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.


 

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

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