City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

London hasn’t changed

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Interesting piece in The Economist on Friday (by Tim Cross I think). It reports on an updated version of the highly influential ‘Descriptive Map of London Poverty’ by Charles Booth plus team. (I mentioned the map previously here, and a version is available online.) What this new research suggests is fascinating, perhaps particularly to those interested in psychogeography, spatial haunting, structures of feeling or any other approaches to investigating the collision between past and present in the city. The Economist article – ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ – finds that there is a consistency of place even within a city in as apparently constant flux as London.

"In many ways, London has changed dramatically in the past century. It has sprawled far beyond its 1898 boundaries. The network of underground transport has expanded, and cars have appeared. The city has been bombed in two world wars. The middle classes fled, then returned. Yet when Booth’s maps are updated using data from the last census, the changes are less striking than what has stayed the same. Not only do the broad patterns found in the 19th century hold—the East End is still poor, the West End still rich—but so do many local ones."

One of the interesting things about Booth’s map for me was the "necessarily impressionistic" approach to judging streets. His researchers simply walked all over London, noting down what they saw – from the shape of the streets to the tiniest details of flotsam and jetsam of living – as well as talking to people. The streets were then coded – sometimes with facets like viciousness! – and mapped. I’m interested in these variable approaches to working with cities. For all their lack of validity, ethics or scientific rigour, they are often far more detailed, ironically, and the subjective personal views therein often provide  engaging hooks upon which to hang your own constructed response to the city – and the latter is surely key to sensing the soft city.

Hence Booth’s Map will always be interesting artefact; a key point in the creation of social science, yet impressionistic. What this new research indicates, using the 2001 census data and combining by collapsing categories, is that the narrative of the map  is holding up rather well a century later. That is, a remarkable number of places within London have much the same ‘look and feel’ – or socio-economic status – in 2001 as they did in 1898. For instance, Chelsea has changed more than most, as the diagram below indicates, and yet "most of the poorest areas in 2001 were also poor in 1898, and in almost exactly the same places."


The article runs through the economic reasons for this – according to The Economist, essentially slum housing stock being replaced by poor-quality public housing in the mid-20thC, and so on. Those areas that retained Georgian and Victorian housing stock have gentrified.

"The social geography of London may change even less in the next 108
years than it has done since 1898. There are, after all, fewer poor
neighbourhoods with pretty housing, of the kind that may be colonised
by middle-class pioneers. The supply was beginning to dry up even in
the mid-1960s, when the hero of Michael Frayn’s novel “Towards the End
of the Morning” tries to find one. Following a frustrating search, he
admitted defeat: “There was no shortage of slums; but they were not
Georgian or Regency slums.”"

Yet perhaps there’s more to it than The Economist’s
rather dry property-based filters are suggesting? (Even in London, where for centuries money and property has been all, such that this effect will be magnified.) Perhaps areas may have a
form of intrinsic character – which is expressed in the built fabric for sure and can certainly morph over time –
but also in other ways, beyond simple housing stock. For if there isn’t, it indicates an even higher level of agency for architecture and urban planning in the creation of the city, right?


2 responses to “London hasn’t changed”

  1. John Maxwell Hobbs Avatar

    We have similar “structures of feeling” here in Stockholm. In the late 50’s and early 60’s an area called Klara in the center of town that was considered to be a slum full of drunks, lowlifes and artists was leveled and replaced by a public space that contained Stockholm’s new Kulturehuset (Culture House), shops, offices, open public space and the main terminal for the subway system.
    Now what we have is an area of shiny functionalist buildings and public spaces full of drunks and lowlifes. The artists have been contained in Kulturehuset.


  2. Matt Avatar

    hey Dan, interesting article. I’m interested in the link to the Space and Culture journal you linked to (Spatial Hauntings) but the site seems to be dead/inactive. Is there anyway you know of I can get hold of that specific issue? My local academic library is shooting blanks…


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