As the world approaches peak people, what does this mean for our cities, asks David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

Data released by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence in January this year suggested that 700,000 people left London last year. This was not because of covid, it was European nationals leaving because of Brexit. As a result London’s population may have fallen last year for the first time since the 1970s.

Population has always interested me. The general narrative for much of my lifetime has been that there are just too many of us. This relates to the global population of course, but it also feeds into the ‘Britain is full’ – ‘cities are over-crowded’ – ‘concreting over our green and pleasant land’ – ‘coming over here stealing our jobs’ – rhetoric that led to Brexit in the first place.

For many years this was at odds with my professional experience. Working in Northern England the fundamental problem, the one that lay behind all of the problems of urban decay and economic decline was a falling population. Manchester’s population was falling until the mid 1990s and other northern towns and cities were losing population well into the 2000s and maybe still are today. You may recall the Labour government’s Housing Market Renewal programme, an ill-judged and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to address these issues.

Just as our economy is based on perpetual economic growth, so our cities rely on population growth. Like sharks that need to swim to stay alive, cities need to grow if they are not to die. The Shrinking Cities movement in the 1990s did try and change this, led by the cities of the former East Germany that saw drastic population loss following unification. They tried to conceptualise cities that were smaller and greener while remaining successful. The movement faded away, to the disappointment of its founders, when most of its members, Manchester included, started to grow again.

In the last few weeks there have been a rash of articles on this subject. Laura Spinney writing in the Guardian asks ‘Are there too many people?’ while a piece in the New York Times asks what happens to a world where the population is falling?

Over the course of the 20th century the world population grew from 1.6 billion to 6 billion and today stands at 7.6 billion so the natural assumption is that it will keep on growing, but all the data shows that we will reach peak people in the next 60-100 years.

As long ago as the 1930s the demographer Warren Thompson described the mechanism by which this will happen. In preindustrial societies with high infant death rates, people have lots of kids. When infant mortality improves but people continue to have large families the population booms. This boom continues even as birth rates fall, driven by the huge numbers of young people.

The final stage of what Thompson called the demographic transition happens when the fertility rate falls below 2.1 children per couple, at which point the population starts to fall. More than half of the countries in the world are at this point including China, Japan, the US and most of Europe. In Korea the fertility rate is just 0.92, the lowest in the world, and even India and Mexico are closing on 2.1. Once populations start to fall the decline can spiral as fewer girls grow up to have children so that, as the New York Times puts it ‘the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff’.

In this situation cities can only continue to grow through immigration. Seoul continues to expand at the expense of other parts of Korea that are being abandoned. The same is happening in places as varied as China, Italy, and the US. Manchester has been growing at the expense of smaller northern industrial towns that now form the Red Wall.

Of course the other alternative is international migration. I came across another contribution to this debate from the US Blogger Matthew Yglesias who wrote a book last year arguing that the US should aggressively grow its population to a billion to maintain ‘American hegemony’. He conjured up a world in which countries would compete to attract international migrants using the influx of people to support their economy and their aging populations. It is a scary prospect and one that was rightly panned by many critics but it does paint a very different future to that envisaged by the Brexiteers.