When we talk about urban regions, we often talk about a large core city – a Greater London, Paris, Manchester or Somewhere – surrounded by a rather indistinct hinterland of small and medium-sized secondary cities, which don’t differ much other than being closer to or further away from the core. In Europe, made of a patchwork of proximate but very different cities and towns, with centuries of accumulated history, this is a remarkable oversight. We should rather talk about each second city of an urban region as exceptional in its own right. Or, at least, we should distinguish different types of second city, each with specific features, development paths and future prospects.

This is what I tried to do in a recent paper presented at the latest Spatial Planning & Strategy seminar at TU Delft. Through an analysis of eight British urban regions, I explored whether we could differentiate second cities according to their population composition. And, if so, what are their main similarities and how they differ among each other and from their respective core cities? Population change has been often used to assess ‘vibrant’ or ‘shrinking’ urban prospects, but population composition is also a meaningful way to explore this topic – a growing population made of vulnerable and deprived groups does not mean the same for the urban economy as growth fueled by wealthier, educated and cosmopolitan residents. And urban regions are known for clustering different groups in different places, pushing out from central cities residents who can no longer afford their lifestyle and amenities towards remote cities which do not offer the same opportunities.

It is therefore important to know how different demographic groups are spread across urban regions. Fortunately, British researchers allows us to do that, by resorting to the wonderful dataset of the Datashine OAC project (https://oac.datashine.org.uk), which constructed eight demographic ‘supergroups’ out of common Census 2011 socioeconomic and individual characteristics, and then mapped their presence at a very detailed scale throughout the country. Basically, we can define a city perimeter as we wish and count the number of units pertaining to each supergroup contained in that perimeter.

DataShine OAC 2011 (created by Chris Gale and Oliver O’Brien at UCL)

The results are quite striking. To start, I ran a cluster analysis according to how supergroups are distributed in each city and three very clear clusters emerged – this means simply that there are three typologies of second city with distinctive population profiles. The first includes many historic and university cities, such as York, Bath, Durham etc. The second includes the largest second cities, such as Coventry, Bradford, Reading, and others. The third renders a more indistinct selection of new towns, former industrial cities struggling with economic transition. Running some other indicators, I could show that cities in Cluster 1 also have the highest index of urban amenities, life satisfaction and population diversity, three features usually seen as positive for the urban economy – they might be well-equipped to realize the ‘diversity dividend’. The larger cities in Cluster 2 fare poorly in self-reported life satisfaction but grow faster than the others – people are indeed attracted by the opportunities offered by larger cities, even if quality of life is not that good. Cluster 3 cities rank lowest in amenities, demographic diversity and growth, but still manage to report greater life satisfaction than Cluster 2. Interestingly, only one city in Cluster 3 (out of 28) lies in the South of England.

Cluster Analysis – three typologies of second city

As a second step, I zoomed into population diversity to study differences between core and second cities and also among the latter. The main finding here is that core cities – large, attractive, cosmopolitan – are much more diverse (in terms of a balanced representation of supergroups) than secondary cities, where sometimes a single group dominates (especially in London cities). The cities modestly approaching the diverse mix otherwise found in the core are – as you might expect – the attractive and cosmopolitan historic and university cities of Cluster 1. Another problem of many second cities is that they are not only less diverse but also that their homogeneity tends to cluster the more deprived and vulnerable population groups – indeed, there is an overrepresentation of these residents in many second cities, mirrored by the higher presence of wealthier, younger and educated groups in core cities. A trend of regionalization of poverty and polarization between cities is well visible in many urban regions, especially in the North of England.

Overall, we can see that although some features may give an advantage to second cities aiming to profit from their location in, and interaction with, a large and powerful urban region – historic features, a university, medium size, geographical location to some degree – most of them are under a so-called ‘agglomeration’ shadow regarding their ability to extract such dividends. Many urban regions pursue greater integration in an attempt to boost growth, following the narrative that agglomeration economies will spread from the core towards the well-connected region and ‘rise the tide’ for every city. But this research stresses the spatial unevenness of metropolisation processes and should make us consider the exacerbated divides across urban regions when assessing the merits and models of integration.

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