The urbanising city: analysing the way the population of Greater Manchester has changed since 2002

Since we held the Commonwealth Games in the summer of 2002, the city centre has developed almost beyond recognition. Manchester in 2002 didn't have the Beetham Tower, or MediaCityUK. The National Football Museum was still Urbis. Piccadilly Gardens was brand new, and the Arndale redevelopment hadn't yet opened. The Metrolink network was a fraction of the size it is today. 


The population of Greater Manchester back then was just over 2.5 million, whereas now it is just under 2.8 million. This article looks into the way in which the geographic spread of Manchester's population has altered in the last 15 years, with the help of ONS ward-level population data available online.

The map below shows the state of play in 2002. The bluer the area, the less populated it was. The more red an area is indicates it has (had) a higher population. What immediately jumps out is that Manchester was the archetype of what some people call a 'doughnut' city: a city whose population mainly lives outside of the centre. This was also very typical of many other post-industrial western cities as post-war suburban sprawl and the invention of the motorcar meant that people could live further and further away from where they worked.

In the late 1980s, the population of Manchester city centre was reportedly just over one hundred, and although it had done well to increase that population to just over 6,700 people in 2002 it, alongside neighbouring Ordsall, were the two least-populated wards in Greater Manchester at the turn of the millennium. By far. In fact, the next least-populated ward - Bowdon, which contains a huge chunk of primarily rural Cheshire - still had over 1,000 more residents than Manchester city centre in 2002.


Bolton - the red-ish area to the north west of the city - and Stockport, the red area to the south east, contained the key areas of population in Greater Manchester. But inner North Manchester (Cheetham Hill, Miles Platting, Harpurhey wards) were also thriving. Cheetham was Greater Manchester's highest-populated ward in 2002, and still is today. Ordsall - a ward stretching from Greengate near Victoria Station all the way over to Salford Quays, taking in a massive chunk of the inner city, was the region's least populated ward in 2002, with just 6,780 people. After the industry and docklands went into decline, Ordsall's population decreased significantly and in 2002 this area still had not seen any substantial redevelopment, although Salford Quays had already started to regenerate. 

Fast forward 14 years to 2016, where the map below shows how Greater Manchester's population has significantly redistributed.

In general, the whole map is a lot more red than the predominantly blue 2002 map. Clearly the population of Greater Manchester has increased, but we already knew that. From being the second-least populated ward in 2002, Manchester city centre is now the second most populated ward in Greater Manchester. With an increase in population of over 16,000 people, the city centre ward has seen the biggest resurgence across the whole region. Ordsall has seen the second-largest resurgence, increasing by over 11,000 people between 2002 and 2016. The complete regeneration of Salford Quays, massive development at Greengate and around Chapel Street, as well as around Ordsall Park has made this ward a regeneration success story. The doughnut city is clearly no more - and cumulatively the inner city wards of Ordsall, Cheetham, Ancoats & Clayton, Bradford, City Centre and Hulme have increased their overall population from 64,000 people in 2002 to 119,000 people in 2016.

The map below makes it easier to visualise the population change witnessed across Greater Manchester.


It highlights the City Centre, Ordsall and Cheetham as the outstanding growers during this period. Despite rapid growth in Manchester city centre, Cheetham managed to retain its position as Greater Manchester's highest-populated ward by adding an additional 8,700 people between 2002 and 2016. Other growing areas include Bolton, Oldham, Altrincham and Stockport town centres. Clearly a decade-and-a-half of Manchester's councils encouraging the development of brownfield land in and around town centres is working. This is undoubtedly something to celebrate: towns and city centres contain most of the services, amenities and facilities that people need in their day-to-day lives. As well as encouraging town centre shopping and reviving our district centres, it also makes owning a car unnecessary as many people live in close proximity to a public transport node. 

But while Manchester's central areas and town centres have witnessed a population explosion, the same is not true of its peripheral wards, as the more detailed map of north Manchester below shows.

North Manchester is a divided area. The inner city areas of Cheetham, Crumpsall, Harpurhey and Moston have seen quite substantial growth, but areas further out are stagnant or in decline. Norden and Littleborough Lakeside, for instance, have seen declines of -536 and -677 respectively. While Oldham town centre has seen growth similar to parts of inner Manchester, the more rural areas of Crompton and Royton North have declined by between 500 and 600 people in 14 years. 

