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



Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.