How students are helping to shape city centres

Cities also need to think about how they can sustain and support the growth in city centre living.

Over the past week, record numbers of young people have headed off to university, with more than 409,000 students expected to begin studies at higher education institutions this autumn.

As our recent report Urban Demographics shows, this will have a profound impact on cities across the UK, as more than two thirds of English and Welsh students are based in urban areas (2.5m people in total).

Unsurprisingly, it is large cities, home to a number of different universities and higher education institutions, which are attracting the highest number of student residents – with London alone accounting for 21 per cent of the total number of students in England and Wales.

But what’s more interesting is where in cities students are moving to, with the large expansion of student numbers in recent years having had a big impact on our city centres in particular. As Urban Demographics shows, students accounted for 44 per cent of overall population growth in city centres in England and Wales from 2001-2011, and for 54 per cent of the population growth in the large city centres in that time.

Change in economic activity across city centres, 2001-2011


This meant that by 2011 students made up nearly a quarter of the total city centre population of cities in England and Wales (and 44 per cent of residents in large city centres) – highlighting the huge impact that university campuses and accommodation are having in shaping city centre populations

This trend among students is reflective of a wider boom in the number of people living in city centres living since the start of the century, a resurgence led by young professionals as well as students, with both groups seemingly attracted to city centre living by the same factor – the prospect of living close to work. For young professionals, that means living in walking distance to their job, and for students it means being close to their place of study.

As the table below shows, this trend is particularly evident in Oxford and Cambridge, where universities have long been integral parts of the city centre, and where students now make up 85 per cent and 75 per cent of their respective city centre populations. But it is also very strong in bigger cities like Sheffield (where more than half of the city centre population are now students), Leeds, Cardiff and Liverpool.


The increasing number of students living in these city centres clearly has important implications for these places, and should be a major consideration in any decisions about where to build housing, develop transport links and base public services. Cities also need to think about how they can sustain and support the growth in city centre living, and make the most of the economic opportunities it presents – such as increased footfall on the high street, and greater demand for restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities, pubs and cafes.

We will be exploring these issues in more detail in the second installment of the Urban Demographics report, which will be published early in November.

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