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.

Follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook for more tips on urban living at the end of the world.

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

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.