This map suggests that, by fixing Britain’s cities, we’ll fix most of our towns, too

Hartlepool: not yet booming. Image: Getty.

Has economic policy focused too much on cities, to the detriment of the places where most British people actually live? Should we spend more time thinking about towns? These questions are what currently passes for a hot topic the urban wonkery community, and the debate has been playing out in tweets and party conference fringe meetings for some months now.

The Centre for Cities last week put out a report, Talk of the Town: The Economic Links Between Cities & Towns, giving its own take on this one. Its finding was that cities are important (no shock there), but also that it’s a bit of a false dichotomy:

...These findings illustrate two points. Firstly, the relationship that the city has with its surrounding towns is important for its own performance, as towns supply high-skilled workers. Secondly, cities play a significant role in supplying jobs – particularly high-skilled jobs – to the residents of nearby towns.

Or to put it another way: cities are not islands

The report includes a helpful map to illustrate this point. it shows the share of residents who are unemployed or in receipt of long-term benefits as of the last census, in 2011, in over 164 towns with daytime populations of between 30,000 and 135,000. It also shows, in outline, the 62 larger British Cities, plus their ‘hinterland’: a circle with the radius of the average distance a worker who lives outside commutes in. (The definition of cities used here actually varies slightly from the Centre’s normal approach, using output areas, rather than the larger Primary Urban Areas, to ensure that towns and cities don’t tread on each other’s toes; but that doesn’t matter for our purposes.)

Here’s the map:

Short version: shades of green means low unemployment, shades of purple means high unemployment. Image: Centre for Cities.

What to make of all this? The Centre’s write up notes that

...while recent commentary on the fates of towns has focused on struggling towns, a large number actually outperform the national average on employment outcomes...  reflecting the geography of economic outcomes for cities, towns in the South, such as Winchester and Maidenhead, tend to be the strongest performers.

Colour me stunned. Those two towns are commutable to both London and the cities of the M4 corridor, which account for many of the UK’s best paid jobs. It’s hardly a surprise that they should be pretty affluent places themselves.

In fact, the report finds, there is a correlation between a town’s proximity to a city and its employment levels:

In 2011, towns located in the hinterlands of a city had a lower share of residents unemployed or on longterm benefits on average (10.6 per cent) than those which are in more isolated  rural locations (12.1 per cent). This suggests that proximity to a city may impact a town’s economic outcomes, and highlights how important it is to understand the relationship between cities and towns when considering how and why the prosperity of towns vary.

Or to put it another way: a small town near a big city is less likely to be depressed than a small town in the middle of nowhere.

There is, inevitably, a but:

Being close to a city does not guarantee better outcomes for town residents – the poor outcomes of Hartlepool (near Middlesbrough) and Llanelli (near Swansea) are examples of this.

But this doesn’t really undermine the core thesis, that cities can help boost towns, because the key word there is ‘can’. For a city’s affluence to spillover to neighbouring communities, it will have to have some in the first place, and neither Middlesbrough or Swansea are exactly powerhouses. Just as it’s no shock that Maidenhead, a town between London and Reading, would do well, it’s equally unsurprising that one between Sunderland and Middlesbrough might struggle. That’s not to say it can’t thrive – nearby Durham, for example, seems to have lower unemployment than anywhere else in the north east. But if it does, it will be because of factors other than its location (in Durham’s case, I’m guessing, a top university and a spot of tourism).

At any rate: being close to a booming city seems a fairly good guarantee that a town will boom, too. If Middlesbrough and Swansea started attracting well-paid jobs, the odds are this would benefit Hartlepool and Llanelli, too.

The good news is the vast majority of significant British towns are in the orbit of a bigger city: by my count, there are fewer than 30 – less than a fifth – that aren’t.

The obvious conclusion, with apologies to the nice folks at the Centre for Towns, is that fixing Britain’s bigger cities will fix most British towns, too. A few places may be too far away to benefit – in North Wales, Lincolnshire, or Cumbria. And struggling seaside resorts, like those on the Kent or East Anglian coasts or, more bafflingly, Weston-super-Mare, seem to have their own issues.

But generally speaking, if we can fix our cities, we’ll have fixed most of our towns, too. That, to me, suggests it makes sense to focus policy on cities after all.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.