What is a city, anyway?

This, believe it or not, is London. Image by Tom Tired of London

Okay, there's a question we're going to be wrestling with a lot at CityMetric. I'm not saying we're going to answer it any time soon, but the least we can do is ask it, and explain why it constitutes a problem. Here it is:

What, actually, is a city?

At first glance this probably looks like a stupid question, the sort of thing you'd get from a four year old, like "What are unicorns made of?" or “Why is the sky blue?” But (spoilers) it's not.

To explain why, it helps to have a worked example or two. London, official figures tell us, has a population of somewhere around the 8.3 million mark. Paris has a population of roughly 2.3 million. So, one might naturally conclude, London is a lot bigger than Paris.

Except, if you look at a different set of figures, it's very clearly not.  Demographia has been publishing a statistical guide to the World's Urban Areas for a decade or so now. Its latest edition, published in May, has Paris on 11 million – four times larger than the official statistics and well ahead of London's 10.1 million.

Then you look at this dataset from the official statistical agency of the European Union and the figures get even bigger but the order's swapped again. Eurostat has Paris on 11.9 million and London on 13.6 million.

You don't have to be a geographer to guess that these three sets of figures are working from different definitions. You can probably even make an educated stab at what each set of figures represents. They are, respectively, the population of the region governed by the city's own authorities, of the continuous built up area, and of the larger metropolitan region.


But which of these is ‘right’? The answer is, infuriatingly, all of them – or, if you prefer, none of them.

To most people, most of the time, none of this is actually a problem: no one ever failed to understand the concept of London because they were unclear on whether you were counting Watford or not. But there are two contexts in which it matters a great deal.

One is its impact on the workings of city governments. If you're the official charged with coming up with a strategy for meeting an area's housing or transport needs, say, then it would help to have some control over the whole of that city.

Very often, though, you don't, so infrastructure investment is likely to focus on the city proper: not only is official power strongest there, but its population get a vote in local elections. Administrative borders can thus end up warping the fabric of the city itself. Just look at the apparently arbitrary places where the New York Subway terminates.

The other reason why which this definitional confetti matters is that it poses a massive barrier to anyone who actually hopes to analyse the urban landscape. Professor Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, who in recent years has conducted a number of comparative studies on cities. “You'd think by now all the urban planners would have an operational definition of a city that you just could look up,” he says, with some exasperation. “Well that doesn't exist."

As a result, the moment you start trying to quantify any aspect of city life – or worse, compare two cities – you run into difficulties. How many people live in Mumbai? What's the size of New York's economy? Which is more densely populated, London or Paris? All too often, the answer is ‘it depends’. "It's a problem that's plagued a lot of our research," West adds. "And it reflects how little work has been done to quantitatively, analytically, and scientifically understand cities."

The upshot of all this is that what a city is, and where it ends, is a surprisingly subjective matter, and any attempt to nail it down is likely to throw up anomalies. All you can do is keep track of which definition you're working from, and make sure you never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones.

Here, for future reference, is a quick guide to the main ways of defining cities, which we’ll be trying very hard not to mix up.

 

The municipality

The political definition of a city. Paris is 20 arrondissements, New York is five boroughs, London is 32-plus- that-awkward-finance-y-bit-in-the-middle.

The advantage of this definition is that it’s nice and straightforward and easy to exert political power over (or find data on, come to that). The disadvantage is that it tends to throw up anomalies: some municipalities exclude large swathes of suburbia; others include sudden patches of countryside. The official definition of London includes North Ockendon, a tiny Essex village outside the M25, but excludes Buckhurst Hill, a contiguous central line suburb well inside it.

 

The urban area

This, one might think, is the contiguous urban sprawl: the thing you can point to on a satellite photograph, or from a plane by night.

Life, though, is rarely so simple. For one thing, areas of development separated by less than 200m of open space will generally be bracketed together as a single urban area, on the grounds that anything you can cross in under two minutes doesn’t count as ‘the country’.

For another, there are features like parkland and forests to contend with, so sometimes you’ll notice a distinction between ‘urban area’ (which includes suburban open spaces) and ‘built up’ area (which doesn’t).

