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How to build a successful city

The gap between UK cities is widening – and not along the north-south divide, writes Christine Murray

There’s a good reason why some UK cities have weathered the recession better than others, according to a new report from the Centre for Cities – and it has nothing to do with the north-south divide. Cities Outlook 2012 claims the five cities to watch for growth are Aberdeen, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Milton Keynes, as well as London, and you can’t get much more evenly dispersed than that.

Summed up, the report – well worth a read for those engaged in city-making – says the secret to an economically vibrant city is a brainy population and a healthy private sector. The report proposes that emerging markets have proved too competitive on price when it comes to general manufacturing or low-specialist jobs, such as customer service and machine operatives. Centres with a higher proportion of these jobs have fared worse since the recession.

On the other hand, cities with universities, such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Cambridge, have higher rates of innovation, patents and start-up businesses. They have a strong private sector, and high employment in knowledge-intensive fields such as biotech, finance, media or business, with which emerging markets can’t compete. When the competition gets tough, it seems the solution is to work smarter, not just harder.

The report also confirms what architects already know – that businesses benefit from the proximity that a dense and vibrant city centre brings, where suppliers take advantage of this ‘agglomeration’.

The study also includes some troubling statistics: Birmingham has enough young people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance to fill its St Andrews Stadium – that’s 32,000 people aged 16 to 24. Also interesting is that at the national level, there are two young male Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants for every young female – perhaps confirming studies that young women are now better educated than young men.

The report’s boost for cities proves that there is no need for a policy of ‘managed decline’, such as that proposed by the Tories for Liverpool in the 1980s. Cities, with their concentrated central population and businesses, are profitable things. They are effortlessly sustainable and efficient, neatly packing nearly 54 per cent of the UK’s population onto nine per cent of its landmass. They are also economic powerhouses, with 70 per cent of the wealth of the greater South East, and 72 per cent of employment in the North West, based in their respective cities.

But cities need to be managed closely and individually. Those with knowledge-poor jobs and no university risk a further brain drain of talent and innovators in the coming months as their residents leave for more prosperous centres. Just 0.7 per cent growth in GDP is expected in 2012 by the Office for Budget Responsibility, and with unemployment currently at its highest level since 1994, the regeneration of poorer cities will depend upon them taking reports such as this one to their heart.

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