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.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.