"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.

 
 
 
 

American policing never adjusted to the decades-long decline in urban violence

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Princeton University’s Patrick Sharkey is an almost impossibly prolific academic, regularly publishing an array of well-regarded studies on everything from social distancing to neighbourhood change. But in recent years he’s become best known for his work on criminal justice and law enforcement – topics that have risen to the top of America’s policy agenda.  

Sharkey’s last book, Uneasy Peace, is about the dramatic decline in crime rates in American cities, what caused it, and what is needed to sustain it. Published in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s emergence in 2014, it deftly analyzes issues that are again roiling America after the killing of George Floyd. 

Uneasy Peace, and the work Sharkey has published since Floyd’s murder, argues for a massive campaign to address violence in American cities. But that does not mean flooding the streets with more police officers. CityMetric spoke with Sharkey about the little-known factors behind America’s great crime decline, the need for massive public investment, and what community policing looks like without the police.

Why did violent crime in the US, and in American cities particularly, fall so sharply between the early 1990s and the early 2010s? 

Violence from the late 1960s through the early 1990s was at an extreme level. There was a crisis of violence throughout much of urban America, particularly in the big cities. Then something happened in the 1990s. It happened because both political parties took on crime and violence as central issues in their platforms. Bill Clinton ran on a platform that he was tougher on crime than the Republicans had been. The whole country saw violence as a national crisis.


What happened in the early 1990s is there was a large-scale mobilisation to retake public spaces and make cities safe. That consisted of several parts. There was a really large-scale effort to bolster police forces, to invest in more aggressive tactics of policing, to go after gang activity, to shut down drug markets.

At the same time there was a large-scale expansion of local organisations that really mobilised to make their communities safer: after-school programs, religious organizations, community centres, neighbourhood groups. These kinds of organisations expanded in a major way.

What I find is that the expansion of those kinds of community organisations stands alongside the expansion of police forces as components of why violence fell. They combined with expansion of video surveillance, camera systems, and private security. All these things happened at roughly the same time, and public spaces transformed. That's why violence fell so dramatically, beginning in the early 1990s.

The crime decline benefited everybody, making urban areas safer, and convincing more middle- and upper-income people to move back to cities. But you argue that those who live in the most violent neighbourhoods benefited the most, because violent crime declined most in those areas. What has changed in these communities as they've seen less crime?

The most obvious benefit is that tens of thousands of lives were saved, with the greatest impacts experienced by Black men. We found that for most groups, life expectancy wouldn't change that much if homicide never fell. But for Black men, there was an enormous change: the life expectancy of Black men rose by almost a year due purely to the drop in homicide mortality. That is a change as large as any public health advancement over the past several decades.

Then there are direct consequences for academic achievement. The places where violence dropped the most are places where statewide test scores rose the most. And children who were in places that became less violent over the course of their childhood were much more likely to rise up in the income distribution in adulthood and to make more income as adults.

Violence has a long reach. There's a direct effect of violence on every institution, every member, every child within that community. It damages kids’ cognitive development and academic functioning. So, when violence falls, kids are able to learn, kids are able to focus in school if they're not thinking about the threat of violence.

Then it has an indirect impact because life returns when a community becomes safer. Businesses start to set up shop, families invest in that neighbourhood, it becomes a vibrant place again, and that means more jobs are there, that means more opportunities are nearby. That changes the possibilities for a child as they near adulthood and enter the labour market. All this translates into improved economic outcomes later in adulthood.

You point to research that shows aggressive policing and imprisonment has been part of the story of America's great crime decline, but at immense human cost. You note that while every other kind of violence has fallen since the early 1990s, the rates of police violence remain consistent.

Why hasn't police violence responded to what's happened everywhere else?

We invested heavily in an aggressive style of policing. We asked police departments to go take over city streets and reduce violence by any means necessary. That was a conscious policy decision made in the 1980s and 1990s. It was supported by most Americans. Not everyone, but it had support across the political spectrum. It had support from Black and white Americans. Not universal support, but it did have strong support. 

What has changed over time is that as violence fell, as city streets became safer, the strategies that police departments use didn’t change.

I lay out two policy questions toward the end of the book. The first is how can we make sure that violence keeps falling? The second one is how can we do it with a new approach that doesn't rely on the prison system and the aggressive policing of the past few decades. That's the challenge right now: What's the next model?

