Is London becoming a city segregated by privilege?
By Chris A Garrington, on 12 May 2023
Globally, more people live in cities, and while they shape those cities they are also shaped by them. In this blog, Dr Bonnie Buyuklieva describes PhD research in which she used census data on London and elsewhere to develop new ways of modelling the metabolic processes of people and their built environments. The results should inform planning, building use and social sustainability.
What makes healthy cities? I believe these should be places able to sustain their populations and enable people to progress through different phases of their lives.
An unhealthy city, then, is one where the lives of those who live in it are limited by insecurity and infrastructure. An unhealthy city is often a ’burn-and-churn’ place which draws in the young, the educated and the moneyed, then wears them out by failing to afford the context for smooth transitions across different stages and milestones of the lifecycle.
My research compared data on London and its hinterland and found significant differences between England’s capital and other areas outside it. Briefly, it found that housing increasingly reflects economic privilege. What this means is that London, a place whose populations have for many centuries been empowered by mobility, may in the future become a place where that logic no longer holds.
London may become a place segregated by economic privilege – a place where no-one can afford not to be rich. And that would create problems for all its citizens because it would make it less attractive as a centre of employment.
I looked at population density, residential stability and mobility, both within London and between the city and its hinterlands. Using Census data from 1981 to 2011, it became clear that while some pockets of London are not too different from other places in England and Wales, the capital is generally denser and less residentially stable.
It is not surprising that the centre of London has low population stability and also low density – it is largely commercial and is also home to several University of London institutions along with other education hubs. As for the rest of London – broadly in the North and West few places have a stable population, while the East and South historically have had both higher stability and lower mobility.
Both South and East London are comparatively less well connected to the rest of the capital, particularly by tube. However, the East, in contrast to the South, is in some senses a residential area in its adolescence: until the early 1980s it was home to docklands, but as this industry moved out to Tilbury, the area was redeveloped. More recently, it was developed again to accommodate the 2012 Olympic Games, bringing in new housing trends such as purpose-designed built-to-rent developments.
Looking at built-to-rent developments, which are the fastest-growing sector of London’s housing market, we observe a trend towards smaller-sized, higher-cost rented housing units. These provide ‘plug-and-play’ or ‘just-in-time’ solutions in a constrained market. But they are also a time-limited home for most residents, so they create migration chains that are likely to lead to local residential instability.
This trend, along with the rise of asset-based housing wealth and the gig economy’s trend towards precarious, project-based employment, tends to ‘slow down’ people’s lives. Typically, young professionals may delay child-rearing because it is not suited to mobile, dense urban living. They appreciate the tight and bustling city life, but families with easily tiring young children might struggle with that.
Globally, there is a pattern of young professionals clustering in high-density urban neighbourhoods, but the trend has major downsides. Quick-fix policies such as built-to-rent in isolation will impact negatively on London if increasing numbers of people find the financial gains from being in London can only be realised by leaving.
When compared to the rest of England and Wales, London has few places with high stability and many with low stability. It hosts the densest places in England and Wales. My research has been able to map the small areas which have unusually high levels of density and transience and where we expect to find the churning populations on the edge of belonging in London.
All this impacts people’s lives: social renters and owner-occupiers tend to have children in their late twenties; private renters do not do so until they are over 30, possibly reflecting a sense of housing insecurity. Couples in particular may be treating private rent as a sort of ‘waiting room’ whilst accumulating the financial or social confidence to take on the responsibility of children.
There is an even greater contrast between privately renting households within and outside the capital. Outside London, the majority of private renters over 30 have children; in London, that proportion is only reached after the age of 34.
As my research took shape, I became increasingly conscious that we needed to look at these issues over time – as people move and their lives change, so do cities. People are the fundamental urban resource, and to maintain healthy cities, planners need to think not just about what is needed now but also in future. By considering how and where populations can move on through their lifecourse, we can plan for the future needs of cities themselves.
Buyana Buyuklieva’s PhD thesis is available to download: London’s Demographic Metabolism: Using Computational Social Science Methods to Map Mobility in Populations and Places