This is the week when London's population will finally overtake its previous peak

This is just one reason why London's population fell after the war. Image: Wikimedia Comons.

On 6 January, or thereabouts, London will hit an extraordinary milestone. The population has finally caught up with its 1939 peak population: from now on, it will be an all-time high. Has any other city in history bounced back from losing two and a quarter million people? 

Of course, 6 January is just a notional date based on forecasts by the Greater London Authority (GLA): we cannot know when it will actually happen, or even exactly what the peak was. 

But we can be confident that this phenomenon is happening. So, let's take a look at how things have changed.

1. How did we get here?

It was the 18th century when London overtook Constantinople (Istanbul, as it is today) to become the biggest city in Europe; after that, huge Victorian growth saw it become the biggest city the world had ever seen. By 1939, it had been overtaken by New York, but was still the second biggest in the world. But today, depending on how you count, there are between 20 and 30 cities bigger than London.

The city's population peaked in 1939 at around 8.6m, and immediately began a rapid fall. At first that was because of the evacuations, the Blitz, and people going off to serve in the war – but the surprising thing is how fast the population continued to fall after the war. By the early 1990s, London had lost a quarter of its population, the equivalent of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast all leaving town. London lost twice as many people as Detroit did.

What went wrong? Well, mostly it was deliberate. Forty years before the war Ebenezer Howard had asked, “The people, where will they go?” The answer, it turned out, was mostly not garden cities, it was to London. In huge numbers.


That was seen as a huge problem – in 1928 Clough Williams-Ellis compared the city’s sprawl to an octopus, devouring rural England. In 1938 Sir Anderson Barlow began his Commission into the redistribution of the Industrial Population, and would say, “The continued drift of population to London and the Home Counties constitutes a social, economic and strategic problem which demands immediate attention.”

Out of these concerns came the Abercrombie Plan, New Towns, the Greenbelt, and a ban on office developments – a deliberate policy of constraint and dispersal that reversed the growth of one of the world’s great cities. It has taken London 75 years to recover from these blows. Now the Greater London Authority estimates that, at some point on 6 January, probably in one of London’s busy maternity wards, we will be joined by the 8,615,246th Londoner.

In 1939 London was the largest city in a global trading empire of half a billion people. Today it is again the largest city and main commercial centre in a trading block of half a billion people. But while the British empire in 1939 still included a quarter of the world’s population, the EU now has only 7 per cent.

London dominates the UK population less than it did, too. In 1939, 18 per cent of the UK’s population lived in London, compared to only 13 per cent today.

2. Who are we?

Country of Birth of London residents. Source: Quod.

In 1939 London was overwhelmingly white. Only 2.7 per cent of us had been born abroad, and nearly half of those came from Ireland (even then, mind you, the next biggest nationality was Polish).

Today, around 37 per cent of Londoners were born abroad. The city’s rebirth quite simply would never have happened without immigration, although the biggest source of growth today is births.

We’re healthier too – in 1939 there was no NHS, London still choked on smog, and even before war broke out the average life expectancy was only 62 years. It’s no wonder that pensions seemed more affordable then.

Today Londoners can expect to live to 82, and while London remains a very young city overall, the population pyramid below shows we now have fewer teenagers and more pensioners. We also have more adult men – in 1939 there was still a “missing generation” from the First World War.

London’s population by age. Source: Quod.

In 1939 statutory education only went up to age 14; so while we still use many old Victorian primary schools, in 1939, most of London’s 500 or so secondary schools had yet to be built. We need a similar wave of new schools now, with 133,000 more places needed in just the next four years.


Before the war barely 2 per cent of people went to university, and almost all of them were men. In London today it's 43 per cent – and a majority of them are women. London’s rebirth has been built on a high-skill, high-wage economy: the GLA forecasts that 90 per cent of all net new jobs will need a degree.

The number of people working in London hasn’t changed that much, but the industries we work in have. In 1939 around one in three people worked in manufacturing: London was still a major industrial city, and a quarter of million people worked in clothes-making alone. Almost as many worked in paper making as had “professional” jobs.

Now 90 per cent of these manufacturing jobs have gone: a million old jobs replaced by a million new jobs in services. Most people now work in industries that scarcely existing in 1939, including 250,000 working in IT. Another quarter of a million now work in hotels and restaurants – in 1939 tourism barely existed.

