What is Manchester, and how big is it?

You might think measuring the size and population of a city is easy, but Manchester shows us that this is far from true.

Ed Howe | May 26th, 2020

What is the population of Manchester, and how does it compare to other UK and European cities? This should be a question with an easy answer: statistical bodies like the ONS have been measuring the size of the UK's towns and cities for centuries, while councils, mayors and public authorities surely count on this kind of information to carry out their daily endavours.

The first step is to define what 'Manchester' is. To many people, this refers to the city centre - where the majority of the city's shops, bars, restaurants, workplaces; attractions such as museums and art galleries and public buildings are located. But this area is really quite small, covering about 4.3 sq.km. (1.6 sq. miles), and until quite recently not many people lived here at all. Nowadays, just over 50,000 people live here - meaning this definition of Manchester would make it a smaller city than Corby, Barrow-in-Furness and Tamworth, which doesn't sound right.

There are many different ways to define Manchester

Also, when talking about 'Manchester' city centre, do we include the parts of the city centre that are actually located in Salford? Such as the area around the Lowry hotel, Chapel Street and Blackfriars. You can walk into these areas so seamlessly that most people probably wouldn't realise they'd entered a different city. Some die-hard Salfordians might say that Salford and Manchester are separate cities, but surely someone living in Greengate, Salford - within view of Manchester Cathedral and a 5 minute walk from Deansgate, can lay as much claim to being in Manchester as someone who lives in Wythenshawe, which is technically classed as Manchester, but getting to Deansgate or the cathedral from here could take the best part of an hour.

Greengate Square, Salford. But that's Manchester Cathedral in the background. Can anybody seriously say these are separate cities?

In the UK, possibly the most common way to define a city is by local authority boundaries. These are the geographical extent to which our councils are responsible for, and Manchester City Council govern over a 115.6 sq.km. (44.6 sq. miles) slither of urbanity which stretches from Heaton Park in the north to the airport in the south - and out to Gorton in the east. This area had a population of nearly 553,000 people in 2019, which sounds a lot more like the sort of number you'd expect for a major UK city. In the raging debate for the title of Britain's unofficial 'Second City', supporters of Birmingham like to claim that Birmingham has a population nearly double that of Manchester's - referring to the city's local authority population of 1.14 million people. However, what some don't realise is that this definition of a city also makes Birmingham Europe's largest city - larger even than the City of London, which by this definition only has a population of 7,000 people.

Using local authority boundaries also presents problems here, in that Manchester's local authority boundaries - with a population just over half a million - does not include things that people typically consider to be in Manchester, such as Manchester United's football ground, the Trafford Centre, quintessentially Mancunian suburbs like Urmston, Stretford, Prestwich and the Heatons - and even a sizeable chunk of Manchester Victoria station. As stated previously, it also does not include areas just a short walk from the city centre - such as Greengate, Salford University, or Cornbrook. However, it does include far-flung areas like Wythenshawe and Woodhouse Park. Surely there must be a definition which satsifies all areas?

Is Manchester United in Manchester?

Colloquially, the M60 - Manchester's outer ring road - is often used as a clear marker for what is defined as Manchester. The motorway encircles Manchester at a consant distance of between four and five miles from the city centre, includes most areas that people consider to be Mancunian, and seems to perfectly define the point at which urban Manchester dissipates into the countryside. About 800,000 people live in this area, which again sounds about right.

But even this definition is wrought with issues. Mainly, that it doesn't include Manchester Airport - or overspill estates like Wythenshawe and Middleton which are as Manc as anywhere inside the ring road. The city's iconic Metrolink tram system also reaches its tentacles far outside the M60 - in fact 40 of its 99 stations are located outside the ring road.

Metrolink's official name is of course the Greater Manchester Metrolink, which brings us onto our next definition of Manchester - which is the metropolitan county of Greater Manchester. Founded in 1974 to amalgamate Manchester's urban sprawl, which had spread across the historic counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire, Greater Manchester nowadays has a population of 2.85 million people. Looking at it on a map, it seems to perfectly encompass the urban lump of Manchester, conveniently includes all Mancunian landmarks, and a sizeable chunk of countryside too.

The outline of Greater Manchester, shown here in beige, seems to neatly contain the Manchester urban blob

But should our definition of a city really include countryside? When you're sat on the Saddleworth Moors, or by Hollingworth Lake, do you really feel as though you're in Manchester? Many people's answer to this question would be: no. Additionally, towns included within Greater Manchester such as Bolton, Rochdale and disparate Wigan are proud towns in their own right, with rich histories and vibrant centres - and an ecosystem distinct from Manchester's in almost every way. Although, over the past decade or so, these towns have come to rely on Manchester more for work, leisure and retail. Indeed, many people living in these towns still observe the historic counties - Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire - and scoff at the mere suggestion of putting 'Manchester' or even 'Greater Manchester' in their address.

