"Friends" has a lot to answer for: 11 things we just learnt about city centre living in England & Wales

The one where they change the face of Britain? Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry in a 2002 episode of "Friends". Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

The British attitude to urban living used to be pretty straightforward: inner cities were places you only lived if you had to. The good life (yes, that's a pun) was to be found in the suburbs, where you could get a semi detached house with a two-car driveway and a garden where you could grow some begonias. For the middle classes – for those who had any choice in the matter – cities were for work. Suburbia was home.

But a report out this month from our old mates at the Centre for Cities (CfC), and funded by law firm DAC Beachcroft, confirms and quantifies something that you probably already suspected: that this trend has gone into reverse.  

In the 1970s and 80s, city centres across England and Wales hollowed out, as people retreated from deindustrialising cities to the suburbs. But these trends have reversed since 1991, and growth has accelerated since 2001. The population of city centres grew by 37 per cent between 2001 and 2011, significantly faster than suburbs and hinterlands, which grew by 8 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.

In other words, those endless articles about gentrification aren’t just whining: more people really are crowding into Britain’s city centres.

Here are 11 other things we learnt from the report.

Living in city centres started getting fashionable in the 1990s

Can we blame Friends? I’m blaming Friends. Or maybe Sex & the City – definitely one of those New York sitcoms, anyway.

Whatever, the graph of how many people live in city centres over time looks like this:

 

Big cities have seen biggest growth in city centre living

The CfC gathered data on the city centre populations of 60 English and Welsh cities, and how they changed between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. The vast majority (57 out of 60) saw an increase.


But the scale of that increase varies massively. In 19 cities, the city centre population increased by more than 50 per cent; in eight it more than doubled, and in Manchester it’s nearly tripled.

As the graph above suggests, it’s not just that more people want to live in cities: more people want to live in big cities. Five of England’s eight “core cities” (the largest outside London) saw their city centre populations more than double; the other three all saw increases of 65 per cent of more.

Here’s the top, er, 13. (Look, Newcastle is ranked 13th, okay?) The eight core cities are in red:

 

City centres are dominated by 20-somethings

Remember how we said that Friends had a lot to answer for? We weren’t kidding. The number of 20-somethings living in Britain’s city centres has skyrocketed.

In all, 17 cities saw the number of 20-29 year olds living in their centres more than double between 2001 and 2011. (That includes all eight core cities, incidentally.) In five the number more than tripled; in two – Manchester and Bradford – it’s more than quadrupled.

The latter of these is a particularly unexpected figure. Bradford’s reputation tends to be a bit doom-y, and in recent years the Yorkshire city has been most famous for the great big hole in the ground where a long-promised shopping centre had been failing to appear for a decade. (It finally opened this week.)

And yet it turns out the population of hip young things living in its city centre increased by nearly 311 per cent in the decade to 2011. Go figure.

Here’s the top 10.

 

London is an outlier

Most of the major cities have seen huge increases in their “city centre” populations – but not, oddly enough, London.


In the first decade of this century, the number of people living in the centre of the capital increased by only 17 per cent, and the number of 20-29 year olds by only 34 per cent. Those aren’t small numbers in themselves – but they are when compared to the sort of increases on show in Manchester and Bradford.

While we’re at it:

Most new central Londoners have degrees

The young people moving to central London are much more likely to be graduates than the young people moving to most other cities.

 

 

 

We’re guessing that these last two points are both a house price thing – you need a pretty well paid job to afford a home in central London – but we are just guessing.

High house prices are probably hurting Cambridge, too

You’d think Cambridge, a boom town with a high student population, would have seen healthy increases in its city centre population, too, wouldn’t you? Yet it’s one of only three cities where the city centre population actually fell between 2001 and 2011.

 

It’s also one of only two where the population of 20-29 year olds in the city centre fell. In a city with two universities, the number of young people living in the city centre fell by 10 per cent.

 

We’re blaming this one on house prices, too – though that doesn’t explain why even pricier Oxford is relatively immune. Answers on a postcard.

Single people are disproportionately likely to live in inner London

Yet more evidence for our “New York-based sitcom” hypothesis here:

 

...while married ones move to the sticks

And here, too:

 

Metropolitans love their lifestyle

Look at the reasons people give for living where they do. The main advantages of being in the city centre are all about facilities – shops, the arts, socialising, and so on:

 

Worth noting, too, that hardly anyone grew up in city centre neighbourhoods, implying that they’ve chosen to move there. The indifference to schools suggests that hardly any of them have kids, either.

City centre living comes at a cost

Several costs, actually, but they’re generally predictable ones: expensive housing, pollution, the lack of green space:

 

Note too that urbanites, suburbanites and country squires are all united in one thing: a shared loathing for their neighbours. Which is lovely.

Swindon is weird

Lastly, an economic point. Most cities have all their jobs in the centre. Look at Sheffield:

 

And Brighton:

 

Now look at Swindon:

 

To quote the report:

This demographic profile, which is more characteristic of a suburb, suggests that the city centre has less of a distinctive draw seen in other city centres.

Or to put it another way: no self-respecting 25 year old who wants to live a cool metropolitan lifestyle is voluntarily moving to Swindon.

You can see the full Centre for Cities/DAC Beachcroft report here.

Image credits: Nicely designed images: Centre for Cities. Images that look like they were knocked up by a colourblind incompetent on Excel: CityMetric.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.