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?
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.