The nature of London
A Concatenation of Villages
Style City London describes London as a ‘concatenation of essentially autonomous villages’. London started off life as a small town just north of London Bridge and at one point was set quite apart from the neighboring City of Westminster and many other places such as Camden, Hampstead and Southwark. However, with time the urban environment of the City of London grew outwards to encapsulate and enmesh all around it. So, as London Online points out, ‘Greater London embraces not only the entire cities of London and Westminster, but the historic county of Middlesex… and… many once secluded and ancient villages such as Harrow, Croydon and Finchley’.
This point has long been recognized by scholars of London. John Northouck, writing in 1773, just before London would undergo the most incredible development and growth it has known, ‘In strict language, London is still confined to its walls, and the limits of the corporate jurisdiction of the city; but as a contiguity of buildings has connected it with Westminster and all the neighbouring villages and hamlets, the name in common usage has extended over them all, and rendered their respective proper names no more than subdivisions of one great metropolis. In this general view therefore, London may now be said to include two cities, one borough and forty six ancient villages, which Northouck goes on to name.
According to Style City London, the way in which London has formed out of the city of London devouring villages and towns sets London apart, topographically, from cities such as Rome, Barcelona and Paris. Whereas the latter have clearly defined grandiose centers, ‘London has not one heart but many’.
The fact that the city of London grew up to encompass all the other cities, towns and villages around it, helps explain the rather confusing nomenclature still in use today, where just a small area of London, that square mile of land, where all the banks and financial institutions are located, which sits on the north bank of the Thames between the Tower of London and Embankment, is still known as City of London.
London is composed of the City of London, Inner London and Outer London. The three entities comprise Greater London. Owen Hargraves points out that Greater London, at least for statistical purposes, comprises a county.
The Inner London Boroughs are Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and the City of Westminster.
The Outer London Boroughs are Barking and Dagenham, Barnet, Bexley, Brent, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Newham, Redbridge, Richmond upon Thames, Sutton and Waltham Forest.
It’s not the biggest city in the world
London has always been a big city, the biggest in the British Isles for a long time, and following the industrial revolution, its ability to harness new energies and power, its status as the centre of the growing British empire, allowed it to suck in wealth from all over the world. This in turn led to an unparalleled period of growth and urbanization. By 1851 London had two million people, and had become the biggest city in the world. Anyone hardy enough to live through the dust, squalor and industry of 19th century, someone with an extra special set of lungs, would have seen the population sextupled, starting at one and ending the century with six million people. One interesting question to be asked is where did those extra five million people come from? Does anyone know?
Interestingly the population of Greater London reached its peak in 1939 just before the beginning of World War II at 8.6 million. Wikipedia pointed out, “The early 20th century, especially during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, saw the geographical extent of London’s urban area grow faster than at any point before or since. Most of the development was of suburban expansion into the neighboring counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. A preference for lower density suburban housing, typically semi-detached, by Londoners seeking a more “rural” lifestyle, superseded Londoners’ old predilection for terraced houses. The rapid expansion of London during this period swallowed up large swathes of countryside. Fears over the loss of countryside led eventually to the passing of Green Belt legislation, restricting urban growth.”
After 1939 the population began to decline, dropping to a low of 6.5 million by 1981, before climbing to an estimated 7.5 million by 2006.
Despite the fact that London was once the biggest city in the world, and its population continued growing through the 1920s, the mantle of biggest city in the world was given up in 1925, and today, in 2010, compared to urban developments taking place elsewhere in the world, London is, at least on a global scale, becoming something quite quaint. According to Hargraves London is due to drop out of the twenty biggest cities in the world. London then is no longer proud for its size.
Instead it is the quality of people, the intensity of the fire in their bellies, the rich human tapestry of difference, the juxtaposing of people from the opposite side of the world and social spectrum, and the continuing ability of London to suck in the world’s wealth that comprises the glue that people can’t get enough of sniffing. It’s the diversity of London, the headache that one gets, when trying to guess where all the people from the other side of the road, waiting for the green man, might be from. Its what happens when hundreds of Bengalis end up living in an area populated by artists and designers, who in turn are there to service the international banking community. So London, has a big heart, a really big heart, there are always a lot of new arrivals to London, and they are often celebrated, but it does, now, admittedly, have a relatively small body.
Six million the population may be, but it should be pointed out that the exact population of London is forever disputed, depending on what areas are taken into account, on where you think the borders stop. London Online believes the official population, of the London administrative area of thirty-two London boroughs and the City of London, to be 7,517,700 as of mid 2005. However the same website also points out that “The Office for National Statistics recorded a population figure of 8,278,251 in its 2001 census but this included parts of the continuous built-up area falling outside the London administrative boundary.” Deyan Sudjic has argued that London is, ‘a city of 18 million, straggling most of the way from Ipswich to Bournemouth in an unforgiving tide of business parks and designer outlets, gated housing and logistics depots. There might be fields between them, but they are linked in a single transport system and a single economy. Those villages in Suffolk that are close enough to a railway station to deliver you to Liverpool Street in under 90 minutes are effectively as much a part of London as Croydon or Ealing…’
Is London about to eat the whole country?
As pointed out by Wikipedia, fears over the rapid expansion of London during the early twentieth century swallowing large swathes of countryside led to the passing of Green Belt legislation, restricting urban growth The Green Belt then, is what keeps London’s belly from bursting out its trousers, and resulting in an unseemly display of urban obesity. The Green Belt is huge, about three times the size of London, in a ring surrounding London.
On the green belt, Sustain Web point out, ‘Development may take place in one or two areas of Green Belt in the coming decades. Even if it does, most Green Belt land will remain undeveloped. Politicians and the public are becoming more interested in what we should use Green Belts for in the future. Most Green Belt land is classed as farmland. In practice, some of this farmland may actually be lying idle or used for grazing horses. A small proportion (roughly 10%) of the Green Belt is covered by woodland or parkland. Two Community Forests and a number of country parks have been established to make the countryside around London more attractive and easier to enjoy. The Forests have a team of people that have worked to plant trees, provide green spaces, paths and trails for cycling and walking.’
The Green Belt has allowed, it seems towns and villages on the periphery of London, to avoid being munched up, transformed, integrated, molded and disfigured by developers eager to link them into the beast. Epping Forest District Council report, ‘Epping Forest District comprises towns and villages set in attractive countryside on the edge of the metropolitan area. Given its proximity to London and the motorway network, the whole District is subject to intense pressure for development. The Council, and its predecessors, have, for the most part, been able to successfully resist this pressure to develop within the countryside. Hence, both the extent and the character and appearance of the countryside have remained relatively unscathed by development. The reason that the Council has been able to defend this area so successfully is because it forms a part of the Metropolitan Green Belt.’
Writing about the Green Belt in 1963, David Thomas said, ‘London’s green belt is not of great antiquity. It is true that a proclamation of Elizabeth I in 1850 established a cordon sanitaire 3 miles wide around the city old London. Within this area all new houses were prohibited, except upon sites where, within living memory, there has been a building (Journ, Town Planning Inst., 1955-6). But neither the proclamation, nor the measures, which followed it over the next half-century, proved effective. The Crown was always short of money and the granting of dispensations provided welcome revenue (Rasmussen, 1937). A further attempt to contain London was made by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1657, but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that fresh plans for a green belt around London began to emerge.’