[First published by Centre for London, 6 April 2020]
In 2006, the City of Sao Paulo adopted the Cidade Limpia(“clean city”) statute, banning the billboard advertising that lined the city’s highways. Citizens and visitors alike saw a new city, a city of stark concrete structures and even starker social divisions. The favelas, slums and squatted buildings that had been shrouded by advertising were made unavoidably visible.
Coronavirus may be having a similar impact for London. The city has been in the front line of infection. On 20 March, the capital had just under half of all reported cases in England, though that proportion had fallen to around a third two weeks later. Even to enthusiastic advocates of dense urban living, what once looked like creative proximity and intermingling now looks risky verging on toxic.
But density has different aspects and different impacts. If the density of connections, and of social and economic life – in crowded offices, pubs and tube trains – helped the virus to race round London in the middle of March, it is the density of living space that has made the government’s lockdown rules tough for many Londoners since then. The disease has shone a spotlight on the increasingly unequal distribution of space in the city.
One way to look at this is the ratio of people to homes. According to the Greater London Authority’s Housing in London 2019 data compendium, this has been falling for the last 30 years across England, reflecting later marriage and more people living alone at the end of their lives. London bucks the trend: the number of people per dwelling has increased from around 2.3 to 2.5 since the early 1990s. London does have some larger families, but a larger element of this growth can be seen as ‘supressed household formation’ – people continuing to live with their parents, or in shared houses and flats, when they would rather be on their own or with a partner.
Measures of overcrowding using the ‘bedroom standard’ (essentially a room for each couple or adult, with some sharing for children) tell a similar story: overcrowding has increased over the past twenty years, but this increase has been most concentrated in private rented accommodation (where 12 per cent of households were overcrowded in 2017/18 against five per cent in 1995/96), and in social rented housing where levels rose from 11 to 15 per cent. The opposite trend is visible for home-owners: over the same period, the proportion of owner-occupied households with two or more spare bedrooms has risen from 33 to 42 per cent.
Many commentators – including me, I suspect – have talked of how younger Londoners are happy to trade space for proximity to the city centre, of how pubs and parks, cafes and restaurants are the living rooms for a new generation. Why yearn for a private garden, when you have Hampstead Heath or London Fields on your doorstep? This ‘trade-off’ theory of urban living is probably true, or it probably was until self-isolation locked young Londoners in homes where every possible nook is being used as a bedroom – let alone the 58,000 households (two thirds of the English total) in cramped temporary accommodation.
London has great public spaces, the convivial tableaux of park, pub and street food market, but if the crisis has shone a light on London’s crowding problems, it may also make people rethink their trade-offs, and perhaps value private space more. The legacy growth in home working may fuel demand for homes with more spare rooms. Building taller and denser around outer London town centres may look like a more civilised way to accommodate growth than squeezing more and more renters into terraced houses designed for families. We should maybe start to worry less about the air space that buildings occupy, and more about the internal spaces they offer.
Coming out of the pandemic, the once triumphant paradigm of dense city living may find itself on the back foot. We may even see a drift from the city to smaller towns and villages. City living will have to remind the world of its benefits – as powerful now as ever – of the cultural and social life it can foster, of the environmental advantages and economic opportunities that it offers. But it will also need to show that it can be resilient to the next shock, that it can offer decent accommodation with space for seclusion as well as sociability to all its citizens.