There is also no single universal definition of what counts as an ‘urban area’. Most countries define it as one with at least 400 inhabitants per square kilometre. In the US it’s 1,000 people per square mile, which is nearly identical; in Australia, it’s 200 people per square kilometre, which isn’t.

 

The metropolitan area

A city's effective economic footprint, typically measured by commuting patterns. Satellite towns and ex-urbs may not look like part of a city – but since they wouldn’t exist without it, the thinking goes, they should count.

There are two problems with this idea, however. The smaller one is that you end up counting a lot of people who reject the idea they live in a city at all, if only because they made a conscious decision not to (hello, Surrey).

The bigger problem is that it's largely subjective. What proportion of people need to commute into a city to be part of its travel-to-work area is a matter of judgement. And what if a town between two cities contains large numbers of people who commute to both? Is Warrington a satellite of Manchester, or one of Liverpool? Does Princeton belong to New York or Philly?

The consequence of all this is that different countries use different definitions. While agencies like Eurostat have attempted to harmonise these, there's no current data set that does so worldwide.

Here’s an example of all these various definitions at work. This is Paris, c2008:

That tiny maroon nucleus is the city proper. Surrounding it you have the larger built up area (red), the official urban area (orange) and the metropolitan area (yellow). Suddenly, you can understand why the figures for the city’s population seem to vary by a factor of four. 

 

Just to make things more complicated...

While a metropolitan area will typically contain more than one urban area, the same can be true in reverse. Look down from an aeroplane, and you might think that San Diego and Tijuana are a single city. But there’s a whopping great international border between the two, which most of the area’s population aren’t free to cross. So is it one city, or several? How do you define them? As ever, the answer, awkwardly, is “it depends”.

 

Lastly, some definitions we won’t be using

The bizarre official phenomenon of British city status, an honorific handed out by the queen, which means that Ely (pop: 20,000) and St David’s (pop: 2,000) have the same official status as Manchester. The equally bizarre habit in some parts of the US, of appending the word ‘city’ to any cluster of four broken down sheds and a dog. What of these, eh?

Well, these are silly and we intend to ignore them. So there.

Images: Photo of Pratt's Bottom courtesy of Tom Tired of London, taken from Flickr under a creative commons license; map of Paris adapted from Wikimedia Commons.


 

 
 
 
 

In search of the UK’s great “city films”: the South, East Anglia and the Midlands

Beachy Head, East Sussex. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, in the first blog in this series, I looked at the best city films set in London. Here the search extends outwards – to the urban metropolites of the South, East Anglia and the Midlands. The focus is on films with some combination of local stories, connections and shooting locations.

That first blog outlines the selection method in detail. If you haven’t time to read it, the key things to know are that films must have received a total IMDb score of at least 6.5 from at least 100 votes – if a film is missing from the list it is probably because it does not meet those criteria.

South East

Described by the Guardian as “one of the finest post-war British crime movies and possibly the best depiction of the seaside town on film”, Jigsaw (1962) is about a murder investigation set in and around Brighton. The producers made the film in partnership with the local police and there is extensive footage of Brighton and its surrounds. Despite similarities with the real-life Brighton Trunk Murders of the 1930s, the plot was based on a 1959 American novel.

Brighton is again the location for Smokescreen (1964), yet this time insurance fraud is the crime. In addition to scenes at locations around the city and neighbouring Hove, the rest of the filming was at Brighton Film Studios, which operated between 1949 and 1966 and was the the last of four main film studios in the area. Its closure marked the end of an era, since as early as “1912, when Hollywood was just beginning, film companies in Brighton had already produced hundreds of comedies, dramas and documentaries”.

The Chalk Garden (1964) is based on a play of the same name by Enid Bagnold and, although not a period piece, inspired by Bagnold's own inter-war life at North End House in the village of Rottingdean that borders Brighton immediately to the east. Bagnold (a remarkable woman) lived a well-healed existence and the servants – notably the governess – figure prominently in the tale. Brighton features in the film – including a scene in Preston Park that recruited background players from the Preston Lawn Tennis Club.

