8 more ways of visualising London's growth: a question of density

London from the air. You wouldn't think it, but it's a bit empty down there. Image: Daniel Chapman/Stirling Ackroyd.

Last week we published a selection of graphics showing how London's population had grown, how it had changed relative to the country that contains it, and how, on some definitions, the city was threatening to break its bounds and swallow large chunks of the south east. Then we published a bunch of maps to track the rise of the suburbs.

What we didn't do, though, was consider how the 8.6m Londoners were distributed within the city itself. Look at that and you'll swiftly learn that, in one crucial way, the British capital is very, very weird.

To metroland!

London's population was initially crowded into what is now inner London*: that's no surprise, as that’s where the city began, and as recently 100 years ago, much of what is now classified as "outer London" was open countryside dotted with villages and small towns.

From the late 19th century onwards, though, the population of what is now outer London began to grow, and grow, and grow. It overtook the population of inner London some time in the 1940s; the latter has never seriously threatened its demographic dominance since.

We've written before about the post-war depopulation of London. Split the city into its inner and outer rings, though, and it soon becomes clear that this description is, well, a bit simplistic.

Source: Census data.

The population of inner London actually peaked a quarter of a century before 1939, hitting 5m around the time of World War One. But it then starts to slide – at first slowly, but then accelerating after about 1930. From peak to trough, in the early 1980s, it falls to more than half.

But that’s just inner London. The population of outer London actually keeps rising until the 1950s, before flattening out. It dips a little after that, but never by more than about 7 per cent. Outer London is relatively stable.

In other words, the post-war depopulation of London was actually the depopulation of the inner city. In the “Metroland” years of the 1920s and 1930s, people moved out to more spacious newly homes on the shiny new tube lines. Later, this became an act of deliberate government policy, to clear bomb-damaged slums and decant a fair chunk of Londoners to new towns in the commuter belt.

This map, from Quod's Barney Stringer, tracks this trend, in two different ways. The size of the boroughs represents their population in 1939. Their colour represents their change in population since.

Image: Barney Stringer/Quod.

At a glance you can see that, on the eve of WW2, the inner city was still relatively crowded, but has massively depopulated since. Most of the outer boroughs, by contrast, have grown in population; and the more suburban the borough, the more it's likely to have grown.

Today, while both parts of the city are growing once again, around 60 per cent of Londoners live in the city's outer boroughs...

Source: 2011 census data.

...and, while we hear much less about them than some of the inner ones, all six of London's largest boroughs by population are actually out in the suburbs:

Source: 2011 census data.

What makes London weird

Okay, we promised you that London was weird, and you've patiently read this far in the hope of finding out why. So, here it is.

These awesome graphics come from the clever people at the LSE Cities programme. They show the average population of each part of a city over a 24 hour period (including residents, workers, tourists, etc). The higher the peak, the more densely populated the city. You can click for a larger version.

Click to expand. Images: LSE Cities.

You can no doubt see the pattern already, but let's hammer it home. Here are some similar graphics, also from LSE Cities, but this time only including residential population. (We’ve manipulated them a little to make them display better on our site, but we’ve not amended the graphics themselves.)

  

 

Click to expand. Images: LSE Cities.

...and here's London.

Click to expand. Images: LSE Cities.

Look at all that empty sky.

Two things stand out from this.

1) Whatever way you count it, London is much, much less densely populated that most megacities. We sadly don't have a similar graphic for Paris, which one might think a better comparator for London than, say, Delhi; but suffice it to say that the average density in Paris proper (the equivalent of inner London) stands at 21,500 per km2, which is higher than the peak population density for London listed in the graphic above.

2) London's population is much more evenly distributed. Most cities have a centre that's full to bursting, but then trail out to less populated suburbs and a relatively empty hinterland. In London, though, the inner city is not that much more dense than the suburbs, or the ring of commuter towns that surround it.

Here's a clearer image:

Click to expand. Image: Skate Tier/Wikimedia Commons.

London, in other words, is a freak.

The good news here is that, when you look at it like this, the city has loads of room for all those extra people wanting to come here. We could fit nearly 2m more people into the inner city, without any part of it exceeding its previous peak population. Four boroughs are, in one sense, half empty:

Click to expand. Image: Neil Hudson/Savills.

Maybe everything's going to be alright.

For the purposes of this article we’re using the Office for National Statistics definition of inner London, which includes Haringey and Newham, but excludes Greenwich. This is the third part of a series about how London's population has changed over the last 75 years. You can find the previous parts here and here.


 

 
 
 
 

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.