Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The U.K. capital is set to break its population record. Is the city doing enough to prepare?
Somewhere in the U.K.’s capital today, the 8,615,246th Londoner will be born. This child won’t be just any Londoner, however. It will be the baby that pushes London’s population to its highest peak ever, breaking its previous record set way back in 1939. As part of a broader metro-area population of 13.6 million, Greater London’s resident numbers are now booming like never before, with rapid rises continuing since the early 1990s.
Before we order brass bands to play outside London’s maternity hospitals, some disclaimers are necessary. The naming of today as London Peak Population Day is a prediction, based on Greater London Authority projections tallied up by London urban writer and researcher Barney Stringer. The fact that London is reaching its population peak at some time within the next five weeks is nonetheless undisputed—and striking. The rise isn’t just breaking historic precedents, it’s also setting the city apart from other major Western European cities such as Paris, Rome, and Berlin, which remain decidedly below historic peaks. So why has London’s population bounced back so firmly?
First, some necessary history. A large part of the story of that fall and rise really lies in the cramped living conditions in prewar London; that 1939 spike wasn’t necessarily anything to brag about. Before the postwar boom in housing-project construction, London was considerably closer to the ground, with most people living in row houses (often subdivided) of between two and six floors. To make things tighter still, areas now covered with housing were then still used as industrial or dock space. This means a population as large as today's was crammed into fewer bedrooms, often in houses that had no bathrooms (in the British sense of a place where you take a bath), and only outside toilets. Add to this the perennial killer fogs created by coal-fire heating, and it’s no wonder that many Londoners bolted to the wider region after the war, when more affordable housing became available there.
The reasons that the population began to recover decades later are perhaps a little unexpected for somewhere in the heart of Old Europe. Part of it is simply that, as the wider London region’s supply of affordable housing started to dry up, Londoners had fewer outlying places to move to. The U.K. as a whole stopped building new towns, while the government’s Right to Buy program made the construction of subsidized housing impossible. At the same time, the construction industry largely gave up on building row and semi-detached housing to focus on more expensive detached housing, resulting in average-unit price rises. There was, of course, a migration in the other direction, as some of the middle classes started to reorient themselves away from the suburbs towards inner London. London also proved to be a magnet for migrants and immigrants from across the world, as it had also been during the years when its overall population was declining.
There has, however, been a yet more important factor driving London’s population spike. And no, it isn’t immigration. It’s people having kids. London is a youngish city—its median age is 34, compared to a national average of 39.7. With more people of childbearing age, Londoners are currently going forth and multiplying with a vengeance.
For sure, new residents moving to London have also boosted its population, just not by nearly as much as births have. In 2012 alone, 370,000 newcomers arrived, but were almost counterbalanced by a compensatory outflow of 360,000 Londoners leaving the city. As this piece points out, the change wrought by the 134,000 babies born in the city in London’s Olympic year was a far more significant factor demographically. This metropolitan baby boom shows no sign of stopping just yet. Within the next 10 years, the population could hit 9.4 million, passing the 10 million mark sometime in 2029.
So with the city now exceeding historic levels, is the pressure going to make London pop like a balloon? Not necessarily. Theoretically, London still has space to grow within its current boundaries. Its average density is now 14,217 residents per square mile, making it close to half as densely populated as New York and almost a quarter as dense as Paris. Part of this space is taken up by parks, which account for a third of the city’s surface, but there is definitely scope for densification, especially in outer districts. Beyond this limit, things get trickier, as London is still surrounded by a Green Belt on which development is banned. This hasn’t necessarily stopped building around London, it’s just meant that Southeast England’s satellite boom towns are separated from the mother ship by a cordon sanitaire of farmland. Pressure to release some of this land for development is growing.
Talking about these possibilities for expansion ignores the political realities of contemporary London, however. This is the city, after all, where housing charities recently branded the mayor’s home building efforts as “pitiful." While London’s less-densely populated outer boroughs tend to dodge their (unbinding) housing targets, much of the city’s official energy is being focused on redeveloping inner-city subsidized housing areas for sale on the market. This does little or nothing to solve the housing shortage—these areas are already dense—but instead merely uses the banner of regeneration to free up valuable land for profit.
If London has a viable solution for housing this population boom, it hasn’t found it yet—and officially at least, it isn’t really trying. For now at least, it looks like baby number 8,615,246 will have to ask its older fellow citizens to scoot over a bit.