The LPIP Hub: What are the Challenges Faced by Cities and Places? What do we Want and Need Them to be?

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Rebecca Riley recently attended an RSA Urban Futures Roundtable looking at the potential of the UK’s cities. In a series of blogs, Rebecca reflects on the challenges facing places in building regenerative economies.

In the next blog in the series, Rebecca summarises some of the key challenges faced by cities and places. What do we want and need them to be?   

View the first blog from the series - What are Cities and What Role do They Play in our Social, Economic, and Environmental Systems?

This blog is for the Local Policy Innovation Partnership Hub which launched early this year. The Hub seeks to address nationwide issues through local partnerships and places.It is a national consortium led by the University of Birmingham and funded by the URKI.

Our work in the West Midlands highlights many challenges facing cities, through global megatrends, but these challenges are faced by all places.

Governance and Citizen Participation

Both the pandemic and austerity have created challenges to effective governance and transparency, creating a need for a more active approach to citizen participation. It is crucial in order to address urban challenges to adopt an approach that engages residents in decision-making, promotes participatory planning, and ensures accountability in city and local administration. These are all ongoing, constant challenges that need to be responded to strategically and practically.

Engagement in place

People need to feel part of and invested in a place. Cities have highly mobile workforces, and well-being and work-life balance along with housing and care pressures are changing the nature of what people expect and need from where they live. A highly mobile population will move for better circumstances and opportunities. Cities need to keep up with this and offer a holistic, well-rounded set of services and opportunities.

Rapid and changing population growth

As places age and the second baby boom generation is hitting retirement these changes are putting a strain on infrastructure, housing, and public services. These changes are also creating increased pressure on already tight labour markets, as vacancies rise, and people are forced to work longer. Managing the influx of people into cities, the changing population profiles and ensuring adequate housing, transportation, education, health, and basic amenities is a significant challenge.


Cities need to continuously upgrade and expand their infrastructure to meet the growing demands of urban populations. The long-term lack of investment in public services following austerity, recovery from a pandemic, ageing Victorian infrastructure and failing private sector models are putting a strain on infrastructure. This includes transport systems, water supply, sanitation, energy networks, waste management, and digital connectivity. Most infrastructure in the UK is ageing and requires modernisation and retrofitting, the disadvantage in the long term as being a first mover from the industrial revolution (especially in Northern and Midlands  Cities) is infrastructure which was once an opportunity becomes a weakness if it is not invested in and maintained.

Traffic congestion

Urban areas frequently struggle with traffic congestion, leading to increased travel times, pollution, and reduced quality of life. Developing efficient and sustainable transportation systems, including public transit, cycling infrastructure, and pedestrian-friendly environments, is essential to address these challenges as well as tackling climate change. Policies that enable and encourage local living and working, which are easier to implement in cities, can ease these issues as was seen in the pandemic.

Housing affordability and accessibility

In a high inflation economy as we are experiencing now, with rising housing costs, limited affordable housing options create challenges for low-income residents. Recently this is becoming an issue for the middle class, and housing contributes significantly to our current cost of living crisis due to the knock-on impact of the rise in interest rates to curb inflation. Cities and local authorities need to address the issue of housing affordability, promote inclusive housing policies, and provide adequate affordable housing options for all residents. However, there is a battle between places being desirable and therefore housing prices rise due to demand and local authorities having the budget to maintain social housing as costs rise (and housing continues to become more unaffordable).

Inequality and Social Issues

The pandemic exposed significant inequality and social Issues. Cities often face socioeconomic disparities, with unequal access to resources, opportunities, and public services and as they grow, they can become more unequal if that growth is not distributed. Income inequality, poverty, homelessness, and social exclusion are pressing challenges that require attention and intervention from local authorities through proactive policies to ensure wealth and opportunity are accessible and distributed.

The environment

Cities are significant contributors to environmental degradation, ensuring sustainable urban development, implementing eco-friendly practices, and mitigating climate change are crucial. Policies that enhance green and blue infrastructure in cities are becoming more vital in tackling environmental constraints and impacts. We currently do not know at a city level if we are transitioning to Net Zero – the UK is also lagging behind other countries on many environmental indicators.

Resilience and Disaster Management

Cities face risks from natural disasters, including floods, water scarcity, pandemics as well as human-induced crises. Building resilience to withstand and recover from such events requires robust disaster management plans, infrastructure preparedness, and community engagement.

Digital Transformation

Rapid advancements in technology, including automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, bring both opportunities and challenges. Cities need to embrace digital transformation while addressing concerns related to skills, business models, service redesign, data privacy, cybersecurity, innovation and ensuring equitable access to digital services.

Health and Well-being

Urban areas face unique health challenges, including air pollution, inadequate healthcare facilities, lifestyle-related diseases, and mental health issues. These trends can have differential effects on different groups, such as the young and older generations. Promoting health-conscious urban planning, accessible healthcare services and green spaces can enhance the well-being of city residents.

Considering those challenges, what is our vision for cities in the future? What do we want and need them to be?

As highlighted, the issues cities face, would point to a future city vision which should prioritise the well-being and quality of life of its residents. Cities should aim to create vibrant and inclusive neighbourhoods that offer affordable housing options, access to healthcare, education, cultural amenities, and recreational spaces which maximize residents’ access to opportunities. Any vision should promote social cohesion, diversity, and equal opportunities for all residents and workers, fostering a sense of belonging and community.

This would indicate the criteria of success should drive investment towards inclusive economic, social, and environmental outcomes:

  • Ensuring local goals contribute towards a national plan for sustainable change.
  • Outcomes-based approaches should align across government, and departments should have consistent strategies and funding approaches that allow cities to reach their full potential.
  • Procurement, funding, and commissioning which enables partnerships, innovation, and investment to thrive.
  • Cities and city regions should mobilise capital and financing to achieve shared objectives.

In the next blog in the series, Rebecca asks how do we reach our vision for cities and places? What steps can we take to get there?

This blog was written by Rebecca Riley, Associate Professor for Enterprise, Engagement and Impact, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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