these neglected facilities will be perfectly placed to take advantage of a zombie apocalypse. Bare bones investment in public buildings now will lead to impenetrable fortresses on Z-Day.

Health care

Aside from population and (lack of) government funding, health care plays the biggest role in deciding a city’s survival rate. Hospitals were an important part of the ZAI, with Boston topping the league thanks to its “cure zone”. As the US city that has received the highest rate of medical funding, Boston has the best chance of containing and eventually curing an outbreak.

Some zombies on a water bus in Venice. No, really. Image: Getty.

Unfortunately, due to a dramatic lack of investment in UK hospitals, the ZAI is unlikely to work for us. In fact, Brooks cites medical staff as the reason most zombie-outbreaks spread so quickly. They’re overworked, vulnerable to infection and surrounded by reanimating bodies.

Bearing this in mind, hospitals and health centres are a delicate balancing act. You want enough of them to loot once the first zombie wave is over, but not enough that you’ll be fenced in by the undead. Basically, if Jeremy Hunt has closed half your city’s hospitals but kept the other half open with a skeleton (ho ho ho) staffs, you’re sitting pretty.

Cycling infrastructure

If I’ve learnt one thing from years lurking on survival forums (other than the fact that it is possible to drink you own urine three times before it loses all nutritional value) it’s that cycling is my default mode of post-apocalypse transport. A bike is the only vehicle that it’s possible for humans to carry around obstacles (unless you want to be the person using a Segway to run away from zombies). They also help maintain fitness, require no fuel, make very little noise and are easy to repair.

Post-zombfest car drivers (still) aren’t going to be paying attention to cycle lane markings, but living in a city with cycling infrastructure will help survivors. Cities with cycling schemes are effectively gifting survivors with multiple cycling options, and studies show that good cycling infrastructure encourages citizens to buy their own bikes.


All that means more bikes to be looted once the cycling scheme runs out. Game on.

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AMC's "The Walking Dead" is back on Monday, if you like zombies.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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