It's hard to pin down an exact reason as to why these areas are in decline, but 'brownfield first' planning and development policies have undoubtedly played a part, combined with restricting green belt development. On the face of it this is a good thing - more Mancunians now live in sustainable and accessible locations than they did in 2002, while residential-led regeneration is a proven way to revive town centres. But it's important that this doesn't cause some of Greater Manchester's more suburban and rural communities to spiral into decline.

While the situation in the west of the city isn't quite as bad as in the north of the region, the same trend continues whereby areas closer to the centre of Manchester have seen growth while areas further out have remained stagnant or declined. Ordsall, which borders Manchester city centre, has seen significant growth in this period. Areas bordering Ordsall such as Pendleton, Weaste, Broughton and Irwell Riverside have also seen steady growth as the inner city redevelops. 

Meanwhile, Bolton town centre and surrounding areas have similarly seen a resurgent population, with steady growth in other areas too - including Leigh, Atherton and Westhoughton. 

However, Boothstown & Ellenbrook, Worsley and Irlam have remained stagnant, or declined slightly. These areas also suffer from a gap in the city's rail and Metrolink networks which is now much more of a consideration for people choosing where to live than it was in 2002. In West Manchester, the areas broadly along rail lines are the ones which have seen steady growth. Even inner city Claremont is quite a walk to the nearest Metrolink or rail station and its population has increased by just 84 people since 2002, making it an anomaly in inner Manchester.

South Manchester is broadly split between east and west. In the west, Altrincham, Broadheath, Sale, Sharston, Stretford and Chorlton Park have seen average to fast population growth during the 14 years to 2016. But areas further east, containing the traditional suburban areas around Stockport, Marple, Bramhall and Stalybridge, have stagnated or declined in line with similar areas across Greater Manchester. However, Stockport town centre has seen steady growth in this period, once again in line with developing trends. 

Droylsden West contradicts these trends somewhat by being an inner city area which has seen relatively high population decline. In fact Droylsden West was Greater Manchester's fastest-declining ward between 2002 and 2016, with a fall of -765 people. The reasons for this are unclear, and probably multifaceted, but this area has seen substantial clearance of old homes (usually terraced housing built during the Victorian era). These areas are now undergoing redevelopment with higher quality, modern homes and apartment blocks which will further aid the regeneration of the inner city. 

Finally, central Manchester has of course seen some of the most considerable population growth in the entire region. An ongoing proactive policy encouraging brownfield central area development from Manchester City Council, as well as a national and international trend towards re-urbanisation, has enabled an explosion in apartment blocks, as well as hotels, offices, retail, restaurants, bars and student accommodation. Central Manchester is now a well-populated area, consisting of a multitude of different uses which make it an exciting and vibrant place to live and visit. 

All areas of central Manchester have seen at least rapid growth. In more recent years, residential development has spread from the city centre into Ancoats and Hulme, while although Ardwick has grown quite fast it has struggled in comparison to its neighbouring wards. This is possibly down to it being severed from the city centre by the Mancunian Way, which cuts through the area.

Growth across central Manchester has been so significant that the Local Government Boundary Commission has declared that ward boundary changes are needed. The changes, due to come into force in May 2018, will see the City Centre split into two new wards - Deansgate and Piccadilly - while Ancoats will combine with Beswick, Clayton will join up with Openshaw, while Hulme and Ardwick stay broadly the same. 

The graph below shows the various wards which make up inner Manchester and the way their population has changed compared to each other between 2002 and 2016. The City Centre ward is the star performer, and is now by some margin the highest populated of all areas shown, with growth accelerating further between 2015 and 2016. (Cheetham isn't shown). 


Ancoats & Clayton, Hulme and Bradford have all grown on roughly the same trajectory over the past 15 years, all doubling in population. While Ordsall has grown on the same trajectory as the City Centre, its growth started to slow down slightly in 2013 (to about 700 extra people a year), meaning its overall population still lags behind that of H