Real Estate

Beware hollowing out the City of London

The writer is the FT’s architecture critic

In 1631 the population of the City of London was estimated at 130,163. In 1901 it was 26,923. Today it is about 8,600. It is hardly a thriving 24-hour metropolis.

In urbanism, we have become so used to the ideas of US journalist and activist Jane Jacobs about the ideal city embodying a mix of uses and classes that we might forget it is not the only template for success. Jacobs took her native Greenwich Village as the model of urban complexity and community, but she has been partly blamed for the gentrification that ultimately destroyed the very meld she was advocating.

The City presents a different model. Reimagined from the 19th century as a core of finance, it was rebuilt as a place of pure business. Ten proposed new office towers (peaking with the 63-storey 55 Bishopsgate) will continue to reshape its spiky skyline. Yet the City was never entirely a monoculture. It had markets and hospitals, housing estates, churches, restaurants, a proliferation of pubs and a huge newspaper industry (those latter two largely inseparable).

This complex ecosystem emerged from centuries of an intense concentration of trade. New housing (with a few exceptions, notably the Barbican) was excluded. The last thing the postwar City wanted was residents complaining about a new office tower blocking their light or, heaven forbid, more voters.

But east London’s skyline has since shifted from offices and council blocks to kitschy new residential towers aimed at foreign investors. Housing’s allure has sharpened, particularly after the pandemic shock looked likely to undermine the workplace.

With residential developments now the mainstay of construction at London’s other financial centre, Canary Wharf, apartments are sneaking in along the City’s riverside and north and east fringes. Housing (so much easier to finance due to presales) is encroaching on the Square Mile in very visible towers like One Bishopsgate Plaza and serviced apartments at The Moorgate.

The problem, according to former City planner Peter Rees, is not the properties themselves but their emptiness. Already 26 per cent of City residencies are classified as second homes (the national average is 1 per cent). Others are investments for children who might study here, or are occupied only a couple of nights a week. This poor use of scarce land adds little to street life. The cautionary tale is the City’s transatlantic twin, Wall Street. Trading floors have gone, business has moved midtown and bank towers are now luxury residences. The once-buzzing street and myriad small businesses are clearly dying, while empty apartments atrophy.

A meat delivery at Smithfield market, the UK’s largest wholesale meat market. The market is being relocated to Dagenham, much farther from central London © Hannah McKay/Reuters

So far, the City has had enough of a mix to stay alive. The unique cocktail of iron-tanged blood, hanging carcasses and white-coated porters kept Smithfield meat market vibrant as nightclubs moved into the vast cold storage spaces. Post-clubbers mixed with truckers and porters in caffs and early morning pubs.

Yet Smithfield market is being relocated to the town of Dagenham. The halls will become “culture”, supplementing the new Museum of London. But look at Covent Garden, a beautifully preserved market hall and tourist extravaganza that Londoners avoid like the plague. Or New York’s Meatpacking District, once a gritty piece of real city, now a dull neighbourhood of upscale boutiques and empty apartments.

The Square Mile can be a strange place, deserted at weekends, eerily quiet after half a million commuters depart. But it has maintained a unique status as a place of global exchange in an ancient network of streets now overshadowed by hypertrophied towers. It was Michael Gove, as housing secretary, who rejected the ghastly Tulip, a 305-metre sperm-shaped fairground ride, against the City of London Corporation’s wishes. The City needs to be careful to avoid filling up with empty flats and tourist attractions, making it that little bit more like everywhere else.


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