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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.