The storylines of a couple of 1960s Oxford films centre on that city’s ancient university. The Mind Benders (1963) is a spy thriller involving brainwashing science, while Accident (1967) is about professorial-student relationships. Accident is based on a novel of the same title by Oxford-educated Nicholas Mosley (the eldest son of Sir Oswald). Both films have numerous shots of the university; we’re talking “The Full Morse” here.

A good deal of Quadrophenia (1979) is set either in London or between London and Brighton, but it does also feature the latter’s famous seafront and beach. The film, which is about a young working-class Mod in the mid-1960s, recreates the fights between gangs of Mods and Rockers that marred Brighton and other south-coast towns over holiday weekends during the Sixties.

Fast-forward two decades and Down Terrace (2009), a “Sopranos on Sea”-type dark comedy, is Brighton to its fingertips. It has a handful of local scenes but is more a house-based play than movie. Directed and co-written by Brighton resident Ben Wheatley, it is named after the street in which it was filmed. The other co-writer, who also has a lead role, is Rob Hill, who met Wheatley at the University of Brighton. The house in which most of the filming took place was Hill’s own home in Down Terrace and Hill’s character’s father is played by his real-life father – also a Brighton resident. Wheatley and Hill self-funded the film and did interviews with “local drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells” for the initial script. Several tracks come from local folk singers, The Copper Family. I loved it (as did the British Independent Film awards).


Emulsion (2014), a slick and clever film about a man’s search for his “missing wife”, is a Bournemouth film. Writer-director Suki Singh is a graduate of Bournemouth University’s Film School and still based locally. Despite the town council’s car park featuring heavily a good number of locations in Bournemouth and Poole are shown, including cafes, a local country house, department store, major hotel, police station, converted art deco cinema and Alum Chine suspension bridge. The film’s premiere came through a local Indie Screen scheme whereby Poole’s Lighthouse cinema guaranteed to screen good local indie films. The production company is locally based and, in addition to film-making (e.g. Bournemouth-shot feature, K-Shop), plays a key educational and networking role in the city’s film community. Even the score was by a (London-based) Bournemouth University graduate.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) charts 24 hours in the life of Australian- born, Brighton-based singer Nick Cave. It is a curio in that, while the person is real, the day is artificial – made up of arranged but unscripted encounters with famous faces from 20,000 days-old Cave’s life. Many of the encounters take place in a car as Cave drives around the city, mostly away from the town centre and seafront. The film has been called “a great Brighton film, giving a neon noir sheen to Cave’s adopted hometown” and “as much of a love letter to the seaside city as it is to the man that inhabits it”. So, let’s include it.

South West

The film world owes a debt to the city of Bristol in that it gave the world one Archibald Alec Leach – better known by his screen name: Cary Grant. The Bristolian usually vies with the likes of Brando and Bogart for the mantle of greatest male lead in movie history. His upbringing in (and later ties with) Bristol is well captured in last year’s excellent documentary, Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant has long held a fascination for playwright Peter Nichols who, like the film star, grew up in north Bristol. Nichols converted one of his early plays into a challenging and amusing film of the same name, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972). Nichols was rooted in the city, having been born there, educated at Bristol Grammar School, studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had his first play staged at the Little Theatre (now part of Colston Hall). The play/film, based on Nichols' own experiences, is about how the burden of raising a very handicapped child can damage a marriage. The male lead is a teacher – just as Nichols had been. Funds to write the play came when legendary director-to-be John Boorman, then working at BBC Bristol, persuaded Nichols to write a screenplay for him – one that went on to make money. There are at least a handful of external shots filmed in the city although it remains more play than movie and you only hear a Bristol accent once – a funny department store scene.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), which was also shot in London, and Paper Mask (1990) both show Bristol locations albeit without any great local rootedness. Starter for 10 (2006) is about student life and a University Challenge quiz team at the University of Bristol yet, despite a few good Bristol shots, most of the university scenes were filmed at UCL and the University of Greenwich.