It is this ability for reinvention that has meant one of the biggest financial centres in the world has shrugged off the financial crisis: instead it's piled on jobs in tech, media and business services.

3. How do we travel?

In 1939, motor omnibuses had already largely replaced horses, and were starting to replace electric trams, too. But horse-drawn freight drays were still a common sight. The remarkable “multi-storey horse park” in Paddington still housed 500 working horses over three floors.

Hardly anyone had a car. There were only 2m private cars in the whole of Britain (25 people per car), compared to 2.6m cars in London alone today. There was still plenty of traffic, though, and rush hour speeds in central London have changed very little. Our roads are much safer, though: in 1939 1,187 people died on London’s roads, compared to only 132 people last year.

There is a perception (borrowed from America), that London’s huge 1930s suburbs grew up around the car, but in fact they were originally as much about the growth of the Underground and the bus. The 1930s saw the birth of mass commuting as we know it – the number of people travelling into central London for work had doubled in the previous 20 years. Bus use had grown to around 2.2bn journeys a year. It's now nearly back at those levels, at 2.1bn journeys a year.


Walking and cycling, however, have fallen dramatically – in 1939 they were one of the main ways many people got around. There are no exact figures, but cycling levels now are an order of magnitude lower than in 1939, despite the recent resurgence.

Perhaps the most remarkable change is in use of the Underground. In 1939, the tube was still divided into first and third class carriages, and even retained a few steam locomotives. There were no Jubilee or Victoria lines, and large chunks of the Central and Northern were still under construction. The London Passenger Transport Board had only just taken over responsibility from the private firms that started the Underground.

In 1939 there were 500m new journeys a year. Today we ​are hitting new records, with 1.3bn journeys and rising.

And aviation? Just 26 years after the invention of the plane, the world’s busiest international airport was… Croydon.

4. Where do we live?

The physical fabric of London has changed in many ways. In 1939 St Paul’s was still the tallest building in London, and had been for more than 200 years: it was still a city that Canaletto would still have recognised. Now St Paul’s is only the 41st tallest building in the London. Consider those under construction or with planning permission already granted, and it's clear it may soon not even make the top 100.

House prices have grown extraordinarily. While incomes have more than trebled in real terms, homes cost 15 times more in today’s money. In 1939 the average home cost around three years’ salary; now it is more like 16 years salary.

Tenure of London homes. Source: Quod.

Despite housing being more affordable in the 1930s, most people rented. The growth of the “property-owning democracy” was really only just beginning, and statutory provision of social housing was quite new, too. In 75 years private renting in London has more than halved, from 58 per cent of households to 26 per cent now. Nonetheless, the pressures of the housing crisis mean we are heading back to the future.

Source: Quod.

This map shows how London’s population has decentralised. The boroughs are distorted according to their 1939 population, and coloured to show how much this changed to today. What is clear is that the inner boroughs have shrunk, and the outer ones have grown.

This process had already gone a long way by 1939, but continued long after, as post-war “slum” clearance replaced very high density inner London Victorian housing with lower density social estates. Londoners are now much more evenly distributed across the city than before.

By the start of the Second World War, London had just witnessed a frenzied decade of housebuilding, creating the shape of suburban London as we know it today. This next map shows pre-war areas in blue, and post war areas in red: the shape of London has hardly been allowed to change since 1939, although the redevelopment of docklands stands out.

Thise second map shows the areas of London that were newly built in 1939 in blue: well over half a million new homes were built in the 1930s. In red are the bits that are new today, much of it commercial rather than housing development. Since 1992, when London started to grow again, housebuilding has been barely a quarter of the 1930s rate.

So, London is back to its peak, and while it has changed in so many ways, it faces some of the same challenges. Just like 75 years ago, we have extraordinarily fast population growth, with commuting patterns and housing pressure spilling way beyond the city’s boundaries.


Last time we responded by choking off that growth and imposing 50 years of decline. What do we choose this time? Can we invest and support growth?

Barney Stringer is a director of regeneration consultancy Quod, who writes about cities, economics and infrastructure. This article was originally posted on his blog here.

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We need to talk about pedestrians: Why does technology continue to put cars before people?

A pedestrian crossing in Hong Kong. Image: Getty.

