Chapter 3: London’s places and environment

London at a crossroads

Chapter 3: London’s places and environment

The photographs of London inside the covers of the 1991 London: World City report are recognisably of the same city we live and work in today: Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, HMS Belfast and St Paul’s are all there. But in other ways the city has changed dramatically: City Hall sits on what was once wasteland, apartment blocks have sprung up everywhere, and the Square Mile now boasts a copse of tall buildings.

These changes are the result of one of London’s big success stories over the past 30 years – its absorption of a dramatic increase in both population and job numbers. A city cannot grow at speed without changing its form: this chapter will consider the policies and economic factors that have enabled London to grow within its city limits, but it will also look at some of the downsides and tensions that have accompanied this growth, including on the environment.

The return of the city

London’s expansion has been part of a broader urban bounce-back in the developed world. After a global drift towards suburban office parks, employers rediscovered cities and the benefits they could reap from “agglomeration” – in essence, proximity and clustering. Agglomeration helps tap into a broader and deeper talent pool, creates spillovers of knowledge, and encourages efficient use of space – all of which are enabled by high-capacity public transport systems. As a result, London saw a boom in city centre employment. Nearly 60 per cent of the 1.5 million jobs added in the capital between 2000 and 2018 were in five central boroughs (Camden, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, and the cities of London and Westminster), while outer London boroughs saw much slower growth or even a decline. 57

The growth in central London jobs has been accommodated in the towers built in the City and Canary Wharf, as well as the increasingly intensive use of space in other boroughs. Data from the British Council of Offices show that the average space allowed per office worker has fallen by 20 per cent in the last 10 years alone – though new precautions in response to the coronavirus pandemic may reverse this trend. 58 Figure 7 shows the rate of job growth in different boroughs.

Uneven densification

London has also seen steady but patchy growth in residential densities. From the mid-1990s, politicians and planners started to notice the environmental and social damage from the growth in car-based commuting and out-of-town retail, and began to plan for closer links between public transport and urban density. 59 This approach was also adopted as planning policy: in the Mayor’s London Plan, a “density matrix” linked permitted density ranges to public transport accessibility and limited private car parking accordingly.

In reality, the upper limit of these ranges were regularly reached or exceeded, as developers – and in many cases planners – sought to maximise the number of homes built on particular sites. 60 For their part, office developers vied to build taller and more distinctive towers. This has given London a somewhat “lumpy” urban form: alongside central skyscrapers, rapid proliferation of apartment blocks on former industrial land, and on smaller sites around urban centres, has created very high densities in some areas of boroughs such as Tower Hamlets (see Figure 8). Meanwhile, London’s miles of privately owned Victorian terraces and interwar semidetached houses, protected by planning policy and owner occupation, have remained largely untouched. However, as discussed further below, even high-density development has not kept up with population growth, contributing to increased crowding and soaring prices.

Go East

London’s reorientation eastward has supported both residential and employment growth. In 1980, east London was still recovering from the closure of the docks and decline of related industrial activities. A development corporation had been established in 1981, and commercial development in Canary Wharf was taking shape by the end of that decade. Subsequent investments in east London included the Jubilee Line extension to Stratford, the East London Line extension (since absorbed into London Overground), the Millennium Dome (now The O2) and associated infrastructure in North Greenwich, and the London 2012 and legacy developments around Stratford. A new rubric, the “Thames Gateway”, was hatched to frame the broader development ambitions for east London. While formal Thames Gateway delivery structures foundered, these investments unlocked previously disused land, particularly in inner east London. Perceptions began to shift, with the area’s potential and desirability eclipsing its high poverty rate – though this remained intense across east London. River and dockside living along the Thames flourished in this period as Londoners re-embraced their waterways for recreation, leisure and, at the reinvigorated South Bank, culture.

Transport investment

Transport investment has not only transformed east London: it has also helped London as a whole to accommodate its economic and population growth. London’s Underground and bus services have seen substantial investment over the last two decades, including into creating the orbital London Overground service out of disparate disconnected services, and the congestion charging scheme introduced in 2003 has helped to constrain private car use. Measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods, lower speed limits and reallocation of road space to cyclists and pedestrians sought to reduce private car use further. Since 2000, public transport volumes have grown by more than 50 per cent (see Figure 10), while private vehicle use has fallen by around 10 per cent (against population growth of around 25 per cent). Cycling trips have doubled, though from a low base, and walking has grown by around a fifth. 61 Passenger transport on the Thames grew too, with services resuming in 1999: by 2015 their use had risen to 10 million annual trips.

