The evolution of London began with a few parks, settlements, the safeguarding of Thames and the bridging of settlements from 1828 to 1921, which led to its becoming of the most important dockyard in the world. Historic settlements along the river Thames played a role in how the shipping channel emerged. Then occurred the re-planning and regeneration of the post-industrial metropolis, which further helped revitalise the riverfront. We take a look at how London evolved from its creation as a Roman city in 43AD to the crowded, chaotic megacity of this day.
WORDS: SEJAL MATHUR
The city’s near 2,000-year history that took nine months to animate, was mapped by researchers at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis who collated vast datasets to plot the capital’s transformation from first-century ‘Londinium’ to one of the world’s greatest cities that it is today.
Greater London expands over 600 square miles, but until the 17th century the capital was principally crowded into one square mile, marked by its tapering skyscrapers. Unlike other historical cities such as Athens or Rome, where there is an apparent makeshift of areas from different periods, London’s listed sites and buildings are individual structures and in many cases assembled progressively by parts from several periods.
The greatest preserved element of the city is its own urban fabric. London’s evolution began with the Roman creation of Londinium and some of the main axes of the contemporary city, such as Oxford Street, that still acts as an inseparable part.
London was abandoned in 410AD and under the Saxons, secluded farmsteads were built in the surrounding countryside such as Enfield, Hampton and Chelsea, which further developed to form the heart of villages still functioning as centres of modern London.
From the 9th century, London grew yet again within its original Roman boundary, and during the Norman period it was linked by the Strand to a new political centre at Westminster.
By then, most of Roman London had been lost, with its many timber buildings decayed and its stone buildings reused. Today, practically nothing from the Roman period exists above ground, though underneath the street level, many archaeological remains of substantial value and importance still survive.
During the Medieval period, epidemics like plagues and famines considerably delimited the population growth; nevertheless, under the Tudors, London’s population rose to about 200,000. Following Henry VIII’s demolition of London’s religious houses, significant new development occurred and several royal retreats were built away from the centre.
The Great Fire of 1666
The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the city and more than 13,000 medieval, Tudor and early-17th century buildings were lost. Thus, an insignificant portion of pre-1700 London buildings and structures exist today.
Between 1714 and 1840, London’s population increased from around 630,000 to nearly about two million, rendering it the largest and most powerful city on the atlas.
A noteworthy part of Georgian structures remains despite the fact that commercial development in the first half of the 20th century ruined many.
The Victorian period found London growing once more, as the population grew from 2 million to 6.5 million. The opening of the London Underground in 1863 was successful in shortening distances and helped residents leave the crowded centre for comparatively spacious peripheral developments.
Despite the discarding of Victorian buildings between the 1940s and 1970s, the sheer scale of development has led to a much higher survival rate.
The population peaked in 1940 at around 8.5 million, before declining and then rising recently to just over 8 million. Despite the decline and the devastation caused by World War II, the 20th century saw the largest urban expansion in London’s history.
Efficient planning strategies
Tremendous efforts were made in actualising methodologies of feasible advancement and attempted town planning improvements in the 21st Century. Greater London has a population density of 5,200 per sq km on an area of 1,570 sq km, of which only 2.5 sq km are part of the development plan.
The 2012 Olympic Games helped London and the greater to improve the existing infrastructures mainly focusing on sustainable innovative architecture.
Public awareness and politics moulded the planning from diverse perspectives while many common policies and urban development practices were applied. London worked upon prompt urban advances with repercussions for the city itself and the greater area focusing on the efficacy of the novel architecture introduced in the urban lattice.
London had to adjust the specific improvements to the city with further sustainable goals as a legacy of the event. This shows how a city had to adapt itself to a large-scale, short-term event instead of having ordinary development through urban planning.
Furthermore, London integrated new architecture relatively close to the centre of the city to develop dilapidated areas with industrial backgrounds and social needs.
Many of the newly constructed structures were temporarily unassembled after the Games to give those spaces back to the city.
Green spaces to be utilised for recreational purposes were considered elementary on both planning strategies, a constant on European urban planning these days.
The scale of this capital city has set its own standards to achieve their sustainable goals. The aims were significant and vital to provide an improved standard of living for their people, and to better their global image. London exhibited the manner in which a megapolis can host a gigantic international event while keeping sustainable planning in mind.
Here’s what to learn from London
The underground rail system built in the 19th century became an instant success. The network made it advantageous for people to live farther from the central city. This is one of the reasons why London real estate still allures wealthy home buyers.
The city also adopted congestion pricing in 2003, which made traveling more convenient. Within 2 weeks of introducing this model, London witnessed a drop of 20% in traffic congestion, which further declined by 30 per cent in the succeeding two years.
Richard Ainsley, principal urban planner at Atkins, has been quoted as saying: “London does plan for its long-term growth, in terms of both population and economic growth. In 2014, we saw the first infrastructure plan looking at London’s growth to 2050, a great first step, but there is always more we can do. The key thing we need to do is make our plans more adaptable. A future-proofing plan shouldn’t just sit there; we shouldn’t just expect it to unfold exactly as we set out – we need to be able to flex it in ‘real time’, just as the socio-economic patterns around us are constantly shifting.”
Londoners are praiseworthy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), an engineer described as “one of the most ingenious” in history, whose railway bridges are still standing.
Another such personality was Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), who built the city’s sewage system. The responsibility now lies with modern engineers and planners who have to emulate them given the swift pace of change and the way the future is to form.