This is why we ignore official UK city status: because it's really, really stupid

Doesn't look much like a city to me. St David's Cathedral. Image: Chris Rivers/Wikimedia Commons.

 This is St David's.

Click to expand, should that be something you wish to do. Image: Google.

St David's lies on the River Alun, on the aptly named St David's Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, the western extremity of Wales. It has a cathedral. It has a city hall.

But that's about all it has, if we're honest, because St David's is tiny: its population at the time of the 2011 census was just 1,841, which is a fraction of the population of a fair sized housing estate.

For this reason, it's not the sort of place that CityMetric would normally have much to say about. It’s not a major regional economic centre; there is no plan for a St David’s city devolution settlement. And there’s definitely no St David's Metro network because, well, look:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

I mean, what would be the point?

So why are we banging on about it today? Because, for 22 years, St David's has been Britain's smallest city. It was considered a city in archaic times, but lost the title in the 19th century when somebody pointed out it was silly. But we live in a very silly age, so in 1994, despite the fact it hadn’t really grown since then, it got its title back again.

This country is ludicrous sometimes.

St David’s is the most extreme example – but it's not the only UK "city" that is frankly not really worthy of the name. Here's St Asaph, at the other end of Wales, in Denbighshire:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

St Asaph is a bustling place compared to St David's: an incredible 3,355 people live there, and it even has a main road (the A55!). But it's still pretty small, as you can tell from the fact that, if you switch to Google Earth, you can just about make out individual houses.

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Then there's Wells, in Somerset, which with 10,500 people is a veritable metropolis:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Truro, the capital of Cornwall, has nearly 19,000 people, making it almost twice as big again. And is so big that different districts of it actually have their own names:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

But it’s still only about an eighth the size of even the smallest London borough.

All these places have two things in common. One is that they have been recognised as cities by the British government, by either Royal Charter (a form of legal instrument in which the Crown bestows some ancient right), or letters patent (same).

Such status used to be pretty ad hoc and informal: some cities have had it for "time immemorial" (a posh way of saying "since no one knows when"); others were granted it by Henry VIII, when his campaign to reform the church required the setting up of a bunch of new cathedrals in a 16th century attempt to break up a sort of religious monopoly.

Then, three hundred years later, Queen Victoria started visiting places scattering city status in her wake. And these days roughly once a decade assorted local authorities spend a lot of public money trying to win ceremonial city status, which is definitely not a waste of anyone's time or money or anything.

The other thing these cities have in common is that today, with varying degrees of irony, people have mentioned their names to us on social media, and demanded to know why CityMetric doesn't recognise them as British cities.  Especially when we do recognise places that very definitely aren’t cities.

All this came up because, earlier, we ran an article under the following headline:

Southend is Britain's only high-wage, high-welfare city. What gives?

That article, by the Centre for Cities' Paul Swinney, is a fascinatingly wonkish piece of work about the unusual demographic and financial problems faced by the Essex commuter-town-cum-seaside-resort. But a lot of people seemed to reject the premise of the question, because they were too busy responding with things like this:

Now, officially, that much is true. Southend put in a bid for city status in 2012, but was rejected in favour of Essex’s county town, Chelmsford.

And yet, Southend is still comfortably the largest settlement in the county – indeed, in the whole of the East of England. The borough proper has a population of around 175,000; its wider urban area nearly 300,000. You could comfortably fit the whole of St David's into its central shopping area:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

Zoom the map out to the point where you can see most of the Southend area and, at the same scale, St David's all but disappears:

Click to expand. Image: Google.

So, in official legal terms, no, Southend is not a city, and yes, St David's is.

But in any sense that should matter to anyone who isn't a direct descendent of Edward III – population, economy, effect on the environment – it seems to us that Southend, a place substantially bigger than Reykjavík, has a far greater claim to coverage on a cities-focused news website than St David's.

So do places like Middlesbrough, and Bournemouth, and Reading, none of which are officially cities, but all of which face city-style problems. There's no universally accepted way of defining what should count as a city and what doesn't – but it seems self evident to us that places with 200,000 people have a better claim than those with 10,000 people.  

And so, while the British government keeps granting city status to villages with delusions of grandeur, or cities that are actually bits of other cities, we intend to go on ignoring it.

So there.


(And incidentally: No, you don't need a cathedral to win city status because it's not 1534. They scrapped that rule in the 19th century. So now you know.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and tweets as @jonnelledge.

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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.