How have British cities changed over the last several decades? How has globalisation and deindustrialisation affected their growth and their economies? And what are the implications of these changes?

City Evolutions, a major new project bringing together partners from the University of Cambridge, University of Southampton, Aston University Newcastle University and Centre for Cities, and funded by the ESRC and Urban Transformations programme, will shed light on these questions using a unique, extensive dataset, looking at employment and productivity in 70 British cities over a number of decades.

Click the tabs below to find out more about the project’s aims and research question, and who is involved.

In Britain today, getting to grips with the way city economies perform has become crucial for policymakers in resolving the productivity puzzle, the economic imbalance between north and south, and supporting business and industry growth. City Evolutions aims to:

  1. Examine and explain the economic growth paths of British cities in terms of how far and in what ways local leaders have been able to adapt and transform their economic base over what has been a period of intense economic change and disruption.
  2. Understand the scope for national policy intervention to enable cities successfully to adapt to structural change in a world of increasingly devolved decision making and new forms of city-region governance.

Research questions

The main theory to be addressed by this research project is that: The difference seen in the medium- to long-term growth of different cities is largely due to the differences between cities’ ability to transform their economic structures and adapt to changing economic climates.

To address this theory, more specific research questions will include:

  1. How has the industrial structure of the national economy changed and evolved over time?
  2. How have these structural transformations been distributed across British cities and non-urban areas?
  3. How have the economic structures of British cities changed over time?
  4. How and why have cities varied in economic adaptability and to what degree has this been shaped by their industrial ensembles?
  5. What has been the role of economic structure and structural transformation in explaining city growth paths?
  6. How have urban and related policies impacted on the structures and growth paths of British cities?

Previous research

A previous ESRC-funded programme looked at how British cities experienced and coped with economic and social change over 1951-1981 (see Hausner, 1987) .  Yet, the period since has been one of much more profound and rapid structural, technological, global and competitive change; how this has affected British city economies and their relative growth paths is a key issue requiring analysis.

We see an opportunity to build upon both that earlier ESRC city research as well as work done by two of the Principal Investigators for the UK Government Office for Science’s Foresight Project on The Future of Cities. Our work for the latter suggests that the growth paths of British cities have been quite diverse, and possibly divergent, and that a more detailed and concerted effort to document, map and account for such diversity is required to help policymakers – national and local – to better understand city economies and support a more balanced British economy.


Read the Foresight project on the Future of Cities, reports on the economic performance of UK cities (2014-2016) (commissioned by the Government Office for Science) here: www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-cities-evolving-economic-performance-of-uk-cities.

Read Uneven Growth: Tackling City Decline (2014-2016) (commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) here: www.jrf.org.uk/report/uneven-growth-tackling-city-decline

The project will utilise a number of novel data sets, some of which will be especially constructed as part of the research effort itself. These include:

  • The construction of annual data series on employment, output (gross value added), and productivity for some 90 or so sectors for 70 cities for the period 1971-2014. Population data will be constructed for the same cities for the same period. The cities will be defined in terms of local authority areas that most closely approximate the relevant travel-to-work areas, as specified in the recent 2011revision.
  • A more detailed sectoral data set on employment, a output and productivity for the same cities, but for 200 sectors, for the more recent period 1991-2014
  • A long time series on employment for local authority areas for 26 sectors sectors from 1841-1971
Professor Ron Martin
Principal Investigator
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge Full profile
Professor Peter Tyler
Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge Full profile
Professor Peter Sunley
Department of Geography and Environment, Southampton University Full profile
Professor Andy Pike
Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle University Full profile
Professor David Bailey
Aston Business School, Aston University Full profile
Ben Gardiner
Research Associate
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge; and Cambridge Econometrics Full profile
Dr Emil Evenhuis
Research Associate
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge Full profile

Dr Tom Kemeny

School of Geography and Environment, University of Southampton
John Holden
Director of Economic Strategy, New Economy, Manchester
Andrew Paterson
UK Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, London
Professor Andres Rodiguez Pose
Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics
Professor Susan Christopherson
Department of Architecture and Planning, Cornell University, USA
Professor Harry Garretsen
Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, Netherlands
Professor Gillian Bristow
School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University
Andrew Lewis
Managing Director, Tees Valley Combined Authority
Richard Kenny
Head of Strategic Development, Chief Executive and Economy Directorate, Birmingham City Council
Paul Mooney
UK Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, London