The rebirth of Britain's inner cities, mapped

Liverpool city centre. Image: Open Street Map.

In 1999, the Richard Rogers’ landmark Urban Task Force report set the agenda for inner-city densification and brownfield regeneration in the UK.


Since then, we’ve seen significant economic and demographic change in the last decade that’s greatly impacted urban areas. We can use the 2011 census data, mapped here on the Citygeographics site, to investigate how these policies and socio-economic trends transformed British cities in terms of population density change over proceeding decade.

The stand-out result is that there’s a striking similarity across a wide range of cities. Overall growth was achieved through high levels of inner-city densification (shown below in lighter blue to cyan colours), in combination with a mix of slowly growing and moderately declining suburbs (dark purple to magenta colours).

We can see this pattern in the growing urban regions of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield above. Manchester has the fastest population growth after London, with 8.1 per cent growth in the city-region, and a massive 28 per cent growth in the core local authority.

Average densities in Manchester have gone up by 28 per cent (+35 residents per hectare), but it’s not a uniform growth. There are new development sites at a very high 300 or 400 residents per hectare, contrasting with low density surrounds and the extensive remaining brownfield sites. As of 2011, at least, there was a patchy nature to the current urban fabric of Manchester, indicating that much further development could still take place.

The West Midlands was the third fastest growing city-region, with a growth rate across the conurbation of 7.3 per cent, and that within the core city authority Birmingham even higher, at 10 per cent. Density increases are more modest here (+13 residents per hectare) but the same general pattern remains.

Similar patterns of high density inner-city growth are also clear in Leeds (5 per cent growth)...

...and Sheffield (8 per cent growth):

The trend applies to medium size cities also. Those cities with the highest growth rates like Leicester (+18 per cent), Nottingham (+14 per cent), Cardiff (+13 per cent) and Bristol (+12.5 per cent) show fewer signs of suburban depopulation:

Scottish cities have a stronger tradition of high density inner-city living. With compact cores already in place, Edinburgh (+6.5 per cent) and Aberdeen (+5 per cent) have been expanding the inner city into Leith and Old Aberdeen:

Meanwhile the UK’s former industrial powerhouses of Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle display a more problematic variation on this pattern. City centre intensification is still much in evidence, with core city authority populations growing at 8 per cent in Newcastle, 6 per cent in Liverpool and 4 per cent in Glasgow. But this growth is in combination with outright decline in some surrounding towns and suburban areas, particularly around Glasgow.

These patterns are linked to major programmes to overhaul poor inner-city housing stock, but are also inevitably linked to weaker economic growth in Glasgow and Liverpool.

The picture is better in Tyne & Wear, where there are more positive employment signs: the region saw an 8 per cent growth in workforce jobs between 2001 and 2011.

What is driving this urban dynamic?

In addition to planning policy shifts, a series of economic and demographic changes are contributing to the pattern of central growth and struggling suburbs, which has been observed in both the UK and US (e.g. by gentrification researchersErenhaltKochan). 

Demographic aspects include more students, immigrants, singles and childless couples. Economic aspects include city-centre friendly service and knowledge economy jobs, as well as increased costs of petrol. For these trends to occur over a wide range of demographically and economically diverse cities in the UK and beyond, clearly there are multiple factors pulling urban populations and growth in similar directions.


London extremes

We’ve avoided the gigantic outlier of London so far. It’s a city apart in many ways – much larger (8.1m in the GLA area in 2011) and faster growing (+14 per cent 2001-2011). It’s also massively higher density, with average residents per hectare 50 per cent higher (nearly 200 residents per hectare) than the next most dense city-region in GB.

The biggest changes have been in inner east London. Tower Hamlets (where Canary Wharf has boomed) is 1st on every indicator: highest population change (+28.8 per cent), highest employment change (+50 per cent!), highest population density (324 residents / hectare). The pressures for growth in London are so high that there is little surburban decline in population terms (although employment has been declining significantly in outer London).

Yet the high rate of densification in London has come nowhere near meeting housing demand. London is the midst of a massive housing shortage and crisis, with some of the world’s highest property prices. The debate is currently raging about what needs to be done to accelerate construction, with advocates of transforming more land to community ownership (e.g. Planners Network UK), relaxing planning regulations such as the green belt (e.g. LSE SERC), and implementing an array of measures simultaneously (e.g. Shelter Report).

We can see London’s challenges in the maps, such as the failure thus far of the flagship housing expansion programme, the Thames Gateway, to deliver. Some high profile development sites like Stratford and Kings Cross have only recently opened for residents, and so do not show in the 2011 data.

The Thames Gateway. Aside from Woolwich, little housing has been delivered.

Another more surprising result is the fall in the population of Inner West London, particularly Kensington and Chelsea. While this finding does need some context – it’s still the fourth most densely populated local authority in the country – it’s still an amazing trend given the extreme population pressures in London.

It is in line with arguments that the most expensive properties in London have become investments for international capital rather than homes for living. Such trends push prices up, cut supply and bring questionable benefits to the city. Addressing this issue would require tax changes; macro economic factors like the value of the pound and yields on alternative investments are also clearly influential.

Inner London: expansion in the east, decline in Kensington & Chelsea.

An ongoing renaissance and suburban challenges

To state the obvious GB cities are, with only a few exceptions, growing significantly: that’s not to be sniffed at given the history of widespread urban decline throughout the second half of the 20th century.

What’s more, the pattern of growth is clear: densifying inner cities, and fairly static or declining suburbs. The scale of London and the severe housing crisis has its own unique dynamics, while Glasgow and Liverpool are still dealing with significant population loss in many areas of the city region. But on the whole, the pattern is surprisingly consistent across cities in Great Britain.

But this review prompts a series of further questions, analysing the economic, demographic, gentrification, deprivation and property market processes inherent in this urban change – and what future city centres and suburbs will be like. 

Dr Duncan Smith is a teaching fellow at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University college London.

This article originally appeared on his blog, CityGeographics.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.