East Anglia

Ipswich has The Angry Silence (1960), a film about strike-breaking and, seen more broadly, an individual opposing a group. It was shot mainly in and around a big local factory (operational as recently as 2005), neighbouring streets and a local primary school. Extras comprised of both local amateurs and many factory staff, one of whom lent their battered (ie realistic) overalls to one of the film’s stars. The lead actor, Richard Attenborough, even visited the factory beforehand to learn to use the machine he worked on in the film, and later hosted a private showing for local extras at the old Ritz Cinema in the Buttermarket. The film still holds up almost sixty years on, yet not everyone took civic pride in it – Ipswich Trades Council voted to boycott it. 

Following a successful online campaign named “Anglia Square not Leicester Square”, the world premiere of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013) was held in Norwich’s Hollywood Cinema, with Steve Coogan appearing in character as North Norfolk Digital radio station’s own Alan Partridge. Coogan/Partridge greeted fans before being helicoptered to the London premier in Leicester Square! The film has some good shots of Norwich, although many scenes were also filmed on the Norfolk coast, at Sheringham and Cromer beaches, and around London.


Originally created as the master’s project of Norwich-born, -raised and -based director, Kris Smith, who was at the time studying film at Norwich University College of the Arts, I’m Still Here (2013) focuses on a young guy diagnosed with a terminal illness and draws on Smith’s own experience of a loved one in this situation. Smith, who both wrote and directed the film, worked with three locally based actor-filmmakers, and the soundtrack includes local band National Image and locally-based rap artist C.O.L.L. The main shots of the city are at the beginning – including a trip to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (yet when a neighbour later drops him at “the hospital” the entrance shown is St George's in south London’s Tooting!). The premier took place at The Curve Auditorium, in Norwich’s Forum complex.

The short story that inspired the multi-award winning 45 Years (2015), which tells the tale of a retired couple, may have been set in north Wales, but the resultant film was indeed set in Norfolk. It includes a handful of scenes featuring popular Norwich locations and the nearby Norfolk Broads receive a nice profile too. The director, Andrew Haigh, has revealed that a lot of the scenes in Norwich featured genuine passers-by – lead actress Charlotte Rampling “would walk around the city and nobody even looked at her. We had the camera hidden in a van to film some of the scenes, so people wouldn’t see us”. Haigh knew the city well as he was living there at the time of filming while his partner was doing an MA in creative writing at University of East Anglia.

Blinded by the Light, at a cinema near you from 2019, is Gurinder Chadha’s film about the true story of a Bruce Springsteen-mad British Muslim growing up in Luton during the 1980s. The film is based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park. Exact shooting locations are unclear although Manzoor, who is a co-producer and co-wrote the script, has said that “there have been moments on set when I could not stop smiling at the sight of a feature film crew in the middle of Luton”.

East Midlands

Nottingham is the focus of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), of which the screenplay, about a womanising hard-drinking young factory worker, was adapted by Alan Sillitoe, who was born and raised in the city, from his novel of the same name. The film’s anti-hero works in Raleigh bicycle factory – as Sillitoe himself had when it had been a wartime munition factory. The author’s family home was a main location for the film and his brother had a bit part. Numerous other city locations appear – from the castle to cinemas and pubs (including The White Horse – the setting for the short story that later became the novel). Although the closing scene was shot overlooking a Wembley housebuilding site, a Nottingham firm supplied one of its signs to bring “authenticity”. Not all locals welcomed the film: the then-Tory MP for Nottingham Central denounced it as a “foul libel on the respectful, clean living people of Nottingham”. The work was however deemed the 14th greatest British film in a 1999 BFI survey.

Shane Meadows, who moved to Nottingham from the eastern-most part of the West Midlands when he was 20, has shot several good films in and around his adopted home city. His first feature, TwentyFourSeven (1997), about a youth boxing club, was filmed in Nottingham suburbs and exurbs. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), about two 12-year-old friends, was shot in Calverton – just outside the city. The relationship between the two boys is semi-autobiographical and based on the childhood relationship between Meadows and co-writer Paul Fraser. Much of Meadows’s This is England (2006), about skinhead youth in the early 1980s, was shot in residential areas of Nottingham. Meadows has used professional actors but has also drawn on local talent – notably from the Television Workshop in Nottingham – for key roles. The Workshop, now a charity, was originally set up by Central Independent Television in 1983 to act as a casting pool for young talent in their Midlands broadcasting region.

