thoughts on our urban future

Second City Britain

Birmingham: Britain's 'Second City'

This week I read with interest a variety of articles focusing on Britain’s ‘Second City’: Birmingham. Lord Jones of Birmingham stated the city is in “grave danger” of losing its title to Manchester (a city of a smaller population, but apparently competing with a great and growing cultural offer).

The idea of a Second City places London on its global city pedestal, and suggests other British cities will forever remain inferior. Second, in my mind, should simply refer to population. The benefits of cultural amenities, athletic teams, critical mass and money, etc would inevitably be associated with the country’s thriving cities (although this does bring into question how to define the boundaries of a city, or metropolitan area).

I wonder why the term ‘Second City’ is so coveted by British cities. It is an unofficial term, but it suggests a trophy status for whichever city is considered second biggest, or second best. This implies the city will never become the biggest or best city in Britain (at least within our lifetimes).

In the City of Buffalo in the US, during its growth period when the city was growing at unprecedented rates as it industrialised, the city was commonly referred to as the Queen City. Many people believe this relates to the city’s position as being second in size to New York City, which is in the same state. It actually refers to the city being second in size and might on the Great Lakes (Chicago being, apparently, the King City). The title still is used to define the city.

Buffalo NY: Queen City of the Great Lakes

The perception of a city defined as a Queen City sends a more confident message than that of a Second City. Queen City status sits within a given hierarchy, but it also offers its own characteristics that would be different than those of the King City. A Queen City suggests it demands respect; is a centre of power; perhaps it is well-endowed, or is a place of riches; and that it is a city of lineage. Second  City evokes not of this; it only offers second best.

I wonder why British cities don’t instead claim National City status (if London is the UK’s Global City, surely there is a city that is the embodiment of the UK)? Or why another title to define the ambition of each city isn’t sought, beyond a marketing tool, to define the deeper mood of the city? Surely ‘Manchester: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ is more evocative and defining of the place than ‘Manchester: UK”s Second City 2020’?

And what about Third City? Surely this title would also be coveted by some aspiring cities. Surely Zaragoza’s marketing team believed this when it staked the claim for “Spain’s 5th Biggest City” status in 2009.

Let the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow fight for Second City status, but let’s just hope for more from their residents, champions and leaders to focus on first rate places, spaces and activities.

1 Comment

  1. As a total side note I was just reading an article in the New York Times that referred to Chicago as America’s ‘Second City’. I’m sure this is not a term I’ve heard very often and all of the sudden I’ve heard it twice in one week! On an even further side note, the article was interesting but also off topic:

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