A Study on Regional Governments Part II: the British Isles

I haven’t posted in a few days because I’ve been completely wrapped up in this project. Hopefully today and in the coming days I can make up for it a bit with some original content. For starters, I wanted to revisit the idea of regional governments.

I am still a big fan of Christopher Alexander, despite the fact that I’ve talked to a number of people who have met him in person and say he’s basically insane. In his most well-known work, A Pattern Language, the very first pattern is “Independent Regions,” where Alexander says:

Metropolitan regions will not come to balance until each one is small and autonomous enough to be an independent sphere of culture…


Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries.

Alexander lists a number of reasons for this conclusion, including that a citizen of a smaller nation like Denmark can have direct access to the Minister of Education, while in a large country like the United States this is impossible. This, combined with my own opinions about the arbitrariness of state and county lines and the modern reality of metropolitan economies led me, a few years ago, to undergo an effort to redraw the entire United States based on regions of 2-10 million people.I produced three maps, including the one above (which I redrew once I learned something about design and how awful my colors were), which showed what the country would look like with minimums of 2 million, 5 million and 8 million. The problem with using minimums was that many regions ended up way over the 10 million mark. Los Angeles County, for example, has over 10 million people in it already, and when you add the surrounding counties which couldn’t form their own regions, Los Angeles became enormous.

The way I came up to address this was, instead of starting with all the towns in the US with over 100,000 people and seeing which ones could amalgamate 2 million people, I thought I would try another technique. I would start from the top, with America’s largest cities, and assign areas to them, based on which city it would be easiest to walk to based on Google’s walking directions. Once an area had been assigned, if it was more than ten million, I would take the second largest city in the assigned area and re-divide it; Thus, New York would start with 300 million people, but then be divided between New York and Los Angeles. The half of the country covered by New York, would still have the most people, so the next division would be Chicago, then Houston, etc., until each region had less than 10 million people.The problem is, the United States is an enormous country, with over 3,000 counties, and dividing the country county-by-county takes a very long time.

Another major issue I came across was that, just as state and county boundaries are arbitrarily geometric, so are our national borders. It is silly to think that, just because there is a line between them, that Mexicans don’t participate in the economy of El Paso, or Americans in the economy of Vancouver, or Canadians in the economy of Buffalo. So to really create a model that would take into account the realities of economies that straddle current international boundaries, it would be necessary to incorporate multiple nations, or even the entire continent, because when you get down to it, the hardest borders we have are oceans.

I wasn’t ready to attack that sort of a project yet, so I wanted to work on a pilot; I needed something that was smaller than the US, but still fairly urban, that was completely surrounded by water. I decided to test my new technique on the British Isles.

The British Isles consist of a number of islands, the principal ones being Ireland (Eire) and Britain. Politically, there are two sovereign states in the Isles: the Republic of Ireland, covering most of the island of Ireland, and the United Kingdom, covering Britain, Northern Ireland, and most of the other islands in the Isles. The UK is further divided into four constituent countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) and three crown dependencies (the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea, and the Channel Island dependencies of Guernsey and Jersey). Each of these countries and dependencies are largely responsible for their own internal affairs (all except England have their own elected legislatures; England’s internal affairs are governed directly by the UK Parliament), but international representation and defense is managed by the UK. Although this is certainly closer to the model supported by Alexander, some regions are too large (England especially), while others, the dependencies in particular, are too small.

From wikipedia.org.

Municipal government in these countries is, in many ways, similar to that of the US: In Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the country is divided into counties which then are made up of parishes (cities and towns). Northern Ireland’s traditional counties have been subdivided into smaller districts, but the principal still holds. England, on the other hand, is a bit messier. It is divided into nine regions, which are then divided into two types of counties: metropolitan (for the more urbanized areas of England, such as Birmingham and Leeds) and non-metropolitan (less urbanized). These counties are divided into districts, and then into parishes. In addition, there are a number of “unitary authorities,” which work similarly to the independent cities of Virginia. Greater London is it’s own beast, on an administrative level similar to that of a county. The map I decided to use features counties, metropolitan districts, and unitary authorities.