Regional transport connections have also been enhanced, with renovated stations at Paddington, King’s Cross, St Pancras and London Bridge; the completion of the High Speed 1 rail link between St Pancras International, Paris and other European cities; the Thameslink 2000 upgrade programme competed in 2018; and Crossrail (“the Elizabeth Line”), expected to be completed in 2022. These links and upgrades have also enabled commuting into London to increase in line with job numbers: around one million workers commuted into the capital in 2018, an increasing proportion from far-flung regions. 62

The concerted, and effective, resistance in London to the rising tide of car use helped reduce the damage to London’s natural environment. Elsewhere there have been other improvements. The river Thames, which by the 1960s had become infamously polluted and lifeless, was brought back to better health through sewage treatment improvements. Today over 120 species of fish swim in the Thames Estuary.

London’s poor air quality, from pollution spewed by vehicle engines and boilers, degrading tyres and brakes, construction, and other sources is estimated to shorten the lives of thousands of Londoners. As it became better understood, it also became the focus of considerable political attention. Policies addressing pollution from road vehicles, such as TfL’s Low Emission Zone, started to bite and appear to have helped arrest, and then reverse, the worsening air.

The same can not be said about London’s role in the other major environmental challenge of our age, our warming climate. With less direct local consequences it has proved difficult in London to assemble the same political energy to address climate change that poor air quality has attracted. Yes, London’s overall carbon emissions are on a downward trajectory, and have been broadly since 2000, but the rate of decline and current plans to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels appear to be some way short of what is required to meet headline ambitions to achieve net-zero carbon emission by either 2050 (the target for the UK), or 2030 (the current Mayor of London’s goal).

Nationwide there have been major successes. Emissions from electricity production have dropped dramatically. As an electricity ‘importer’ London benefits here. But major components of London’s emissions remain stubbornly high, echoing challenges in the UK as a whole. Road transport alone contributes almost one-fifth of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions (see Figure 9) and are static. And London’s buildings remain largely heated by gas, accounting for one-third of London’s total emissions.

Air travel grew, with passenger numbers almost trebling from 1991 to 2018 in spite of concerns about climate change. 63 As a result, London’s airports expanded and multiplied. Heathrow opened a fifth terminal, while Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and City airports all added capacity; all evolved into significant retail businesses. Aeroplanes carried tourists and helped bring millions of visitors to London. They also enabled international business and so helped drive London’s economic growth.

Nonetheless, by the mid-2010s, further expansion of Heathrow in the form of a third runway was meeting fierce resistance from an alliance of local and environmental activists. A cross-party consensus battling this resistance crystallised into a full “go ahead” decision in 2018, only for it to be ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2020 as contrary to climate change commitments.

Regeneration and its discontents

London’s urban form has also been reshaped by successive waves of “regeneration” policy. In the 1990s, funding came from national government in the form of the City Challenge, the Single Regeneration Budgets and the Millennium Commission. These transformed major attractions such as the British Museum, built new ones like the Millennium Bridge, and funded smaller improvements in inner city areas like Brixton and Stratford. During the 2000s, the focus of public policy shifted to estate redevelopment (discussed further below), while urban improvements were seen as matters for the private sector – whether through the creation of public spaces by developers in locations such as King’s Cross, More London and Paternoster Square, or through smaller-scale enhancements sponsored by Business Improvement Districts. Green spaces have also been upgraded and installed, though more commonly through public investment: Mile End Park, Barrier Park in the Royal Docks and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park between Stratford and Hackney Wick have all helped to redress the historic imbalance between east and west London in access to green space.

Private investments into public space have been controversial, with some critics viewing them as “privatisation” of the public realm, 64 and they have in any case been concentrated in the city centre. While central London’s streets and squares have enjoyed a revival, many outer London town centres have struggled, with shops under pressure from online retail, stalled productivity in remaining businesses, and poverty levels nearing those of historically poorer inner London. 65 Again, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic may offer new ways to check or reverse these trends.

Housing, affordability and gentrification

30 years of growth have thereby created a denser London, particularly in and around its centres, with employment growth focused by agglomerative forces into the central boroughs. This tightly bounded growth has not been painless, however. The most prominent growing pain, and one which underpins the capital’s persistent poverty, has been the rising cost of housing in London.

In London’s private rented sector – which has almost doubled in size over the past 20 years – the index of private rents rose by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2018, while median earnings rose by 28 per cent. Londoners renting from private landlords now spend 38 per cent of household income on rent (median), compared to 30 per cent in 2010. 66 Concerns about the quality of rented housing and the behaviour of landlords are commonplace – “no fault” end-of-tenancy evictions are now one of the biggest single causes of homelessness in England. 67

House prices have risen faster than rents: median prices are now 13 times higher than median earnings. 68 Owner-occupiers pay a lot less than renters each month (around 19 per cent of household income). But the proportion of owner-occupiers fell from 60 to 50 per cent between 2000 and 2017 69 – as rising prices, and therefore rising deposit requirements, excluded more and more from ownership.