What do you make of calls to defund or even abolish the police? In your book, you say that every video of police brutality makes it harder to reimagine a new role for the police. Did the George Floyd video make it impossible?

It might be impossible. There are lots of neighbourhoods where the institution has lost all credibility, and that happened a long time ago. More people are coming to that conclusion now.

We need a new model to deal with the challenge of violence. If we pursue a policy agenda that is designed to simply exact revenge against the police and try to destroy this institution, we're going to leave cities vulnerable. If we pursue an agenda that just attempts to dismantle the police before an alternative institution is ready to take responsibility, then we run the risk of destabilising neighbourhoods. That's my biggest concern.

Over a longer term, I think the role of the police should be dramatically reduced. We have great evidence that local community organisations, in combination with residents, are at least as if not more effective at controlling violence. They've just never been given the same resources, the same commitment.  


(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At the end of your book, you call for a “war against violence.” To fight that war, investment is needed if these groups are going to take the place of the police. But we seem to be embarking upon a new age of austerity. What could the ramifications for urban violence be if the US Congress fails to support city and state governments?

Austerity is not inevitable, but it doesn't look like this Congress is preparing to invest in state and local governments. It's not inevitable that we're going to see a period of fiscal crisis in cities. That's a policy choice but if that happens, if city budgets are reduced and funding for local community organizations drops, we'll probably see a rise in violence.

When cities and communities are abandoned, that's what happens. That's why violence rose the first time. In the early 1970s, the federal government abandoned its support of central cities, the power structure of state governments shifted toward suburbs. If funding for cities and local organisations falls, we should expect a rise in violence. 

You write about a newer institution in Australia’s Aboriginal communities that patrols the streets, unarmed, to defuse situations and address issues – everything from domestic disputes to public drunkenness – in place of the police.  But the role of this community patrol, and neighbourhood groups in the US, is about prevention. Is there a role for law enforcement in ensuring that those who commit murder and violence are punished?

Yes. I think the model that we need to work toward is one where a different set of actors are responsible for overseeing public spaces and making sure everybody is safe, everyone is supported within those communities. Then the police play a secondary role.

That means when there's a mental health crisis, you have trained mobile response teams who are the first to respond to those incidents. Patrol of a neighbourhood should not be carried out by police officers, it should be carried out by advocates, by neighbours who are well trained and genuinely concerned for the well-being of their neighbours. At the same time, I argue that there is a role for police. In places where gun violence is extreme, it's potentially harmful to relieve the police of all responsibilities. There are weapons crimes where I think the police should still be the first to respond. There is a role for police because gun violence is so extreme in the US.

The biggest change, which is not often mentioned in these discussions, is in patrol. The people who are out in public space, making sure that no problems emerge, making sure that kids are safe, that they're getting where they need to go. Making sure that if someone comes home from the late shift, they have someone they can see in public space and know that they're okay, know that they'll be safe walking home.

That should not be police officers. There are too many communities where the level of mistrust is too severe. It should be other members of the community who are trained professionals, whose job is to be a pro-social presence in public space. That's one major change that I don't think is mentioned enough in these debates about who should do what. Who should be a pro-social presence in public space?

You cite research that suggests that despite the crime spike between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, the second half of the 20th century was less violent than the first half. So despite recent crime spikes in some cities, and what appears to be a surge in domestic violence related murders during the pandemic, does that mean we are living in one of the most peaceful periods in American history?

Yeah, without a doubt. The data before 1950 are not great. But the best evidence we have suggests that violence has been falling over the history of our country. There have been periods with more and less violence, but without a doubt, we are living in one of the safest periods in US history.

We need to focus a great deal of attention on violence. It is the fundamental challenge of cities. But along with urgency, we have to be aware of progress that's happened over time. New York is going to have a higher level of violence this year, in all likelihood, than it had a couple of years ago. That's something we need to maintain focus on. New Yorkers are dying.

But we also have to remember that there were 2,200 murders [annually] in New York in the early 1990s. There will be somewhere between 300 and 400 this year. That’s urgent, but let's also celebrate progress and make sure we have an accurate perception of the level of violence and that we don't exaggerate short-term fluctuations.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.