What are Cities and What Role do They Play in our Social, Economic, and Environmental Systems?

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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 first blog, Rebecca asks what are cities and looks at the role 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.

What are cities and what role do they play in our social, economic, and environmental systems?

Cities are dynamic and complex systems, constantly evolving and in flux. They shape our social, economic, and environmental well-being and provide a centre for coming together. They have long-term significance; however, this is by no means certain as cities wax and wane over time. As places, they offer (at scale) opportunities for social interaction, economic growth, environmental sustainability, and cultural enrichment. Cities shape and are shaped by the way residents and workers live, travel, and interact with their surroundings. They are home to most of the population of any country, with the potential for greater influence and impact on a diverse group of people. Key centres for local activity, providing services, markets and opportunities for suburban and rural areas creating complex, co-dependent relationships between surrounding geographies and communities.

Significant social role

They have a significant social role, providing space for opportunity, interaction, diversity, and cultural exchange. Cities bring together people from different backgrounds, fostering social connections, skills development, experience, creativity, and innovation. Dense urban areas also provide opportunities for enhanced education, healthcare, entertainment, and cultural experiences due to the volume and diversity of people using services/activities the depth of their labour markets, and their experience and knowledge. They act as melting pots of ideas, enabling collaboration, social mobility, and the exchange of knowledge.

The economic role of cities

They perform an economic role, cities are economic powerhouses, driving regional and national economies. They serve as engines of growth, innovation, and employment generation. Due to their size, they offer diverse job opportunities across industries, a greater depth of labour and expertise and attract a creative, willing, and skilled workforce. The concentration of businesses, financial institutions, and markets in cities fosters entrepreneurship, investment, and trade which drives productivity and competition. Cities also act as marketplaces for goods, services, and ideas, creating greater opportunities for economic development and change to happen.

Environmental role

They have a vital environmental role and have a significant impact on the environment and sustainability. They consume substantial resources and energy whilst generating waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, cities also have the potential to be more sustainable, due to population density they are more efficient, through compact urban design, which can minimize land use, promote efficient transportation, and reduce energy consumption. Well-designed green and blue spaces and sustainable infrastructure can improve air quality, biodiversity, and residents’ quality of life. Therefore, well-designed cities can play a crucial role in implementing environmental initiatives and promoting sustainable practices.


Cities provide essential infrastructure and services necessary for inclusive and diverse urban living. They offer reliable transportation networks, including roads, public transit systems, and airports, facilitating mobility and connectivity. Large urban areas provide utilities like water supply, sanitation, electricity, and waste management systems efficiently, but need long-term investment and renewal. Cities also enable greater and more inclusive access to healthcare facilities, educational institutions, recreational areas, and cultural amenities all of which are typically more readily available in cities compared to rural areas.

Innovation, research and development 

Cities act as centres for innovation, research, and development. The proximity of universities, research institutions, and industry clusters in urban areas fosters collaboration, knowledge sharing, and technological advancements, as well as access to highly skilled, innovative labour. Cities attract talent, support start-ups, and provide an environment conducive to creativity and invention and greater opportunity for crossover and collaboration of staff, supply chains and leadership through deeper job pools.


Cities have the potential for their own governance structures, and many cities globally have devolved decision-making and policies tailored to address urban challenges and meet local needs. Local governments often manage urban planning and regulations, public safety, and other public services, such as transport, health, and education; all services and infrastructure that create the conditions for growth. They can also provide platforms for civic engagement, community participation, and political decision-making. In the UK however they lack the real power of devolution and fiscal accountability, and what power there is piecemeal and inconsistent.

The next blog in this series will look at the challenges cities face.

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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