However, the modern definition of Greater Manchester is not really a modern one at all. The term was first coined in the 1880s to describe the rapdily-expanding industrial hinterland developing around the city. Towns such as Oldham, Bury and Stockport would soon blossom into major industrial centres in their own right, with Manchester City Centre assuming a more administrative role. This system of mills and factories in the 'outer towns' and offices/headquarters in the city centre established and reinforced Manchester's place at the centre of its surrounding hinterland.

A map of the planned Manchester Ship Canal in 1883, incorporating one of the first mentions of 'Greater Manchester' (courtesy Manchester University)

The EU and other worldwide authorities have their own definitions of what constitutes a city, with widely varying outcomes for Manchester. Citypopulation.de use 'urban agglomerations' to define a city - basically measuring how much built up sprawl surrounds a city, cutting off at the point where an open field disrupts the sprawl, and count up the number of people that live in that resulting urban area. Manchester's urban agglomeration has 3.4 million people, and is Europe's 15th largest city in this regard, slightly smaller than Athens but notably larger than Rotterdam and Frankfurt. While Eurostat's definition uses metropolitan regions - areas with strong cultural or commuter links to a given city - and this puts Manchester's population at 3.7 million, Europe's ninth-largest city.

But these definitions include far-flung areas like High Peak in Derbyshire, and Vale Royal in Cheshire. They are as abitrary as local authority areas, representing nothing except lines drawn on a map dictated by cold statistics, rather than true cultural and historical symbiotism.

So the true definition of 'Manchester' is somewhere between the city centre with its 50,000 people, and the Manchester metropolitan region with its 3.7 million people, but probably no larger than Greater Manchester with its 2.85 million people.

Very often, our links to a given place are subjective and differ from person to person, usually the result of historical and cultural links developed over the course of a lifetime. A Mancunian expat living in Sydney might possess a stronger link to Manchester than someone living in Bolton who does not consider themselves Mancunian, and instead writes 'Lancashire' as their address. Equally, it's likely that people who commute to Manchester for work, or visit regularly for shopping or trips to the theatre/museum, or nights out, identify more strongly with Manchester than people who don't.

One way of assessing Manchester's true population is surely to find out how many people consider themselves Mancunian, or as belonging to Manchester. In this regard, social media might have the answer. Facebook users are recommended to input where they live on their profiles. They can select anywhere, from small villages and counties up to metropolitan areas. The people that put their hometown as 'Manchester', therefore must consider themselves as living in Manchester, whether they live in the city centre, Old Trafford, outside the ring road or outside Greater Manchester altogether (it follows that people living in, say, London are unikely to put Manchester as their hometown, unless they come from there and have forgotten to change their details, as I have done with Newcastle).

So, using this measurement, the 'true' population of Manchester is...

1,400,000 people

...this is the number of people who have 'lives in Manchester, United Kingdom' set on their Facebook profiles. It seems to check out, as this population is larger than the city centre (50,000), smaller than the metropolitan region (3.7 million), and no larger than Greater Manchester (2.85 million).

Clearly, not everyone is on Facebook, and many won't put their location details on there, but this definition is possibly much more accurate and true to people's connection with cities than spatial definitions of cities which dictate that just because a certain village or housing estate isn't separated by fields from a city centre, so everybody in that housing estate or village must belong to said city centre.

It may be of interest to those engaged in the Second City debate (even though no such title officially exists in the UK), that the number of people registered as living in Birmingham, United Kingdom on Facebook is 1.2 million people.

Does it matter?

City rivalries aside, it's hard to see how the size of a city really matters. While large cities generally enjoy more economic, political and cultural clout than smaller ones, it is not true that the larger the city, the better the city. The world's "happiest" cities in 2020 - those where variables such as life expectancy, local generosity, social support, freedom and general life satisfaction are highest - are not the world's largest cities. Helsinki, Aarhus, Zurich, Oslo and Copenhagen are a fraction of the size of Kabul, Cairo and Delhi - but these latter cities are in 2020 rated as some of the world's unhappiest cities, but they are also amongst the world's largest.

Equally, there is no harm in comparing and contrasting - and amongst all the myriad ways to measure cities, population is the bread-and-butter method, and is generally easy to understand - even if it takes an entire article such as this to explain it in full.