The Living World
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Urbanisation in the UK: An Overview


The UK’s population is unevenly distributed, with major cities in the southeast of England having the highest population density. This region is also experiencing the fastest economic growth.

Historically, UK cities have often been located near major rivers for trade purposes. For example, London is situated along the River Thames, and Liverpool near the River Mersey. During the Industrial Revolution, cities near mineral deposits, like Newcastle, experienced rapid population growth and urbanisation.

In the UK, relief greatly influences population density. Areas of high relief, such as mountainous regions, tend to have lower population densities compared to lowland areas like Birmingham and Cardiff.

Population in Cities

In UK cities, population distribution is complex and varies based on historical factors. Typically, urban centres expand outwards, starting from a historic core and extending to the urban fringe. As cities develop, new areas are added, changing the population density.

For example, the city of Manchester underwent significant changes during the Industrial Revolution. Originally a small market town, Manchester rapidly expanded in the 19th century due to the boom in the textile industry.

This industrial growth led to a surge in population as workers moved into the city for factory jobs. As a result, the urban structure of Manchester today reflects this period of rapid expansion, with many areas densely packed with Victorian-era terraced houses, originally built to accommodate factory workers.

All towns and cities demonstrate these four features:

Migration’s impact on the UK

The UK has a long history of both national and international migration. National migration peaked during the 19th century Industrial Revolution, which led to significant urbanisation. This shift from rural to urban living contributes to the current population density around cities and towns.

International migration has been a consistent trend in the UK. Some notable examples are:

  • 17th-century French protestants (Huguenots)
  • 19th-century Irish famine refugees
  • 20th-century Caribbean migration
  • 21st-century war refugees

According to a 2021 census, approximately 1 in 6 residents in the UK were born outside the country, with significant migration from Poland, India, Ireland and the Caribbean.

While international migration offers many benefits, it has also been a source of political tension in the UK over the last 60 years.

MulticulturalismGreater pressure on public services and infrastructure
Higher birth ratesCities become overcrowded
Availability of low-wage workersIncreased job competition
Increase in tax revenueLanguage barriers and assimilation challenges
Education opportunities for overseas studentsFamilies and older couples either leave urban environments or the country, looking for quieter living.
Growth in young adult population, which benefits the nightlife sceneDiscrimination and racism
Skilled workers brought in to support public services, like the police and NHSMore men migrate to the UK than women, creating a gender imbalance

For a detailed examination of London and the impacts of urban change, click here.

Key Terms

Industrial RevolutionPeriod of significant urbanisation and industrialisation in the UK, Europe and America during the 19th century
ReliefThe shape and height of the land
MigrationThe movement of people from one place to another
National migrationMovement within a single country, typically from one region or city to another
International migrationMovement across national borders, from one country to another

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