Administrative divisions of the UK. From wikipedia.org.

I should point out that what follows is mostly a geographic experiment. Differences in linguistics, religion, and history were not weighed. Some of the boundaries in these countries are where they are for very good reasons, and many residents of Ulster may not want to be lumped in with the Republic of Ireland, or people west of Offa’s Dyke may want to remain in a united Wales despite being closer to English Liverpool than Welsh Cardiff. That being said, the geography may show things differently.

With this more top-down method, the larger regions emerged first, so the first thing that came up was a set of regions less than 10 million people:

I think that this map does a fair job of reaching Alexander’s goals. It coincides well with many of the traditional regions of the Isles: Ireland, Scotland, Northeast and Northwest England, the East and West Midlands, and the Southwest are well defined. There are some anomalies. First are those caused by ferry services between the islands. For instance, while Dublin is geographically the closest major city to Belfast, it takes much less time to take a ferry between the two cities than to walk. However, if you’re already taking a ferry, it takes less time to ferry from Belfast to Liverpool than to Dublin. By the same token, it takes less time to ferry from Anglesey in Wales than to walk to Liverpool. In reality, these anomalies probably wouldn’t exist.

Another interesting thing is the smaller cities around London. Unlike in the North, where major cities form a string from Liverpool to Manchester to Sheffield and Leeds, London is sort of on its own, and it falls on smaller cities such as Luton to create regions around it. This is most pronounced with Woking, a town of just over 60,000 people, and not even the largest in its region (Reading is much larger), but the largest that could anchor a region of 2 million. It would be interesting to see what would happen to these cities if they were given a larger administrative role.

The largest city that really gets the short straw in this analysis is Bristol. At about 430,000 people, Bristol is one of the top ten cities in the UK, but always ended up on the wrong side of the dividing line. It started out being a part of Birmingham, but when Southampton split off from London, it got sucked into its sphere of influence. It is hard to say if something like this would happen in real life.

Next, I took these regions and subdivided them until the subsequent regions were either less than 4 million and thus couldn’t be divided into two regions of 2 million, or when, even being above 4 million, it was impossible for the second city in the area to support a population of 2 million. For instance, so much of the population of Ireland is based in Dublin and its nearby coast that the second largest city, Cork in the west, was unable to amass the 2 million needed to be a region.

Some of the anomalies from the first map go away, while news ones arise. By creating a Belfast region the ferrying issues on the first map go away. However, Anglesey is still closer to Dublin than Liverpool. The introduction of Cardiff also creates a Welsh region, although much of the north is still closer to Liverpool. Bristol still draws the short straw though, as it is now shifted into Cardiff. The problem of small cities that are really part of a larger region spreads from London to Birmingham, where Wolverhampton forms its own region when really it is very much a part of greater Birmingham. The North is generally much more fractured. This is also the first time that the unitary authorities pose a problem; for instance, Derby is closer to Leicester, while Matlock, the administrative center of Derbyshire, is closer to Sheffield. In all, I think the larger regions better reflects the reality on the ground, the creation of Welsh and Northern Irish regions notwithstanding.

Even in this case, there are some if the same issues with international boundaries. For example, the Channel Islands are both closer to France than England. Would it be better for them to be administered by France? What about the Faroe Islands, administered by Denmark but much closer to Scotland? These questions notwithstanding, I think I’ve learned some things for another American experiment; work with maximums, but don’t worry too much about getting down to 2 million; just getting past 10 million will get you pretty far.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

3 Responses to A Study on Regional Governments Part II: the British Isles

  1. Pingback: BBC News – Project aims to crowdsource what makes a happy city « Munson's City

  2. Pingback: A Federalized World Based on Global Cities « Munson's City

  3. Pingback: A Study on Regional Governments Part III: Back to North America | Munson's City

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