Both rents and house prices have stabilised in the past few years, but London remains scarred by its housing affordability crisis. Its causes are much debated, but likely include both an explosion of investment in rentgenerating assets driven by historically low interest rates, and supply that has persistently lagged behind demand. The net result is that housing costs have pushed many Londoners into poverty: in 2017/18, 15 per cent of Londoners were in poverty before housing costs (a similar level to the rest of England), whereas 28 per cent were in poverty after housing costs (compared to 21 per cent in the rest of England). 70 Overcrowding has also grown in recent years – mainly in the private rented sector – while under-occupation has grown in owner-occupied homes. 66

The housing shortage and affordability crisis also underpins persistent tension about gentrification and displacement in the city. The term “gentrification” was originally used to describe the movement of middleclass people back into city centre locations in cities like London and New York. This has certainly been a feature of London’s population movements in recent years, with boroughs such as Hackney seeing particularly rapid growth in the number of residents working in higher-status professions. 72

“Gentrification” has also been used to describe the displacement of working-class people that results from these processes, or from intentional redevelopment plans – particularly of social housing. As London has sought to step up housebuilding in recent years against a backdrop of falling government grants, many local authorities have redeveloped housing estates, generally replacing social housing with a mixture of social rented (or equivalent), intermediate and market housing. As well as rising prices for private rentals, these projects have been held responsible for the displacement of workingclass communities, though there is some evidence that such communities have been diluted by newcomers as much as they have been displaced. 73

Alongside protests against such redevelopment plans, London’s increasing housing density has also sparked protests from owner-occupiers concerned about changes to their neighbourhoods. These have been particularly intense in suburban London, as developers’ focus has turned from large postindustrial sites to infill and redevelopment in more settled suburban areas. Trust in both developers and borough planning departments is low. 74 Some of these disputes have been mediated through the rise of neighbourhood planning forums, but both neighbourhood planning and other local structures such as parish councils have had limited adoption in London. 75

Accommodating an uncertain future

Like many large cities, London is increasingly caught between the pressure of a growing population and the need to avoid sprawl and its corrosive effects. It remains to be seen whether the current pandemic will lead to a dramatic and long-term slowdown in London’s population growth, or whether those leaving will be quickly balanced by new flows of migrants arriving.

One possibility is that the coronavirus crisis may trigger or accelerate change in how people live, work and travel around the city. People may commute in for fewer days over longer distances, or split their time between the suburbs and the centre. There may be more focus on space standards and access to outdoor space, and less on location. Discussions about the green belt and regional planning may become unavoidable. Questions that we should consider when looking to the future include:

  • Should London’s growth be contained within the current Greater London boundary, or should we revisit green belt and other protected designations?
  • How could housing be made more affordable to Londoners on lower incomes, and with less access to inherited wealth?
  • Should we tackle under-occupation of privately owned homes? What could work?
  • How might London’s transport needs change in the future? How can we keep moving, yet also reach net-zero emissions?
  • What should London do about air travel, given the climate emergency and its pivotal role in the London economy?
  • How should we shift to lower-carbon buildings and homes in London?
  • 57 Total workplace jobs, Office for National Statistics via NOMIS, accessed 2020
  • 58 Perry, F. (2020, May 5). This is what a return to the office will be like when the lockdown lifts. Wired. Retrieved from:
  • 59 See, for example, UK Government. (1996). Planning Policy Guidance 6.; also LPAC. (1997). Sustainable Residential Quality: new approaches to urban living. Retrieved from: ; and Urban Task Force (1999). Towards an Urban Renaissance. (An updated version of the original report can be retrieved from: )
  • 60 Gordon, I., et al. (2016). Defining, measuring and implementing density standards in London. London: LSE.
  • 61 Transport for London. (2019). Travel in London Report 12. Retrieved from: http://
  • 62 Office for National Statistics. (2019). Annual Population Survey, 2019. Retrieved via GLA datastore.
  • 63 Civil Aviation Authority. (2019). Airport data 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.caa. Airport-data-2018/
  • 64 Bosetti, N., et al. (2019). Public London: The regulation, management and use of public spaces. London: Centre for London. Retrieved from:
  • 65 Hunter, P. (2019). The unspoken decline of outer London. Retrieved from:
  • 66 Greater London Authority. (2019). Housing in London. London: GLA.
  • 67 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. (2019). Statutory homelessness live tables. Retrieved from:
  • 68 Greater London Authority. (2020). Ratio of House Prices to Residence-based Earnings, 2019. Retrieved from:
  • 69 Ibid.
  • 70 Trust for London. (2020). Proportions of people in poverty before and after housing costs (2017/18). Retrieved from:
  • 71 Greater London Authority. (2019). Housing in London. London: GLA.
  • 72 Hanna, K., & Bosetti, N. (2015). Inside Out: The new geography of wealth and poverty in London. London: Centre for London.
  • 73 See, for example, the typology of neighbourhood change at
  • 74 Brown, R. (2019). Developing Trust. London: Centre for London.
  • 75 Wills, J. (ed). (2019). Act Local: Empowering London’s neighbourhoods. London: Centre for London.