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.