Kathy Pain, Associate Director Globalization and World (GaWC) Cities Research Network and Professor of Real Estate Development, Henley Business School, University of Reading

Headshot of Kathy Pain

A precondition for deciding what we want our cities to be and how to get there, must be an understanding of what cities are under conditions of contemporary globalization in Britain.

In his book, “Advanced Introduction to Cities”, (2021), Peter J. Taylor (Director of the Globalization and World (GaWC) Cities Research Network), describes vibrant cities as: innately complex, creative nodes of societies; agglomerations of activities; and characterised by their connectivity in networks of cities, their relations with states, and their demands in terms of anthropogenic climate change.

Above all then, successful cities are not isolated entities. They are defined not only by their people and their buildings but by their external relations - flows of people, knowledge and finance - and their demands on the planetary sphere in terms of resources and pollution.

This understanding of cities derives from and extends thinking by celebrated urban social theorists and geographers. For instance, Jane Jacobs, who drew attention to cities as having an energy that cannot be planned by design (1961) but is instead generated by enterprising people engaged in ‘new work’, innovation and economic diversification that generate city economic expansion (1970).

Nearly thirty years later, Manuel Castells (1996), identified how in an information age “network society”, the relations of cities are stretching to a global scale, opening up new wealth creation opportunities accompanied by “fourth world” poverty and social exclusion consequences. Relevant for cities in Britain, this fourth world exists within the populations of economically developed, as well as emerging, economies due to the demands of adapting to new ways of working, lack of appropriate skills, diversity and linked socio-economic polarisation.

In ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, (1983), Doreen Massey identified how Britain’s leading cities in the industrial era were struggling to keep pace with subsequent world economy change. The associated urban problem which had been unfolding for some thirty years, was described by Peter Hall as “not an urban one at all” but a “bundle” of “very deep and intractable” economic and social problems “that happen to impact with especial force in some parts of cities” (1986, p. 17). In the new millennium, alongside the economic challenge for British cities, rising social, lifestyle and travel expectations have increased consumption and pollution demands on the planet exponentially, as predicted by Blowers and Pain (1999).

Turning to the question “how do we get there?”, addressing present day sustainability imperatives for the health, wellbeing and resilience of towns and cities, people, the economy, the environment and the planet, requires a holistic understanding of the interactions between all the elements of sustainability, and its reflection in government policy and practices.

Local government is the backbone for the delivery of solutions that matter to diverse local communities under current central government localism and devolution arrangements. Yet over-centralised governance prevails, and this endangers the ability of councils to address local sustainability imperatives. A progressive form of localism is needed for sustainable “community wealth building” advocated by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones (2021),

In an increasingly global world, councils require agency to support the external relations of their towns and cities in ways that reflect local economic conditions and needs. They require license to develop inter-community collaborations, collective visions and initiatives. A locally accountable politics of planning is a basic requirement to support social, economic, environmental and human health equity across Britain.

It goes without saying that local government needs control of funding to direct spending on priorities associated with community creative capacities, opportunities for economic expansion in a global context, and climate change mitigation challenges. Examples include digital and physical (especially public transport) connectivity; skills support and apprenticeships; SME start-up ventures; failing high streets; greener, healthier environmental and air quality; and affordable housing supply in the places where it is most needed.

Genuine devolution of central government powers and budgets must be a priority to reflect the heterogeneity of local places and communities.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any organisation to which the author is affiliated.


Blowers, A. and Pain, K. (1999) The Unsustainable City? In Pile, S., Brook, C. and Mooney, G. (eds.) Understanding Cities: Unruly Cities? Order/Disorder, pp. 247-298. London, Routledge,

Brown, M.  and Jones, R. (2021) Paint your town red: How Preston took back control and your town can too. Watkins Media.

Castells, M. (1996/1998) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture: Volume I Rise of Network Society / Volume III End of Millenium. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hall, P (1966) The World Cities. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Jacobs, J. (1970) The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage.

Massey, D. (1983) The Shape of Things to Come, Marxism Today, April, 18-27.

Taylor, P.J. (2021) Advanced Introduction to CitiesCheltenham: Edward Elgar.


Current research by the author on health and wellbeing in British cities is supported by the UK Prevention Research Partnership, an initiative funded by UK Research and Innovation Councils, the Department of Health and Social Care (England) and the UK devolved administrations, and leading health research charities." Weblink: https://mrc.ukri.org/research/initiatives/prevention-research/ukprp/