From Christopher Wren to Canary Wharf: How do we shape the London of the future?

An artist's impression of Canary Wharf from the Thames. Image: Olympia & York.

As the embers of the Great Fire still smouldered, Sir Christopher Wren drew up plans for the rebuilding of the City of London. England’s greatest architect envisioned a city of wide, intersecting boulevards with vistas and squares inspired by the renaissance layout of Paris.

Charles II was keen on the idea. But lack of funds to buy the land, and the insistence of the City merchants that they get back to business as soon as possible, rather than hang around while a new plan was devised, meant that the Square Mile was rebuilt largely to the old medieval plan.

This pragmatic approach to planning has characterised much of the development of the capital ever since. England’s common law and a national distrust of grand plans have conspired to produce a system of creating pieces of city that come about as a result of argument and enquiry rather than from a vision of a desirable city.

Wren's abandoned plan. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.

As London grew in the 18th and 19th century, so the existing surrounding settlements expanded until they formed a single and untidy metropolis. The aristocratic estates like Bedford, Grosvenor and Portman hired developers who laid out houses in streets and squares that followed a masterplan. This generated local areas of coherence, like the white stucco and Classical architecture of Belgravia and the red terracotta of Arts and Crafts Chelsea. This mixture of single owner developments and areas of variety of style and ownership is a key part of the London’s character – the “city of villages”.

Today one has to ask whether the pressures of growth, and of global finance, combined with cuts in planning resources, are creating places that are outgrowing these empirical methods. In the current London Plan, large scale development is proposed to take place in Opportunity Areas. Some of these come under a single development entity, like Argent’s King’s Cross and CapCo’s Earls Court. Others have multiple ownership, like Nine Elms and South Quay on the Isle of Dogs. The two mayoral development corporations, for the Olympic Legacy and Old Oak Common, create masterplans with developers delivering individual sites.

King’s Cross is a good example of how masterplanning can work. The developers and their consultants produced a clear layout for the site, retaining areas of key heritage and providing locations and size of buildings with a mix of uses around the site. The plan was flexible enough to change as economic situation changed; based on a series of sound rules, it retained a level of coherence in scale and detail. The architects of individual buildings were given freedom in developing their own palette of materials and colour in order to create variety and interest.

By contrast South Quay, not far from Canary Wharf on the DLR, is in multiple ownership. Each landowner jockeys for taller and taller buildings, with guidance arriving late in the day from the authorities when it seemed that the density of the area could exceed even that of Central Hong Kong. Although a master plan has now been developed, it gives no hint as to the overall form, the townscape, of this key part of the capital.

This is in contrast to Canary Wharf next door, where today’s development is still recognisable in drawings made by the celebrated architectural illustrator Carlos Dinez as far back as 1984. The architecture has changed over time, but the shape of the development is pretty much as planned.

So, in areas of multiple ownership how do we create plans that can adapt to changing circumstance, yet create new quarters that are also great places?

What is needed is a wholesale shift from the current reactive and regulatory planning system to one that is proactive, positive and creative. This was clearly stated in The Farrell Review, prepared for former culture minister Ed Vaizey, but fell on deaf ears in a Government committed to stripping out planning services in local authorities. Will Theresa May’s administration be any different?

The NLA's model of modern London. 

The process of shaping the city in a way that is accessible to public and professional alike can be facilitated using 3D computer models which also allow the desired flexibility. The Corporation of London is already using virtual modelling to plan the layout of tall buildings in the City, and New London Architecture (NLA) has been pressing City Hall to adopt a London-wide version ever since the publication of the NLA’s first Tall Buildings Survey in 2014 which highlighted the new for a more coherent skyline strategy.

Providing a clearer idea of the shape of the future city will give greater certainty to developers and communities alike; it will reassure local people about what is going up in their backyard, will reduce land speculation and make development less of a gamble.

As mayor Sadiq Khan writes his own version of the London Plan, he has the opportunity to say not just what the London of the future will contain, how many people it can accommodate and what sort of jobs they will do – he can give us an idea of what it is actually going to be like.

Peter Murray is chair of New London Architecture.

“Experiencing the city: What makes London work?” is part of the talks programme at 100% Design which has been curated by the Design Museum, taking place 21-14 September at London Olympia. 

All images in this article apear courtesy of NLA and the Design Museum.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.