11 ways in which London’s boroughs are a bunch of really stupid shapes

What a bloody mess. Image: Wikipedia.

So here’s a spurious thing someone sent me a link to the other day: a poster from Place in Print, which shows all of London’s boroughs, to scale, in alphabetical order. I never knew I wanted such a thing, and yet:

What it reminds me of is one of those diagrams of what human chromosomes actually look like: suddenly you can see that they’re all funny shapes and some are radically different sizes to others.

Anyway, I am incapable of looking at such a thing without writing a silly listicle of my thoughts on the topic in the hope of viral traffic – you clicked, didn’t you? You’re in no position to judge here – and so, here goes.

Seriously, the size differential is crazy

The largest borough is Bromley, at 150km2. The smallest is Kensington & Chelsea, at 12km2. In other words, the largest borough is 12.5 times the size of the smallest.

That’s a big gap. By way of contrast, in New York, the ratio between the smallest borough (Manhattan) and the largest (Queens) is a relatively sensible five. In Paris the ratio between the largest (15th) and smallest (2nd) arondissements is about 8.5 (so long as you exclude the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, but let’s not get into that here).

Anyway: the point is you could fit 12 Kensington & Chelseas into Bromley and still have land to spare. Incidentally, there are 325,000 people in Bromley, and about half that, 158,000, in Kensington & Chelsea. That means that the latter is six times more densely populated than the former.

We should really be talking about building more houses in Bromley, is what I’m getting at.

And that’s without even thinking about the City

Aw, look at the dinky little thing:

Southwark is basically the same shape as Lambeth, only upside down and melting

Weird.

Some of the boroughs are sensibly square

Or at least, polygonal:

But Kingston looks like a wooden leg

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some of them have really stupid boundaries...

Look at Hounslow:

It’s 16km long but, at its narrowest point, less than 1km wide. Like I said: stupid.

...for which you can sometimes blame the river

FFS, Richmond.

Barking can’t even blame that

What the hell is this pointy bit up the top for? Couldn’t they put Chadwell Heath in Redbridge or Havering instead?

Talking of which:

Redbridge is clearly a saddle

Look:

Havering looks like Hackney’s dad

“Don’t you ever come near me or my son again.”

Hillingdon is really, really long

I think probably the longest you can walk in a straight line without leaving the same borough is to go from the Springwell Lake, in the northwest corner of Hillingdon, down to its southern tip beyond Heathrow.

That’s around 20km: walk that far from Trafalgar Square, and you can be out of Greater London altogether:

 

(It also works with Chigwell and Borehamwood, by the way.)


Anyway, that’s me done. You can buy the poster here.

And if I’ve forgotten to mock your borough, please do feel free to write in.

Update: Ed Povey from Place in Print - clearly a man who recognises an untapped market when he sees one - has been in touch. He's offered a 20 per cent discount to anyone who buys this print, or others on his site, when they use the code "CITYMETRIC".

So: there you go.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

All diagrams courtesy of Place in Print, and maps courtesy of Google.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.