On Australia's roads, one pedestrian is killed every two days, the majority in metropolitan areas. While advances in safety systems and technology over past decades have greatly improved driver and passenger safety, there has been relatively little new technology to ensure the safety of pedestrians. Even current innovations to improve pedestrian safety are still designed from a car-centric approach.

In many places walking is significantly more dangerous than travelling by car, despite mostly separated facilities and slower speeds than any other mode of travel. Worldwide, more than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives on roads each year – 22 per cent of all road traffic deaths.

Improvements in pedestrian safety are mainly byproducts of driver-focused policies such as random breath-testing and speed cameras. No doubt these reduce pedestrian fatalities, but are we relying too much on driver behaviour when a significant proportion of drivers are unwilling to change?

Despite 34 years of random breath testing in New South Wales, 12 per cent of crashes in the state’s cities involve alcohol. Speed cameras have been in use in NSW for 25 years, but 33 per cent of crashes in cities still involve speeding.

Technology design focus is still on cars

In spite of efforts to increase walking, Australian cities continue to be built with cars, rather than pedestrians, in mind. Australia is attempting to update traffic lights, which have shown little innovation since first introduced in the US in 1912.

Trials of countdown timers are underway at major Sydney CBD crossings, such as Elizabeth Street in Sydney, and throughout Brisbane. But this technology is only exacerbating the problem. By encouraging people to make a “run for it” across an intersection, they put themselves at greater risk of an accident.

Countdown timer at a pedestrian crossing in the Brisbane CBD. Image: Martin Tomitsch.

Neither the technology nor pedestrians are to blame for this. The issue is that these initiatives still take a car-centric perspective: they prioritise a rapid clearing of the road so cars can pass.

What matters to pedestrians is how long they have to wait until they can cross the road, but their needs are often treated as an afterthought. As urban populations continue to grow and age, it is critical to put people before cars.


Understanding people’s behaviour and needs is at the heart of designing technology. It’s what has led to new products and services that are disrupting industries and transforming our lives – whether it’s booking a hotel, catching a taxi or watching TV. But the roll-out of costly road safety systems seems to be lagging and ignoring this important principle.

Instead, we blame people for texting while crossing roads as the cause of pedestrian fatalities, despite a lack of crash data to support this. Evidence from hospitals suggests talking on a mobile or listening to music is more dangerous for pedestrians.

Even then, it must be recognised that pedestrians die due to collisions with vehicles, not each other. Any safety solution must consider the way all road users interact with each other and infrastructure.

New sensors aimed at pedestrian safety

The car industry is slowly taking on this challenge by trialling new sensors that automatically stop the vehicle when approaching a pedestrian.

Safety systems that focus on the people around the car will become even more important as we move closer to a future of autonomous vehicles. Audi’s driverless concept car achieves this by using a display behind the windscreen that lets onlookers know that the car sees them.

Audi’s driverless concept car has a display to show pedestrians that the car has seen them. Image: Audi.

New sensors collect data about conditions and the movement of people and vehicles in cities. In 2014, Chicago announced it was installing 40 sensors, with plans for 1,000 over the next few years. In Australia, Melbourne has been installing and testing pedestrian-counting sensors since 2012.

At the same time algorithms are being developed to make sense of the massive amounts of data being collected and to assist cities in their decision-making and planning processes.

However, these systems are mostly designed for city and government authorities, instead of making data available to those using the city infrastructure. The technology exists to extract information from these data sources and transmit them in real time to whomever and wherever it is needed, but has yet to be utilised.

 

Pedestrian and car sensor data.

A recent hackathon at the University of Sydney, held in collaboration with the NSW government’s Data Analytics Centre, demonstrated the growing interest in finding solutions to pedestrian safety.

The data is there, but we need to identify and test solutions that bring a direct benefit to pedestrians. For example, it may be possible to warn drivers and/or pedestrians of an impending collision, recognising that all people make mistakes.

We require a more detailed study of which digital solutions will make our roads and cities safer. It’s important to understand people’s needs before rolling out these technologies on a large scale – whether it’s countdown timers or traffic lights embedded in the road.The Conversation

An Australian proposal for ground-level traffic lights to prevent pedestrian accidents.

Martin Tomitsch is associate professor and head of design, and Adrian B. Ellison a research fellow, at the University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.