Have we reached city limits?

by Ben Marshall
State of the Nation

The apparently inexorable trend of urbanisation has been checked by COVID-19 at least for now. In October, online property portal Rightmove reported a doubling of website searches for homes in small towns and villages with populations less than 11,000. Meanwhile, Ipsos has found a widely held sentiment that city living will become less attractive, while the fear of a ‘brain drain’ to London and other big cities is dissipating rapidly.1

Cities are built around the agglomerative economic benefits of office working and hubs. Virtual models of working have weakened those forces, not least because mass transit – the arteries of cities – faces an existential threat to its being and funding. Add into the mix high-density low-space living, unaffordable housing, inferior air quality, restrictions on culture and nightlife, and it is easy to make a case for ‘peak city’.


People are going off city living

In the next few years, do you think cities will become more or less attractive places to do each of the following, or will they stay the same? 

Ipsos MORI

1,241 British adults online aged 18-75, 29 May – 3 June 2020

We are not about to see a mass exodus to the countryside, nor is the gravitational pull of the office yet doomed

There are long-standing economic and political undercurrents to this. We have witnessed public disharmony between different parts of the UK, and in October Ipsos MORI recorded the highest ever level of support for independence in Scotland (as discussed here). Early in the first national lockdown, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham predicted a fracturing of the UK. In the autumn, his city ended up in a bitter row with Whitehall. City and regional mayors have never had such a platform and they, and others, will agitate for the power to go with it.

Pandemics are anti-urban by nature but cities like London have survived war and pestilence many times before. We are not about to see a mass exodus to the countryside (although the urban poor could be forced out of big cities, particularly when Brexit takes effect)2, nor is the gravitational pull of the office yet doomed.

London buses rushing past on central london shopping street

Cities have strong identities and a capacity for innovation, evident in the concept of the ‘15-minute city’ associated with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. If anything, they will become more attractive if (admittedly a big if) they continue to squeeze out cars, housing becomes cheaper as part of a rebalancing, and jobs in suburbs not just centres make commuting less difficult and expensive.

COVID-19 looks set to shape places and the people that inhabit them for many years to come. It has given a fresh edge to long-running concerns which had already prompted the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, the productivity and sustainability of our urban centres, and their political and fiscal governance. There are huge challenges ahead but, with them, opportunities too – one radical, possible future is greener, less unequal, cities.

COVID-19 looks set to shape places and the people that inhabit them for many years to come

Ben Marshall

Ben Marshall

Research Director