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Some people choose to live in vibrant city centres, some in leafy suburbs, and others in quiet villages. These choices are the result of a complex set of decisions, trade-offs, preferences and priorities influenced by their age, and by the attributes and amenities that the different parts of a city offer.
Urban Demographics: Why people live where they do (published yesterday) explains how different priorities affect where people choose to live across a city-region, and how and why these trends differ between cities. It builds on the findings from the first report in this research project, Urban Demographics: Where people live and work, which looked at the demographic profile of residents in 59 cities across England and Wales.
Our polling reveals that age is a key determining factor. Young people tend to prefer having good access to leisure facilities, culture, transport and jobs – which explains why students and young skilled professionals are attracted to city centre locations. Suburbs offer space, bigger houses and access to the good schools much valued by families with children. And rural hinterlands offer good access to the countryside, which is why they tend to be home to the over 55s.
Overall, the return to city centre living that has occurred in recent years has been remarkable, particularly given that during the 1970s and 1980s, city centres across England and Wales hollowed out as people retreated from deindustrialising cities into the suburbs. Since 1991 these trends have reversed, and accelerated during the new millennium: city centres grew by 37 per cent between 2001 and 2011.
This return to city centre living is closely linked to the economic geography of different cities, and in particular, the increasing presence of high-skilled and well-paid professional jobs in certain cities. In Manchester, where city centre private sector jobs increased by 44 per cent between 1998 and 2011, population growth has been driven by young professionals. In Sheffield, where city centre private sector jobs have declined, students have supported its city centre population. In smaller cities such as Swindon, where the city centre economy has shrunk, and students make up a very small share of the population, city centre populations have grown much more slowly.
The increasing importance of the knowledge economy in the UK means that these trends are likely to continue in the future. If cities such as Swindon want to attract more residents into their city centres, they will need to look beyond physical regeneration strategies that focus on buildings alone, and focus on job creation and economic growth. And while students will never be a silver bullet for achieving long term residential and economic growth, strategies that maximise their presence have a role in helping to support local shops and amenities.
Cities with stronger city centre economies such as Manchester and Birmingham will need to strategically manage this growth. Current city centre residents accept high housing costs, high levels of pollution and a lack of access to green spaces. But as these cities grow, the drawbacks are likely to intensify – meaning that cities will need to proactively mitigate their effects, through new housing in city centres and well-connected suburbs, public transport strategies to counter pollution, and by incorporating parks and open green spaces in new developments.
Ultimately, how we manage growth and the different role of cities across the country depends on the preferences that people hold for where they live and work. The more we can do to recognise and to be responsive to these preferences, the better cities will be able to provide what people need throughout their lives – whether in city centres, in suburbs, or in rural hinterlands.
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