Leicester gets a look in with The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997), a coming-of-age tale, set in 1972, about a talented, mixed-race 13-year-old athlete at a school on the outskirts of Leicester. The screenplay was written by the late Jo Hodges who, back in 1972, had been a sporty, mixed-race 13-year-old at a school on the outskirts of …. you guessed it, Leicester.

Although it didn’t include lots of Northampton scenes, Kinky Boots (2005) is based on the true story of one of the area’s shoe-making companies managing to stave off closure through switching to producing women’s boots that were large and strong enough for drag queens and male fetish footwear lovers. The company was based a few miles outside Northampton although most of the internal factory scenes were shot at the Tricker’s shoe factory in Northampton itself.

The Unloved (2009) gives a child's eye view of the UK’s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger. Filmed entirely in Nottingham, it offers a handful of shots of the city and is a semi-autobiographical account of the upbringing of the film’s director, Nottingham-born-and-raised Samantha Morton (who has twice been nominated for acting Oscars). The film also gave leading roles to two actresses – Lauren Socha and Molly Windsor – who had attended the Television Workshop.

Oranges and Sunshine (2011) depicts the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who, in the 1980s, uncovered the horrifying and thankfully discontinued practice of Home Children; the forcible relocation, by misguided charities, of children in care from the United Kingdom to Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth. Humphreys reunited some of the children involved – now adults living mostly in Australia – with their parents in Britain and was awarded a CBE in 2011 for her work. Several Nottingham locations were used in the film although shooting also took place in Australia. The two main young actresses were Television Workshop alumni.

Nottingham was also the location for the Weekend (2011), which was named in 2016 by a BFI survey as the second best LGBT film of all time (Carol took first place, since you ask). The plot centres upon a casual encounter that shows signs of developing. The only real connection to the area, aside from locations including the Goose Fair, is that funding came from EM Media and the region’s now-closed development agency (EMDA).

Given that we are including villages just a mile or so outside Nottingham, A Boy Called Dad (2009), about a teenage father, also merits inclusion. An East Midlands production company raised the £1m needed to start shooting – obtaining funds from the former Regional Screen Agency, EM Media. North Wales and Merseyside locations also feature however.

West Midlands

Nativity! (2009), a film about a nativity play competition, is the stand-out Coventry (and West Midlands) film. Spon Street, various city landmarks and, in particular, the bombed-out St. Michael’s Cathedral can be seen in the film, which was written, directed and produced by Coventry-based Debbie Isitt, herself a product of a two-year Coventry Performing Arts Service course, and premiered at the city’s SkyDome Arena. The multi-talented Isitt even does the music along with her long-term partner Nicky Ager. Nativity! drew on Isitt’s memories of her primary school in Birmingham, which resurfaced when her own daughter (who appears in the film) reached the same age. The other children in the film, almost none of whom had agents, were recruited from schools around Birmingham and Coventry. In 2008, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire followed the filming and, to complete the local angle, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre even played a part in production. It’s an enjoyable feel-good Christmas film suitable for all ages.

The absence of a film from Birmingham is the elephant (not) in the room; the world is surely due a great Brum film? That said, there have certainly been good films from the city and these are outlined in the spreadsheet referred to below.

Scoring

Overall the films from the South, East Anglia and the Midlands offer some additional perspectives on England to those in the films featured last blog. Through watching them we see a nation with vibrant seaside towns, attractive provincial cities, ancient and redbrick universities, factories, and the post-industrial landscape left behind when these closed.

Anyway, once again I have used my “highly scientific” method to score those films. The full list of scores, complete with further details on all films, is available here. The top-scorers, for each region, are:

  • East – I’m Still Here (Norwich): 10.5 points
  • East Midlands – This is England and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (both Nottingham): 9 points each
  • South East – Down Terrace (Brighton): 12 points
  • South West - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Bristol): 7 points
  • West Midlands – Nativity! (Coventry) 11.5 points

The next installment will look at the best city films from the three regions that make up the North of England.

The author, a Brit based in Washington DC, is founder of The New Barn-Raising a project to promote international exchange on ways to sustain parks, libraries, museums and other community and civic assets. You can find him on Twitter at @newbarnraising.