Here's everything we learned from this gif of London's growth since 1900

Brutal: a screen shot from the GIF. Image: Create Streets.

The outline of Greater London has become a familiarly sprawling shape on the map: the “Dark Star” of the UK if you live outside of it, and the enlightened beacon of hope to those who live within.

It’s an ancient city, with a history that stretches back over two thousand years, but the vast majority of its physical growth has only happened over the past century or so. It’s tricky to envisage this when you can see it all spread out before you on a tube map, but the clever-clogs over at pressure group Create Streets have come up with a clever way of visualising it.

In one GIF, they’ve tracked the construction of London from just before the turn of the 20th century to 2015. It’s an extraordinary bit of data visualisation, and even just staring bleary-eyed at it as it goes round and round tells you al ot about how this city came to be the way it is today.

But it’s worth breaking down to get a closer look. We’ve separated the GIF into individual frames to pick apart how London grew at each point over the past century by looking at where flurries of construction took place. Aren’t we nice?

Pre 1900

At this point in history, London is obviously a very different beast. “Greater London”, the sprawling beast roughly confined by the M25, is but a twinkle in the residents’ eyes, and “Inner London” – the present-day boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newnham, Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark, Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, Wandsworth, Lambeth, and the City of London – is pretty much all there is.

As such, building immediately pre-1900 is pretty much exclusively within this area, with particularly intense construction in Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham. That being said, some developments do spring up outside those confines, most notably around Finsbury Park, Forest Gate, Battersea, and Clapham.

1900-1918

Building is obviously slightly stunted at this point because of the small matter of the First World War. There’s very little going on in Inner London, and any building, where present, focussed on areas just outside the Inner London boundaries. Ilford sees a fair bit, as does Leytonstone, the area around Alexandra Palace, and Ealing.

1919-1929

Lighter development is at this point reasonably well spread in concentric circles beyond the boundaries of Inner London. The Becontree Estate and surrounding areas in East London are a hotspot of building after the Housing Act of 1919, and it subsequently became the largest public housing estate in the world.

The Downham estate, in the southerly reaches of Lewisham, flags up as an area of intense building in this period, too. Housing estates such as these were intended to alleviate overcrowding in more central areas like Rotherhithe and Whitechapel, and were London’s first big foray into the expanses of what was then Home Counties countryside.

1930-1939

The arrival of Metroland is clearly visible in the north western part of London. Swathes of the boroughs of Harrow, Ealing, and Hillingdon became the subject of huge house building projects as part of a kind of “British dream”: moving out to the countryside to own your own home whilst still being within commuting distance to Central London.

Other spurs of building in this period crop up in the Chessington area of Kingston, Addington in Croydon, and Welling in Bexley.

There's no building to speak of during World War II, so jumping forward...

1945-1964

With the end of the Second World War, building comes back to Inner London as bombing damage is rebuilt and hard-hit areas renewed. Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and the estates of Hoxton are a centre of dense building, as are the Churchill Gardens Estates in Pimlico and the northern reaches of Hackney.

Building also keeps moving out in a concentric sort of way towards the very edges of London, with parts of Hounslow seeing intense construction along with Harold Hill in the beyonds of Havering and Hainault in Redbridge.

Much the same trend continues through into the early sixties, with surprising bouts of intense building in Roehampton in Wandsworth and Addington in Croydon.

1965-1972

Huge building comes to the City of London during this stint, with one obvious project being the Barbican Estate. Across Inner London more generally, however, building returns with a reasonable vengeance, with hotspots from Peckham to Walworth, Belsize Park, and the World’s End Estate in Chelsea.

Meanwhile, outer London continues to throw up intense building centred around estates and town planning projects, including Northolt in Ealing, Heston in Hounslow, and the northern chunk of Romford in Havering.

1973-1982

Building cools off slightly in the late 70s, although that probably makes sense: if you’re struggling to keep the lights on, building a lot of houses might be a challenge.

Most prominent during this period are the estates of Thamesmead and Abbey Wood across what are now the borders of Greenwich and Bexley, immortalised unfavourably in the popular Stanley Kubrick A Clockwork Orange and more favourably in the more decidedly niche Beautiful Thing.

1983-1999

Towards the end of the eighties and into the nineties the Docklands Redevelopment Project starts with a vengeance. Stretching through from Beckton in Newnham in the East to Wapping, to Rotherhithe in Southwark and the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets, Docklands was a vast project, evident from the area’s dominance in building intensity in both frames.

Towards the end of the nineties, you can catch the South Bank facing Westminster getting a wee facelift, which is nice. Go London Eye.

2000-2015

Coming into the current century, most of the building in London is within the boundaries of Inner London, with fairly disparate, low-intensity construction taking place in the outer reaches of the capital. You can catch sight of the redevelopment of Stratford and its environs in advance of the Olympics, and you can see the developers moving in on Newington in Southwark along Blackfriars Road as a potential “build shiny flats nobody can afford here” type gig.

In the 2010s, a general shift between East Inner London logically coincides with the whole hip-Shoreditch-beard-Hackney-cereal-cafe thing, so it makes sense that the majority of intense building takes place there. Intriguingly, however, there are a few outsiders. Colindale on the Northern line in Barnet is a hotspot, Wembley Park is an obvious building centre, and Barking Riverside in Barking and Dagenham has seen construction fever.

TL;DR, GIF washed over me

You’ll have essentially got the basic effect. Roughly speaking, and in a very general sense, development has rippled outwards from the centre of the city before coming home to roost. As the city grew, houses were built further and further into the countryside, building suburbs, estates, satellite towns, and villages ever further out.

Then the 70s happened. And like a drunkard caught by a bad hangover, the city almost retreated into itself, with development coming back towards the heart of the capital as regeneration projects, brown fill, and redevelopment became the order of the day.

Is it a cycle? Will the next wave of development waft back out into Outer London, as projects like Crossrail and, potentially, Crossrail 2 bring further stretches of the suburbs within closer reach of jobs in Zone 1?

Only time will tell.

Cool GIF, though. You can see it in its original home on the Create Streets website.

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


 

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.