GaWC Project 17

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The East Midlands Polycentric Urban Region: A Pilot Study

Researchers: D. Evans and P.J. Taylor

Project currently in abeyance

Although there has been a ‘spatialization’ of theory in social science in recent years, it seems that empirical analyses and policy programmes have often been slow to catch up. A case in point is the latest British Social Attitudes volume (Jowell, et al. 2000) where definitions of variables in terms of social, political and economic factors with attitude scales contrast markedly with the single ‘spatial variable’ which consists simply of the ten Standard Statistical Regions in England (pp. 243-7). It is noteworthy that their only deviation from this given spatial specification is to distinguish Greater London from the remainder of the South East. Of course there has been a long research tradition in urban and regional planning to define ‘urban regions’ (e.g. Coombes et al., 1983) but these research-based spatial specifications have rarely been used in mainstream social science. The recent demise of the "City Region Campaign" (Partridge, 1996) suggests little headway in policy circles also. Reasons for the neglect of spatial specification may be research laziness - accept what is given - or simple disinterest in areal configurations - in everyday life on the ground as it were. In the policy realm administrative areas are obviously relevant but this need not preclude building ‘spatial coalitions’ to operate as more meaningful spatial units (e.g. ‘Gateshead and Newcastle’ instead of ‘Gateshead versus Newcastle’).

In this project we operationalise these concerns with respect to the urban core of the East Midlands region. In order to conceive of ‘Derby and Leicester and Nottingham’ the idea of the contemporary polycentric urban region within globalization is explored and applied to this case study.

Cities and Social Change

We live in an era of rapid social change and the concept of globalization has become the lodestar for conceptualising this emerging new world. But we must be careful not to see global processes as operating separately from other scales of activity. Globalization is a bundle of processes that interact with, that create and are in turn created by, contemporaneous processes at all other scales. Cities are at the centre of many of these changes.

Scott (2001) envisages globalization as operating through a mosaic of ‘global city-regions’. This argument takes the standard world city position that focuses on central business functions and merges it with earlier ideas on functional urban regions. In this conceptualization, London is much more than simply the area of the "Greater London County" as defined in the early 1960s. As a global city-region it is constituted by developments in a much larger area incorporating other counties such as Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Surrey. The locations of ‘London airports’ at Luton, Stansted and Gatwick are good indicators of this new conception of London.

The London global city-region, whether officially recognised or not, is one of the great world-economic success stories of the last decade, a powerhouse of globalization. This is in stark contrast to other British urban regions. This difference between London with its European and global connections and other British cities is starkly shown by Taylor and Hoyler (2000). It is now generally accepted that economic success for the UK must encompass more than London, hence Lord Rogers’ call for an ‘urban renaissance’ for all the major English cities (Urban Task Force, 1999). One expression of this is the ‘core cities programme’ which targets policies and resources into six large cities - Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield. Notice that the East Midlands is not represented here (Nottingham, initially too small, may be added). Part of the problem seems to be that definitions of urban region have not caught up with contemporary social changes. The core cities are defined as major centres of local hinterlands - the ratio of commuters inwards to outwards is about three (Charles et al., 1999). But this only defines one type of city region, the traditional uni-centric region where one city dominates. The problem is that the rest of urban Britain does not consist of a collection of ‘mini-Londons’. There are also polycentric urban regions.

Polycentric urban regions are becoming more a feature of the urban scene under conditions of contemporary globalization. The classic example is Randstad Holland consisting of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, Utrecht and intervening towns but there are numerous other examples such as Rhine-Ruhr (Dusseldorf, Cologne, etc.), Silicon Valley (San Jose, Palo Alto, etc), and the ‘Sound’ urban region linked by the new bridge (Copenhagen, Malmo, etc.). Kloosterman and Lambregts (2001) define such urban regions essentially in terms of interlocking commuting patterns. They are historically distinct yet close cities that have maintained their administrative independence but are now linked together as a single economic area. Hence these urban regions have no dominant central city; there will be several city centres. Kloosterman and Lambregts (2001) point out that such urban arrangements are consistent with changing work, consumption and family patterns that have emerged over recent years. For instance, households with two adults working have become the norm and there is no reason that both should have to commute to the same ‘central city’. In a polycentric region, residential choice can easily facilitate couples working in different cities.

Our basic research question is whether the urban zone around Derby, Leicester and Nottingham constitutes an emerging polycentric urban region.


For some years now undergraduate students at Loughborough University have carried out projects on what we have termed ‘the tri-city region’ or ‘East Midlands urban triangle’. This putative polycentric urban region is shown in Figure 1 as a combination of administrative areas, and in Figure 2 with 1991 populations depicted. The latter clearly indicates that there is no dominant central city.

Figure 1 

Figure 1

Figure 2 

Figure 2

Loughborough is an ideal place to explore this region since it is right at the centre of the ‘triangle’, approximately ten to twelve miles from each city. Hence it is hardly surprising that students have found that there are flows - commuting, shopping, social, and leisure - to all three cities from Loughborough (see Table 1). This can be viewed as a starting point to exploring the idea of an East Midlands polycentric urban region (Empur) but clearly is only that.

Table 1: Types of visits to the three East Midlands cities

Type of Visit





Visit friends & relatives




Specialist shopping












To watch sport




To participate in sport









Source: Survey of first and third year students, 1999

One final point relating to competition and co-operation between the three cities: it is significant that this putative urban region does have an international airport, East Midlands Airport. Not named after any of the three cities, it is an unusual example of co-operation between the cities that should be particularly relevant for the emergence of a global urban-region of the polycentric variety.

Pilot Research Programme

To test the applicability of the polycentric concept to Derby-Leicester-Nottingham a pilot research programme will be undertaken with the following components:

  • a review of previous and current relevant literature, both academic and practitioner based;
  • telephone survey with relevant officers in GOEM, EMDA and the constituent local authorities of the region;
  • analysis of available Census and other socio-economic data [pending the 2001 Census];
  • analysis of web sites and other information on the region, including agencies, local authorities, umbrella business organisations and selected businesses;
  • interviews with selected businesses in the region which are known to be examining commuting patterns e.g. Astra Zeneca in Loughborough, Boots in Nottingham; and
  • a review of the role of the East Midlands Airport in this urban regional development.

From these components an evaluation will be made of the potential for furthering this study.


Charles, D, Bradley, D, Chatterton, P, Coombes, M and Gillespie, A (1999), Core Cities: Key Centres for Regeneration Synthesis Report, Newcastle upon Tyne, CURDS

Coombes, M G, Dixon, J S. Goddard, J B, Openshaw, S, and Taylor P J (1983) ‘Functional regions for the population census of Great Britain’ in D.T.Herbert and R.J.Johnston (eds) Geography and the Urban Environment 5, Chichester: Wiley

Jowell, J, Curtice, C, Park, A, Thomson, K, Jarvis, L, Bromley, C, and Stratford, N (2000) British Social Attitudes: The 17th Report. London: Sage

Kloosterman R and Lambregts (2001) ‘Clustering of economic activities in polycentric urban regions: the case of the Randstad’ Urban Studies (forthcoming - see GaWC Research Bulletin No. 36)

Partridge, S (ed) (1996) Building a New Britain. London: City Region Campaign

Scott, A J (2001) ‘Globalization and the rise of city-regions’ European Planning Review (forthcoming - see GaWC Research Bulletin No. 26)

Taylor, P J and Hoyler, M (2000) ‘The spatial order of European cities under conditions of contemporary globalization’, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 91, 176-89 (see GaWC Research Bulletin No. 16)