To build better cities, we must overcome inequality

Rich and poor in east London. Image: Getty.

We think of cities as having existed for millennia – but only a few are that old, and they were all extremely small. Most people in the world have only lived in a city in the current generation. Most people who have ever lived in large cities are alive today. So we fool ourselves if we imagine that we have a wealth of historical evidence to draw on to establish how “better cities” can be built.

The city I grew up in, and in which I now live, is Oxford. But while historic, most of Oxford is less than one hundred years old. Most of the roads, most of the homes, most of the schools, most of the workplaces, are new.

What most effects life in Oxford, and cities across the country, is how economically unequal we are. All cities in the UK have a similar steep inequality gradient – from the richest suburb through to the poorest enclave. At times different cities are said to be the most unequal in the country. But they are all similarly unequal and suffer greatly from the effects of inequality compared to cities on most of the European mainland.

The recent economic crisis has exacerbated the UK’s urban social problems. For example, the main cause of homelessness today is being evicted from private rented accommodation, something three times more common now than it was in 2010. Overall, we don’t have too few homes, but we share out what we do have increasingly badly – worse than at any time since 1911, which was when we first recorded their distribution properly. Many homes are under occupied; others are more and more overcrowded.

Our health has also worsened significantly in the last six years, caused mostly by cuts to public services in our cities. This is part of a wider urban crisis. We are now failing to recruit teachers to work in schools in urban areas. And we are seeing many other basic aspects of urban live become worse in absolute terms.

Other countries demonstrate how we could do better. Turn to France to look at health funding, Germany to looking at how to better house people in the city, or Finland for schooling. We are not very good at learning from abroad, despite being fortunate that enough people migrated into our cities from Europe in recent years to bring a halt to the housing demolition programmes that so blighted many Northern, Midlands and Scottish cities in the 1980s and 1990s.


At the heart of our urban problems is high and rising inequality. As inequality rises more and more people near the very top of the income distribution begin to lose out; equality is squeezed below the fabled 1 per cent, and then below the 0.1 per cent. But the take of those who have most still grows and grows. As a result, the UK has become the most economically unequal country in Europe. It is no coincidence that it is also the first country after Greenland to propose to leave the EU.

Dutch and Danish cities show us how we could better plan our housing and workplaces to commute and get to school each day more easily. Norway and Sweden show how a high quality urban life is possible, even with cold weather. There are lessons from outside Europe too – from Japan and Korea for instance – that we could learn from if we were only prepared to look. The one place where there are few positive lessons to draw on is the USA, but we can see what might happen to our cities if we were to follow the American nightmare.

Cities are just one object of geographical study. Everything is connected. By comparing the fortunes of people living in different cities in different countries we can begin to see just what is possible. We can see that there is an alternative to how we currently choose to live and arrange our urban life. And we can draw hope that a dystopian future is entirely avoidable.

In most of the world, and in most cities in the world, peoples’ quality of life is rising rapidly because inequality is relatively low. So tackling inequality is the single most important thing we can do to building better cities.

Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University. This blog is based on a lecture given by Professor Danny Dorling to the Human City Institute in Birmingham on 9 March 2017.

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It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.