Monday21 August 2017

We should appreciate London’s success while it lasts

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The capital might be struggling to accommodate its burgeoning population - but that’s surely better than the Detroit-style decline it once faced, argues Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

With central London’s pavements overflowing and all the talk of a housing crisis, it’s easy to forget that the city’s population was in seemingly terminal decline until the early 1990s. The huge pressure on housing is usually perceived as a “bad thing”. But the alternative – population decline – would arguably be a much greater challenge, with far fewer opportunities for architects. 

London was the original mega city of the modern era. In 1801 it already had a million inhabitants, similar to ancient Rome at its height. Over the course of the 19th century London began to explode, with population growth averaging 20% every decade. In the interwar years of the 20th century it sprawled across the surrounding countryside, enveloping the neighbouring counties under a blanket of suburban semis. By 1939, London’s population stood at 8.6 million people, and concerns focused on how to control the city’s seemingly relentless expansion. But then began a precipitous decline. The outbreak of World War Two caused many families to flee in fear, and then post-war planners set about deliberately lowering densities and dispersing working class populations to new towns and the outer boroughs.

Oxford Circus this week

Source: Ben Flatman

Crowds at Oxford Circus this week


The challenge of constraining London’s growth was rapidly flipped on its head and became a question of how to prevent its terminal decline. It seems absurd today, but some commentators in the 1970s feared that London was on a long-term trajectory leading towards a Detroit-like dereliction. By 1988 London’s population had sunk to 6.7 million. The collapse was most precipitous in the inner boroughs, where state-sponsored “slum clearance” had swept away high-density housing, leading to an average population reduction of between 21 and 35%. Many working class communities were forcibly relocated, never to recover, while middle class Londoners left of their own accord.  

It was a pattern mirrored across much of the developed world, as established industrialised economies saw a decline in urban manufacturing jobs and “urban renewal” tore up traditional city communities. In London, as in the great north American cities, there was a widespread movement into low-density suburbs. The “doughnut effect” saw traditional urban cores hollowed out, sometimes all but abandoned. Anyone visiting London in the early 1980s would have witnessed a city far removed from today’s throbbing, economic powerhouse. Soot-stained buildings sat alongside swathes of decrepit housing and endemic homelessness.   

The decline began to be reversed sometime around the early 1990s, as increasing population growth in the wider UK population and changing attitudes to urban living began to bring younger people back into the cities. The turn-around has been impressive, but it’s easy to forget that London’s population is still only really the same size it was 80 years ago and the green belt has meant there’s been little change to its geographical size. Although it might now seem preordained, London’s recovery was not inevitable. 

Some other UK cities, such as Liverpool and Glasgow have not fared as well. In 1931 Liverpool’s population reached 846,000, but then collapsed, recently recovering slightly to its current level of about 460,000. Despite Liverpudlians’ famed pride in their city, is hasn’t stopped half the population jumping ship over the past century. Glasgow, hammered by deindustrialisation and destructive post-war planning, has suffered a similar population decline. Although both cities have their ardent defenders it doesn’t disguise the fact that they’ve both seen better days. The fate of these two once-great imperial cities, now reduced to the status of “vibrant” regional hubs, is a reminder that the fortunes of great cities can fall, as well as rise. 

Even as London booms today, there could be clouds on the horizon regarding its continued success. What happens if the financial sector takes a major hit due to Brexit? Doubtless many outside the capital would welcome a reduced role for the City in the wider British economy, but for London it could be a serious problem.

Population growth in London and wider UK makes any immediate decline extremely unlikely. Under current projections London’s population is set to reach 10 million by 2025, and the UK as a whole could be Europe’s most populous country by the middle of the century, passing Germany. But the spectre of decline always hangs over any city, no matter how successful. We should celebrate London’s revival, and ponder the alternative. Yes, Londoners face many challenges, but population decline is not currently one of them. For architects, at least, that’s something worth celebrating.



Readers' comments (11)

  • Really insightful and thought provoking piece, apart from the unnecessary Brexit reference. Additionally, as London produces almost a quarter of UK GDP, any hypothetical economic hit London were to take would be a "serious problem" for those outside the capital as well as in it.

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  • 'apart from the unnecessary Brexit reference'

    Are you serious? Some of us aren't just going to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it isn't happening, as much as I'd like to.

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  • Trade and commerce have been central to London's economic success for most of the 1,930 years before we joined the EU. I'm inclined to think that's unlikely to change now we're about to leave.

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  • Yes, and how many boom/busts has there been in the last 1930 years or has it all been plain sailing? Like it or not, some of the financial sector is going to up sticks and move, which will have a knock on effect. No point ignoring it.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    I prefer Detroit.

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  • Cthululu, I never suggested anything would be “plain sailing”, I merely pointed out that it is patently ridiculous to suggest that London’s economic fortunes are determined by EU membership. This was clearly proven by London’s relative underperformance in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

    Additionally, I’m not sure what special evidence or insight you have to claim that “some of the financial sector is going to up sticks and leave”, some jobs may be redistributed within the EU but I think you’ll find reallocation of resources tends to happen all the time in business and certainly pre-dates Brexit.

    Moreover, any jobs “lost” are more than likely to be replaced with new ones serving the emerging markets which we will now be more incentivised to trade with and which account for a far greater proportion of global economic output than the EU. With its long-established globalist and mercantile instincts, these new trade links offer London huge opportunities from which to benefit.

    Nothing lasts forever and as this piece articulates history suggests that London’s current economic boom will eventually wane. But when it does I would wager it will have absolutely nothing to do with Brexit.

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  • @Jeff

    My only point was that the Brexit reference is most certainly relevant. Something you have just validated. No-one has said (as you suggested) that the economic future of London rests solely on EU membership, but the fact that you think the author shouldn't have even mentioned it is strange to say the lease.

    I do not possess any special evidence I am afraid, but I am certain that London will no longer be the 'Euro' trading capital of Europe once we leave. That is just common sense (and the law I believe). If you can enlighten me otherwise, please do.


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  • Cthululu, as you well know I never said Brexit was irrelevant nor that Mr Flatman shouldn’t have mentioned it. My issue is that to portray its consequences as solely negative, as Mr Flatman alluded to and you have gratuitously confirmed, is naïve, pejorative and disingenuous.

    Additionally, what is irrelevant is your “certainty” that London will no longer be the euro trading capital of Europe. I clearly can’t predict the future as well as you can. But if I were to try, I suspect I’d select a rather more reliable source than a 10-month-old remainer scare story from the ‘Daily Mail’ of the Europhile corporate elite with which you are so evidently enthralled.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    London is not "the greatest city in the world". Anyone who has been anywhere knows that. When I hear mayors and business people trotting out that sad cliché I wonder if they have ever been to (say) Paris, New York, Rome?

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  • Munter Roe

    Accept & believe!

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