Where are the largest cities in Britain?

Sheffield: Is this Britain's third city? (Hint: No.) Image: Mick Knapton/Wikimedia Commons.

The other day, over on that Twitter, I was invited (no, really, I was) to help settle an argument: how big is Sheffield? 

A property listing, for the old town hall, had suggested it had once been the nerve centre of the UK's third largest metropolis. No one seemed quite convinced by this, for the very good reason that everyone involved could think of three bigger cities without breaking a sweat. 

So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, no, Sheffield is not Britain's third biggest city.

But we like to do things round the book round here – so let's crunch the numbers and establish, once and for all, a definitive ranking.

There’s one slight problem with this ambition: cities are surprisingly hard to define. And if CityMetric had a motto, it'd be whatever the Latin* is for “It depends how you count”.


Municipal boundaries

The reason Sheffield had somehow sneaked its way into third place, despite manifestly not being the country’s third largest city, is because it's often listed as the third largest individual local authority in England, with a population of around 553,000. Only Leeds (751,000) and Birmingham (1.1m) are bigger. Actually, so is Glasgow, with 593,000, but for some reason a single list of local authorities covering the entire UK is surprisingly hard to come by.

And already, you can see another problem with this definition: there isn't a London-wide local authority that's directly comparable to these places. Greater London is more sensibly compared to the other old metropolitan counties (West Midlands, West Yorkshire, etc). But while Greater Manchester is a pretty coherent entity these days, several of the others are still arguing about whether they're one city or several.

Nonetheless, in the name of completism, here are the populations of England's metropolitan counties...

  • Greater London – 8,173,941
  • West Midlands (B'ham) – 2,736,460
  • Greater Manchester – 2,682,528
  • West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford) – 2,226,058
  • Merseyside (L'pool) – 1,381,189
  • South Yorkshire (Sheffield) – 1,343,601
  • Tyne & Wear (Newcastle) – 1,104,825

...and of some of the bigger official "cities" they contain:

  • Birmingham – 1,073,045
  • Leeds – 751,485
  • Sheffield – 552,698
  • Bradford – 522,452
  • Manchester – 503,127
  • Liverpool – 466,415
  • Bristol – 428,234
  • Newcastle – 280,177
  • Sunderland – 275,506
  • Wolverhampton – 249,470

(Source: 2011 census data.)

Right. Now that's out the way, we can get onto the stuff that's actually useful. 

The urban area

There are a number of other ways of defining city populations, of which perhaps the most obvious is the “urban area” – that is, the continuously built up zone. This, after all, is the thing that feels like a city when you are actually inside it – or, come to that, when you are flying over it in a plane. 

The most up-to-date stats on this measure come from Demographia, a St. Louis-based consultancy, which every year gathers data on every city with a population of 500,000 or more and ranks it in its World Urban Areas Report.

In this year's edition 13 British cities make that list. Here they are, in chart form:

The dominance of London, though, renders the chart almost unreadable – we really only included it to give you some sense of the numbers we're talking about here – so from here on in we'll just present the figures.

Here's that population data again. The first number is their rank in the hierarchy of British cities; the one in brackets is their rank in the world. 

  • 1 (32) – London – 10,236,000
  • 2 (170) – Manchester – 2,639,000
  • 3 (183) – Birmingham-Wolverhampton – 2,512,000
  • 4 (259) – Leeds-Bradford – 1,893,000
  • 5 (390) – Glasgow – 1,220,000
  • 6 (565) – Southampton-Portsmouth – 883,000
  • 7 (570) – Liverpool – 875,000
  • 8 (619) – Newcastle – 793,000
  • 9 (650) – Nottingham – 755,000
  • 10 (701) – Sheffield – 706,000
  • 11 (776) – Bristol – 646,000
  • 12 (824) – Belfast – 600,000
  • 13 (942) – Leicester – 534,000

So, now you know Leicester residents: you're the 942nd largest city in the world. 

A number of comments about this data. Firstly, on this definition, Britain's historic second city Birmingham has been shoved into third place. Poor Birmingham.

Secondly, the only one of the four UK countries without a city of this size is Wales: Cardiff, with 467,000 residents, just misses ranking. 


Perhaps the most unexpected entry here is in sixth place. No one would think of either Southampton or Portsmouth as a major city: considered as a single entity, though, which in terms of sprawl they are, they're bigger than relative giants such as Liverpool or Newcastle.

