We think of cities as having existing for millennia, but only a few cities are that old and they were almost all extremely small. Most people in the world who have ever lived in a city as large as Birmingham, where this lecture is being given, are alive today. So we fool ourselves if we imagine that we have a wealth of historical evidence to draw on over how a large city is well run.

The city I grew up in and in which I now live is Oxford, still a small city but – like Birmingham – most of the city is less than one hundred years old. Most of the roads, most of the homes, most of the schools, most of the workplaces, are new. What most effects life in both Oxford and the West Midlands (and the country as a whole) is how economically unequal we are. All cities in the UK have a similar steep inequality gradient within them – from the richest suburb through to the poorest enclave. At times different cities are said to be the “most unequal” in the country. But they are all very similarly unequal and suffer from the effects of inequality greatly as compared to cities on most of the mainland of Europe. For instance, nowhere else in Europe is there so much crime resulting in so much imprisonment.

The recent economic crisis has exacerbated our problems. The main cause of homelessness for families in England today is being evicted from private rented accommodation. This is three times more common now than it was in 2010. Overall we don’t have too few homes, but we share out what we do have increasingly badly. Worse than at any time since 1911, which was when we first recorded their distribution properly. Many homes are under occupied; others are more and more overcrowded.

Our health has also worsened significantly since 2010 and that is mostly because the public services that cities provide are being cut. However, this is part of a wider urban crisis. We are also now failing to recruit teachers to work in schools in urban areas especially and seeing many other basic aspects of urban live become worse in absolute terms. This is something that has not been measured as failing to progress so badly since the 1930s. The slides with the references, maps and graphs that illustrate the lecture (that these words are a summary) of can be found here.

Other countries demonstrate how we could do better. Turn to France to look at health funding, Germany to looking at how to better house people in the city, or Finland for schooling. We are not very good at learning from abroad, despite being fortunate that enough people migrated into our cities from abroad in recent years to bring a halt to the housing demolition programs that so blighted many northern, Scottish and midland cities in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the heart of our urban problems is high and rising inequality. As economic inequality rises, more and more people near the very top of the income distribution begin to lose out as well as those in the middle and at the bottom. Equality is increased below the fabled 1%, an equality of austerity for those with less. If this continues it then spreads to all those below the 0.1%; but the take of those who have most still grows and grows. In recent years, and as a direct result of such a concentration of income and wealth at the top, the UK has become the most economically unequal country in Europe. It is no coincidence that it is also the first country after Greenland to propose to leave the EU.

Dutch and Danish cities show us how we could better plan our housing and workplaces to commute and get to school each day more easily. Norway and Sweden show how a high quality urban life is possible, even with cold weather! There are lessons from outside Europe too, from Japan and Korea that we could learn from (if only we looked there more often). The one places where there are few positive lessons to draw on is the USA, but we can look to there to see what might happen to our cities if we were to follow the American nightmare and become even more unequal in future.

Cities are just one object of geographical study. Everything is connected. By comparing the fortunes of people living in different cities in different countries we can begin to see just what is possible. We can see that there is an alternative to how we currently choose to live and arrange our urban life. And we can draw hope that a dystopian future is entirely avoidable. In most of the world, and in most cities in the world, peoples’ quality of life is rising rapidly. In the UK and USA we took the wrong road a few decades ago and are paying for it now. To hear the full lecture click ‘play’ below: