To meet the greatest global challenges, we must harness the potential of our cities
Cities will play a central role in determining how successfully we deal with the biggest challenges the world faces: unsustainable economic growth, entrenched inequality, social cohesion and climate change.
The cornerstones of success include acting at scale, a consistent approach over time, and coordinated policy interventions between the local and national level. This means that national policymaking must be complemented by local leadership that is empowered to act at pace, and in ways that are tailored to the distinct needs of each city as well as the broader functional urban areas they sit at the heart of.
Globally, we are seeing a rise in the recognition of the role of cities – and particularly networks of cities operating together – in addressing issues that require coordinated national and local interventions. In the UK, there is a long history of networks, such as Core Cities UK, operating together on common issues, but within a more centralised system than that of other developed nations.
Given that a majority of people live and work in urban areas, it is no surprise that cities are central to shaping all of our futures. The World Bank estimates approximately 56% of the world’s population live in cities (due to rise to 70% by 2050) and 80% of global GDP is generated in urban areas. This picture is replicated in the UK, where government estimates show that close to 90% of people live in urban areas producing around four-fifths of GDP.
The UK context
The UK’s urban areas pose a set of bespoke policy challenges. The government’s Levelling Up White Paper found that cities outside of London tend to be less productive than similarly sized urban areas in other countries and, according to the Office for National Statistics, some of the most pronounced inequalities in pay, education and health outcomes are found within cities. Similar to their global peers, UK urban areas have a lower carbon footprint than the rest of the country on a per capita basis. However, relative to European peers, UK urban areas are less dense and public transport of poorer quality, both of which make marginal progress towards reducing emissions and meeting net zero more costly.
There has been substantial academic and policy work aimed at exploring how we can harness the potential of the UK’s urban areas, not least by the RSA in conjunction with Core Cities UK and their partners.
This included the City Growth Commission, which in 2014 recommended steps that could be taken by the UK government to support urban areas in boosting the trend rate of growth. Its recommendations spanned physical and digital connectivity, housing and planning, skills training and devolution. Some had a profound influence on government policy, for example helping to reshape the landscape of sub-national governance, through City Deals (which give local areas specific powers and freedoms to help regions support economic growth), the creation of combined authorities and metro-mayor devolution.
Further work by the RSA, Core Cities and others – the Inclusive Growth Commission, completed in 2017 – concluded that growth can be conceptualised more fairly to the national good, understanding the links between high deprivation and low productivity. It recommended a re-coupling of social and economic policy, which had drifted apart over the previous decades, focusing on social outcomes alongside more traditional measures of growth, such as gross value added.
...the RSA is not waiting for national government to take the lead, but working with partners and Fellows to drive change at the local level.
The Urban Future Commission
Building on this work, the RSA is embarking on a major piece of work – the Urban Future Commission – aimed at driving practical change in the UK’s urban areas.
The third collaboration between the RSA and Core Cities, the Commission will begin by answering the question: What are cities now, their economic, social and political role and function, locally, nationally, globally? This will take our understanding of the challenges facing UK cities to the next level, building on the findings of previous Commissions and Core Cities work with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Brexit, Covid-19 and climate events of increasing severity are shocks that remind us of the great challenges we face. These shocks require us to revisit an additional question: What do we want and need cities to be, what are their biggest challenges and opportunities? The third central line of enquiry will be: How do we bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be?
The RSA’s recently published Design for Life programme for change and the UK government’s Levelling Up White Paper are immediate responses to recent shocks that represent a useful starting point for answering these questions. Design for Life provides an analysis of the economy, society and, crucially, the environment, as ‘nested systems’, distinct but interrelated, which policymakers must consider together to avoid unintended consequences. Further, it argues that all three systems are degraded to such an extent that the concept of ‘sustainability’ is no longer a sufficient condition; policy needs to be regenerative and nourish all three systems back to health.
Meanwhile, the Levelling Up White Paper speaks more directly to rebalancing the UK economy and society specifically through 12 levelling up missions that can serve to galvanise and coordinate action. This specificity is helpful in identifying the UK’s shortfalls in crucial enablers for success, such as strong local governance and the depth of finance available to urban areas.
The RSA’s Urban Future Commission will draw on this work to help us to sharpen the potential contours of national and local visions and action plans, beginning with the three nested systems. In relation to the economy, our aim will be to develop ideas that boost productivity through nurturing concentrations of complex industries and positioning cities to take advantage of emerging trends in international trade. On society, we will focus on building social capital through interventions that boost social mobility and those that champion local pride in place. When it comes to the environment, the Commission will seek to identify ways that cities can drive progress towards net zero targets.
A fourth avenue of exploration is the ‘enabling institutions’ that underpin successful action at the local level, identifying where gaps exist and estimating the extent of shortcomings, as well as developing options to address them – for example, working with local areas to identify non-state models of governance that facilitate collaboration between public, business and civic leaders, as well as give voice to residents. Our aim would be to bring these leaders and custodians of finance together to work out how the programme of action can be paid for without relying solely on central government funding.
The Commission will take a ‘people first’ approach to understanding place. To this end, we hope to undertake ‘deep-dives’ into individual cities, exploring the themes of the Commission within a local community context. We want the Commission to be highly participatory and, as well as engaging communities, we will draw on the support of Core Cities’ expertise and the RSA’s new Associate Fellow scheme, as well as hold several events, bringing a broad experience to bear on these critical issues. Finally, we will draw on the RSA’s global footprint to identify international examples of good practice that can sit alongside UK evidence.
These strands will lie at the heart of the Urban Future Commission over the next 12 months. Building on our past work and experience, the RSA is not waiting for national government to take the lead, but working with partners and Fellows to drive change at the local level.
To find out more, visit our Urban Future Commission page
Chris Murray is a former Director of Core Cities and Tom Stratton is Chief of Staff at the RSA
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.