Oh, and Sheffield barely makes the top 10, so is definitely not the third largest city in Britain. Just to be clear.

But there are other ways of visualising cities. For example:

Primary urban areas

PUAs are, essentially, collections of local authorities that function a bit like single cities. They were created by the Department for Communities & Local Government a decade or so back, as a statistical tool to help it draw comparisons between very different places. The aim was to come up with a list of areas less arbitrary than existing council boundaries; but which still allowed you to count largely independent but touching cities (Southampton and Portsmouth, say) as independent entities. 

Our old friends at the Centre for Cities still use PUAs in their own research, and have conveniently published a map of how they looked in 2014. Here it is:


 

On these definitions, Leeds and Bradford are counted separately; Sunderland isn't part of Newcastle, and Bolton, Rochdale and Wigan are not included in Manchester. These things obviously have a knock-on effect on the final figures for how big city populations are. 

Those caveats behind us, here's the top 10:

  • 1. London – 9,750,500
  • 2. Birmingham – 2,453,700
  • 3. Manchester – 1,903,100
  • 4. Glasgow – 1,057,600
  • 5. Newcastle – 837,500
  • 6. Sheffield – 818,800
  • 7. Liverpool – 793,100
  • 8. Leeds – 761,500
  • 9. Bristol – 706,600
  • 10. Belfast – 675,600

Manchester is rather shrunken; Birmingham is back in second place. Leeds, deprived of Bradford, has fallen a long way down the league tables. And Southampton and Portsmouth, two cities once again, are nowhere to be seen. 

Let's look at one last definition:

Metropolitan areas

Metropolitan areas are, in the most literal sense, the big ones – not simply a city itself, but its suburbs, commuter towns and rural hinterland. On this definition, London isn't Greater London – it's a large chunk of the Home Counties, too. 

The figures below are from a document published in 2007, and are based on data taken from 2001, so the numbers are pretty out of data (hence the inconsistencies with the other lists above). But it's the best we've got so here, courtesy of the EU's ESPON project, are the top 10.

  • 1. London – 13,709,000
  • 2. Birmingham-Wolverhampton – 3,683,000
  • 3. Manchester – 2,556,000
  • 4. Leeds-Bradford – 2,302,000
  • 5. Liverpool-Birkenhead – 2,241,000
  • 6. Newcastle-Sunderland – 1,599,000
  • 7. Sheffield – 1,569,000
  • 8. Southampton-Portsmouth – 1,547,000
  • 9. Nottingham-Derby – 1,543,000
  • 10. Glasgow – 1,395,000

Considered as a metro, rather than a city, Birmingham is way ahead of Manchester – a result of its better transport links to surrounding towns, perhaps. The twin cities of South Hampshire are back in the rankings, and several other cities look a lot bigger when the whole of their economic footprint is taken into account.

Glasgow, however, doesn't: it barely makes the top 10. Compared to cities like Birmingham or Leeds, it doesn't have much of a hinterland.


Towards a conclusion

What should be clear by now is that no definitive ranking is possible. You can say that London is definitely the UK's biggest city, and no one will challenge you. You can say that Manchester is bigger than Newcastle, and be on pretty safe ground. But is Manchester bigger than Birmingham? What's the UK's 7th biggest city? These are questions with no answers.

What we can do, though, is come up with a sort of typology: not a numbered ranking, exactly, but a sort of way of visualising which league cities are playing in. 

Here you go:

  • Megacity: London
  • Second cities: Birmingham, Manchester
  • Major cities: Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield
  • Large cities: Belfast, Bristol, Nottingham, Southampton/Portsmouth, Leicester, etc.

The latter category is incomplete: other cities, like Cardiff, Edinburgh, Middlesbrough, even Brighton or Bournemouth, probably have a claim to be in there, too. Britain only has one city whose population even gets close to 10m, but a couple of handfuls of them are bobbing around the 500,000 mark.

But the point, in the end, is clear. No way in hell is Sheffield Britain's third city. 

By the way, if you're the sort of person who'd like to read more of this kind of nonsense, you should totally like us on Facebook.

*Dependet quam numeras.

 
 
 
 

Pittsburgh is a glimmer of hope for cities managing industrial decline

The Pittsburgh skyline in 2009. Image: Getty.

