Here are some maps of the London that could have been after the Great Fire – and the one we actually got

A map of the City of London by Wenceslas Hollar, with the light area north of the Thames showing the extent of the area destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

It’s 1666 and an incompetent baker managed has just managed to burn down London. After the Great Fire, all that remained of 13,200 houses and four-fifths of the City of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral, was a charred tangle of rubble.

A young William Taswell, who witnessed the old cathedral burn down from the other side of the Thames, recorded in his memoirs that it “blazed so conspicuous as to enable [him] to read very clearly an edition of Terence which [he] carried in [his] pocket”.

The part of London destroyed. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But the smoking hole in London offered the city planners of the age a unique opportunity. Here they could rebuild the capital from scratch, creating the model city with none of the Medieval hangups of its previous incarnation. When the monarch of the day, King Charles II, offered his support for a radical redesign, the planners lined up to remake the city.

The various designs put forward unanimously agreed on a grid system for this new London. Draughtsman Richard Newcourt proposed a rigid grid with churches in squares: a proposal that despite being utterly ignored for London’s rebuild, was later adopted for Philadelphia, USA.

The Newcourt plan: click to expand. Image: City of London/London Metropolitan Archives.

Christopher Wren, most famous for his post fire rebuild of St Paul’s Cathedral, had his own ideas. He envisaged long wide streets radiating out from plazzas – a plan reminiscent of today’s Parisian boulevards, but which predated Haussmann’s remodelling by 200 years. He also proposed to build a huge terrace along the river Thames, lined with the halls of the various city companies
 

The Wren plan. Image: Getty.

The reason that none of these best laid plans actually came to fruition is that actual Londoners got in the way. Around 65,000 people had been made homeless by the Fire: they couldn’t wait for the slow, top-down planning process to produce somewhere for them to live and work.

The comprehensively remaking of the city hoped for by the powers-that-be would have required the complete overhaul of property rights. This would have just taken too long for the 80 per cent of City of Londoners who needed to get on with their lives, who just wanted to rebuild their homes and restart their buildings. So the grand plans were abandoned: the rebuilding was instead hashed out by the landowners on a plot-by-plot basis.

Of course, it would have been mad to rebuild the city with all the same flaws that allowed the fire to spread so easily in the first pace, so some rules were imposed. The 1667 Rebuilding Act determined that all new buildings were required to be built predominantly from brick, rather than wood, and that upper floors were no longer allowed to jut out over lower ones. The roads were also made slightly wider, to make it harder for the fire to jump from block the block.

Apart from this London grew back in roughly the same shape as it had burned down Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map of the City shows the same mass of confused and winding streets that were there before the Fire. And Wren’s dream of a terrace was blocked, as thrifty Londoners setup their riverside businesses.

Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map. Larger version here. Image: British history online.

He still got to leave his mark with the towering St Paul’s Cathedral and the fifty-one churches built under his direction, mind you.


So the question is: did London miss an opportunity presented by the Great Fire’s destruction? Leaving the rebuilding to happen organically rather than through top down planning allowed for a quick restart to city life. Also, the final product worked; this was a city that would finance a global empire in the following years, and which never again saw fire on the same scale.

 No, we don’t have swanky boulevards – but London survived and rebuilt. If you’re still wondering whether it all happened in the right way, just take a walk down Fleet Street. You may not find an answer, but you’ll at least find enough pubs to help you forget the question in the first place.  

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.