Can London Still Take It?
‘London Can Take It’ was a short propaganda film from 1940 showing the effect of the Blitz on its buildings and people. But since then the metropolis faced three building booms that tested the theory. In the 1960s, the 1980s and the present it underwent its periodic growth spurts, driven by developers, and where we are now is nothing like where we were then.
Now comes the news that within the next decade London will become a megacity of over ten million. The projections are based on population estimates, fertility and mortality rates and migration. They reflect current trends and don’t take into account the ability of an area to accommodate any extra population, but even so massive problems have started emerging.
Obviously housing is one, highlighted by the recent furore over a virtually empty luxury tower wherein hardly a single owner was registered to vote in the UK, but public transport is fast approaching its maximum load.
Even with the Crossrail project allowing East-West travel, restrictions have started on the world’s oldest tube system, with some stations closing at peak hours. Rush hour journeys now feel actively dangerous at some stops, and overland trains aren’t much better. The congestion charge, which had only ever been about raising revenue, has spectacularly failed, and streets are clogged with rush-hour traffic.
The City Road corridor is now being lined with vast tower blocks. There’s just one problem – all of them are served by just two tube stations, Angel and Old Street. How will tenants (assuming any remain in London and not in Dubai) travel? Our former mayor blithely signed off on any building project he could lay his hands on, leading to a bizarre situation at Elephant & Castle, where the dilapidated, crumbling shopping precinct (still there) now stands at the foot of several ‘luxury’ tower blocks which appear to have been designed by sight-impaired architects.
Meanwhile the mayor of Spain’s second largest city has an almost identical problem. Barcelona swells to the size of London during the summer, but has a fraction of the residential population (2.1m compared to 8.2m). It has virtually the same tube system (free Wifi, runs all night) and fewer green spaces – but it has a coastline. But it’s actively seeking a solution. So are there any lessons to be learned?
One is controlling tourism. Where I live in London AirB&B operate illegally in almost half of the flats around me, hotel construction has spiralled out of control and older residents are being encouraged to leave (there’s a poster campaign asking them to downsize and effectively go away). Thankfully our new mayor is already seeking to address the issue.
The new Europe is a place of great fluidity brought about by job opportunities and cheap travel, making for wonderful opportunities, but it comes with a hefty price tag. Meanwhile, welcome to London, future megacity.