What “underbounding” means – and why you should care about it

Sometimes the boundary is just too tight. Image: Broc, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cities are on the up. More and more people want to live in them; innovation and economic growth are increasingly emanating them. So is designer coffee, come to that.

Cities aren’t just getting bigger; they’re getting more competitive. Countries aren’t where it’s at any more: cities from different continents are competing directly with one another. If this were the Olympic Games, you could forget the country parade at the start, it’s every athlete for herself.

So is it all about cities now then, is it? Well, no. Although cities may be wonderful places, they’re dependent for many things on the areas round them: open space for recreation, housing for workers who travel in from outlying suburbs or commuter towns, office space for businesses which want to locate outside the city but within easy reach. And above all, cities need space to grow.

That’s because, all over the world, the way cities are run has not kept pace with this brave new world. In particular, in many countries, cites are underbounded: a technical term which translates as “having a boundary too close in”. What this means is that, in many parts of the world, the areas around cities are governed by independent organisations.

The OECD has published a list of what it really takes for a city to be successful these days. One of their key abilities is “governance for functional geographies”: in other words, those which are most successful are those which have worked out how to cooperate with their immediate neighbouring.

In England and Wales this no less necessary than anywhere else. Many of our cities are underbounded, included those with the best prospects for substantial future job growth. These maps put together by Matthew Spry, of the planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners expresses the problem graphically. The grey is the built up area, which, in many cities, runs right up to the boundary. Much of the green space is flood plain.

Oxford and Cambridge

Reading and Norwich

Southampton and Northampton

In a report out last month the Royal Town Planning Institute looked at planning for housing, jobs and transport and the environment over areas wider than a single council – a process we call strategic planning. The report looked at 14 case studies in the UK, Ireland, France and Australia: cities which had in different ways got to grips with this challenge.

Here’s what we found that cities should be focusing on:

  • Setting agendas so that all parts of a wider area – especially the outer areas – stand to gain from cooperation;
  • Letting areas – such as counties and city regions – devise their own means of cooperation;
  • Making sure the cooperation arrangements  cover a wide range of activities – not just housing, but also jobs and transport;
  • Getting strong buy in from local politicians  and businesses;
  • Making sure you look beyond the edge of the area over which you’re cooperating.

In England we haven’t always got this balance right. Some governments have enforced co-operation, others seemed unbothered as to whether it happens much at all – to the detriment of housing supply.

Government could help this process along by rewarding the hard work on getting joint plans for enough houses agreed – but at the moment there is no mechanism for doing this. Perhaps when the government gives grants in City Deals or Growth Deals, it should stipulate that genuinely providing enough houses is required.

Richard Blyth is head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


*See Rt Hon Greg Clark & Greg Clark Nations and the Wealth of Cities Centre for London 2014



CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.