Which is England’s second city?

A silver medal. Image: Getty.

I have recently picked up a new bad habit, because obviously I needed one of those. Whenever I mention Manchester in print somewhere, I have taken to describing it as Britain’s “undisputed second city”.

The reason this is a bad habit is because I am, quite consciously, trolling. You can make a strong case that Manchester is the second city; but the fact is certainly not undisputed, as demonstrated by the fact that, whenever I have done this, someone has pretty much instantly proceeded to dispute it. 

So what makes somewhere a second city? And should Manchester really get the crown?

What is a second city?

Let’s begin, as lazy content since the dawn of time has begun, with definitions. Ask our friends/overlords at Google, and you’ll find that second city generally means either a country’s second largest city, or possibly the second most important city after its capital.

Instantly, though, we have a problem, which is that those two definitions sometimes clash. The second largest city in Scotland is Edinburgh, which is also its capital. It would thus be absurd to refer to Edinburgh as the second city of Scotland, but absurd, too, to hand that crown to Glasgow. (Try it in a pub in the Gorbals. Go on, I dare you.)

In the same way, Chicago is sometimes referred to as the United States’ second city, apparently on the grounds that in the 19th century it was second in size to New York (it’s since been overtaken by Los Angeles, but the name persists in that of a well-known comedy club). But neither city is the capital: that’s Washington DC, which is something like the eighth biggest urban area by population.

If we assume that the second city is the largest, most important city that isn’t the capital, then the crown should really go to New York. But again, calling New York – arguably the single most important city in the world – the “second city” of the United States seems self-evidently ridiculous. 

So perhaps the problem here is that the idea of a second city is inherently a bit silly, which might be why I struggled to find a dictionary to quote three or four paragraphs back. But we’re in this thing now so we might as well finish it. 

A matter of politics

The UK’s largest city is also its capital, of course, so you’d think we’d be spared any of this pain. But we’re not because of two other problems.

One is that the UK is probably the most over centralised country in the developed world, but that over centralisation is not consistently applied. The two serious candidates for the title of second city of the UK on the grounds of size alone are, as noted, Birmingham and Manchester, each of which sits at the heart of a conurbation of somewhere over 2 million people. But both of those are in the eye-wateringly over centralised-England, and so neither is the site of any serious political power.

The half-finished devolution settlements of the 1990s meant that three other UK cities – the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – do have a measure of political power. What’s more, this power exists to some degree independently of London (while the Westminster government could in theory revoke the devolution settlements, it is never in practice going to).

So should Edinburgh, as both the largest of the three and the capital of the largest of the Celtic nations, maybe be considered candidate for the title “second city of the UK”? It has more control of its own destiny than either Birmingham or Manchester, after all.

Well – probably not, because it’s about a quarter of the size. But that too is contested, which brings us to our other problem: it’s actually quite difficult to determine how big some cities are.


A question of size

As the middle of last year, the City of Birmingham had an estimated population of 1.1 million, roughly twice the 550,000 people living in the City of Manchester. That seems to be a fairly substantial win for Midlands.

Except those figures are misleading: they only cover the official council areas. Much of what outsiders would think of as Manchester actually lies across municipal boundaries in other boroughs: Media City in Salford, Old Trafford in Trafford, and so on. Both cities actually blend seamlessly into neighbouring councils. And if you think the size of an urban area matters more than who happens to be collecting the bins, which it obviously does, then “municipal population size” is clearly the wrong measure.

Look at the population of the entire urban areas, and the results are very different: Manchester is on 2.7 million, to just 2.4 million for Birmingham. But you can argue that this is misleading, too. Is Wolverhampton really a part of Birmingham, because there are no fields between them? (Again: I invite you to go into a pub and announce it.) Is Bolton really part of Manchester? (As it happens, there are fields between those two, just fields surrounded by houses.)

There are more ways of measuring size still. The West Midlands – the metropolitan authority with Birmingham at its heart – has a population of about 2.9 million, bigger than that of the urban area largely because it includes Coventry, separated from the rest by some fields and an airport. Greater Manchester is also bigger than urban Manchester, but by a much smaller margin, giving it a population of around 2.8 million.

Lastly there are the metropolitan areas – the functional economic geography of these cities, based on commuting patterns and so on. These are inevitably contested, because the results are dependent on what researchers think constitutes a functional economic area. But as of 2017, the EU statistics agency Eurostat had Birmingham on 4.3 million and Manchester on just 3.3 million.

So – which of the two is bigger? Well, it rather depends.

It’s my own fault for trolling, really

It seems worth noting at this point that size isn’t the only way of measuring which city is more important, and that you don’t anyway have to look too far back into history to find a time when neither Manchester nor Glasgow was in the running for the title of second city anyway.

Before 1900, at various times, and for various reasons – size, commercial importance, political influence, number of rich residents – Glasgow and Liverpool were described as the second city of the empire. So, to include cities now not in the UK at all, were Dublin (big and rich), Philadelphia (most important city in the American colonies) and even Calcutta (most important city in the most important imperial possession; although, I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to find a primary source for that one). 

Go back even further in time to before the creation of the United Kingdom, and the candidates for second city of England are places that wouldn’t grace a top five these days (Bristol) or even a top 10 (Norwich, York). 

After all that, though, I stand by my original assertion that, if England does have a second city these days, it should be Manchester. Birmingham may have thought the title its right for much of the second half of the 20th century, at a time when it was still as rich and prosperous as the capital. But these days, it’s Manchester that has the cultural influence, the civic confidence and the energy, if only because it’s by far the less likely of the two to ever compare itself to London. It’s the leading city in a bigger, more populous region. For some time it’s also been more likely to top opinion polls regarding which is the second city which, since we’re talking about perception as much as reality here, seems important.

So yes, the question of which is the UK or England’s second city is a matter of some debate, and yes, I am trolling when I refer to Manchester as the undisputed victor. But the trolling lies in that word “undisputed”. With apologies to Birmingham, I genuinely think you’re losing this one. 

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

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Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.