Why do so many of England's cities straddle traditional county boundaries?

Traditional county boundaries in the M62 corridor. Image: Wikishire.

Last week I wrote a frankly rather over-lengthy screed explaining the origins of the name of every county in England. At its end, almost as an aside, I chucked in a paragraph noting that the post-1974 counties, mostly invented to represent city regions, generally had boringly explicable names.

But despite the fact I spent all of about half a minute pondering where those counties came from, something has stuck with me: almost all of them cross traditional county boundaries.

West Yorkshire, I think, is the only exception: that was carved entirely from Yorkshire (carved, indeed, from the West Riding). But South Yorkshire – also taken largely from the West Riding – includes areas of Derbyshire and Nottingham, too.

Most of Merseyside came from Lancashire, but the Wirral came from Cheshire. Greater Manchester was carved mainly from those counties, too, and almost revelled in the name Selnec (South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire); the final map also includes yet more of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Saddleworth).

Traditional counties around Liverpool and Manchester. Image: Wikishire.

Humberside includes bits of both the East Riding of Yorkshire (on the Hull side of the river), and bits of Lincolnshire (on the Grimsby side). The Tees Valley area, once known as Cleveland, includes bits of both the North Riding of Yorkshire and County Durham, while Tyne & Wear straddles County Durham and Northumberland.

Further south, the West Midlands includes stretches of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire, while Avon – the Bristol-Bath area – straddles Gloucestershire and Somerset. The big one, as ever, is Greater London, which includes stretches of no fewer than five counties: a sliver of Hertfordshire, large chunks of Surrey, Kent and Essex, and almost all of Middlesex.

Traditional counties around London. Image: Wikishire.

One possible explanation for this – especially with London – is, well, these places are big. If you carve out a county-sized area of the map of England at random, the odds are it’ll cross a county boundary at some point.

Except that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. Wikishire (yes, that exists) has a searchable map on which it’s imposed traditional county boundaries. On that, you can see that most of England’s big cities sit surprisingly close to the edge of a county.

Even those without significant rivers (we’ll be coming back to rivers) generally sit near boundaries. Manchester started life as a village in Lancashire, but was only about four miles from the Cheshire border down at Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

Sheffield is just 1.5 miles from the border with Derbyshire at Heeley Bridge. And that old Warwickshire town of Birmingham is less than a mile from the Worcestershire border at Highgate – so close, indeed, it’s now on the edge of the city’s central business district. What the hell is going on?

Traditional counties around Sheffield. Image: Wikishire.

I have, at best, only a partial explanation for this. As I hinted above, the big factor here is rivers. The core of London grew up at a crossing of the Thames between (what would later be) Surrey and Middlesex. Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool and Middlesbrough were all port cities; in each case, the river that was the key to their existence (Avon, Tyne, Mersey, Tees) also marked the boundary between two counties.

And the reason for that seems to be that visible and/or impenetrable physical features make quite helpful boundary markers. If you were dividing England into shires sometime in the 9th century, then rivers would be a quite helpful place to draw a line.

But a thousand years later, as the industrial revolution kicked in, those features could also make a riverbank quite a useful place to put a lot of people: both because docks needed workers, and because running water made a pretty good power source.

Even Manchester, which isn’t know as a great city on water, is where it is because of the physical features of the landscape. Its mills were powered by the fast-flowing streams running down from the Pennines to the east (hence, it’s near to the Yorkshire border). The goods thus created were then exported via the River Irwell, which flowed into the Mersey four miles to the south (hence, it’s near to the Cheshire one).

I still, for what it’s worth, have no idea why Birmingham is so close to a county boundary. Please do write in.

Traditional counties in the West Midlands. Image: Wikishire.

All this has been a very long way round to a very simple point: the features that defined sensible governance units in the 9th century aren’t necessarily much use in the 21st. Back when Athelstan was still moving about, it probably made sense to treat the area between two rivers as a single government unit: it was defensible, and the people who lived there would consider themselves different from the people on the other side.

But once trade became a thing, and then industrialisation happened, many rivers became more like roads than walls: the people either side of them were connected up in a single economic system. It’s the cities that grew up in that era that largely dominate Britain today.


Which means that, just maybe counties, aren’t the most sensible unit for local government any more.

So anyway, the Yorkshire Party should shut up, is basically what I’m getting at here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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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.