“Pittsburgh’s Back”. “Pittsburgh’s Path to Recovery”. “Pittsburgh Rebuilds and Rebrands”. The last few years have seen glowing headlines for the rust belt city in western Pennsylvania.

Up until recently, its story was a depressingly familiar one of industrial decline and economic malaise. Once a thriving base for steel manufacturing, a combination of overseas competition and tech-driven automation beginning in the 1970s led to the decimation of jobs and output. Between 1981 and 1983 – two particularly tough years – the number of people out of work jumped from 89,000 to 212,000.

But 35 years later, Pittsburgh is a city with a skip in its step. The economy now revolves around the lucrative industries of health care, robotics and higher education. In place of steel plates, beams and wires, the city sells insurance packages, advanced medicine, legal services and virtual reality technology.

Dozens of successful companies have emerged in the last decade. Argo AI produces self-driving car software for Ford Motor Company, Duolingo has created a popular app to power language learning, and Nowait sells technology to aid bookings in restaurants. Each is valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

Unlike Detroit, which went bankrupt in 2013, Pittsburgh managed to bring itself back from the brink of financial ruin. How? Not solely because of good fortune, as some have suggested – but because of concerted leadership that relentlessly focused on the long-term.

The city is clearly fortunate to have two world class universities: Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh (UoP) pump out research and talent that are critical to high value industries. UoP alone spun out 23 start ups last year, while Carnegie Mellon has encouraged Uber and Google to set up collaborative outposts nearby.  

Pittsburgh is also blessed with rich family dynasties that have ploughed money into the city. Children read books in the Carnegie Library, oncologists study at the Hillman Cancer Center, while music lovers enjoy classical performances at Heinz Hall.

But political and civic leaders have played just as critical a role in Pittsburgh’s revival as established institutions and foundations.

Take the ex-governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh. In 1982, he launched several technology centres in the state, with the aim of financing research, start-ups, workforce training and company incubation. One of these – Innovation Works – took root in Pittsburgh. Today it offers a 20-week business development programme for budding entrepreneurs, and in 2014 was ranked the sixth best accelerator in the country.

J. Kevin McMahon, President of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (PCT), is another local changemaker. Under his stewardship, the PCT turned the once dilapidated downtown area into a flourishing arts and entertainment district. His push for real estate transformation has helped to repopulate neighbourhoods that would otherwise be desolate. 


The current mayor, Bill Peduto, is a third pioneer. With 96 per cent of the public’s backing in the 2017 mayoral election, he has the mandate to be bold in his policies – and it shows. When Trump pulled out of the latest global climate deal by claiming he was “elected by the voters of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, Peduto was swift to reply that the city will stand by the commitments of the accord, regardless of the bluster from national politicians.

For city expert Bruce Katz, the leadership shown by Peduto and others in Pittsburgh is emblematic of the ‘new localism’ that cities need if they are to prosper in turbulent times. Speaking at a recent RSA summit in the city, Katz said the best leaders collaborate across sector boundaries, for example by orchestrating publicly-owned and privately-managed corporations and establishing philanthropic investment funds.

Pittsburgh has done just that. Back in 1985, the then mayor of Pittsburgh worked with the presidents of the two major universities to develop a joint strategy to invest in major projects, including the International Airport. More recently, city leaders have come together under the banner of OnePGH to tackle climate change, aging infrastructure and other grand challenges.

Pittsburgh’s revival is not spotless. The city’s population is still declining – albeit marginally – and some neighbourhoods and demographic groups remain side-lined. A Brookings study found that, between 2010-15, black workers in Pittsburgh saw their median wages drop by a shocking 19.6 per cent. The figure for white workers was a positive 8.1 per cent.

Yet for all its faults, the city’s rebirth remains astounding. Speak to Pittsburghers and it is hard not to be moved by their optimism for the future, bolstered by what their city had forged in the past. With national leadership in the US and UK at best mediocre and at worst chaotic, Pittsburgh’s rise is a reassuring tale that plenty can be achieved at city hall with sensible people at the helm.

Hull, Sheffield and Bradford may lack the same powers as Pittsburgh, but they have at least the same assets to exploit: civic pride in buckets, universities and talent on their doorsteps, and budding arts and cultural scenes. If Pittsburgh’s turnaround tells us anything, it is that our old industrial heartlands should never be written off lightly. Where Pittsburgh has led, others can follow.

Benedict Dellot is head of the RSA’s Future Works Centre.