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Are big citites really the engines of economic growth? Perspectives from the UK

Professor Donald Houston (University of Glasgow, Department for Urban Studies)

The increasingly dominant assumption is that cities are key to economic growth. Policy makers have been seduced by theories in the ‘New Economic Geography’ and ‘New Urban Economics’ traditions that emphasise the vibrancy and diversity of large urban agglomerations. Yet international evidence that large cities have greater productivity, innovation and growth is sparse – with the exception of the USA, and some small cities in Germany and the UK. In the UK context, this city-centric view, that has now come to favour cities in terms of governance, fi nance and investment, stands in marked contrast to the pre-2000 assumption that Britain’s largest cities were actually the main focus of declining employment and population. This paper recognises that there have been important changes in trends, notably in London, but argues that the geography of recent economic trends in the UK is largely one of regional divergence between north and south. There is scant evidence that the big provincial British cities perform better than other places – in fact rather the opposite. The relationship between the big cities and their wider regions is one of interdependence and it is false to see cities as independent entities. It is also important that the national system of settlements is balanced in terms of sizes and geographic distribution.

The poster of this colloquium can be found here.