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.


 

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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