Elastic cities: What makes for a successful expansion?

As more people flock to cities around the world, the challenge of providing housing, services and infrastructure for all is growing.

February 15, 2017

London is a city that is always pushing outwards. Parts that now count as within its inner boroughs were previously thought of as beyond the city’s bounds.

Take Stratford, home of the 2012 Olympic Games and now one of the capital’s fastest-growing areas; it was considered to be part of Essex up until the mid-1960s.

There are further examples of urban expansion in the shadow of London’s brand new Crossrail route. In the not-too-distant future, for example, Ilford, sitting outside of the North Circular Road, could soon become part of the capital proper.

“Cities expand outwards along obvious corridors,” says Katie Kopec, Director in Strategic Development Consulting at JLL.

“These can be road corridors or transport corridors. Stratford was the best-kept secret London ever had in terms of accessibility. You’ve now got a new eastern quarter of London developed around Stratford. You get dense clusters around these new nodes. You also have re-emerging nodes, like Croydon, which is 15 minutes outside of Victoria but people had always thought of it as remote.”

An expansion too far?

City success is often measured by population size, alongside GDP. But as more people flock to its urban core and soaring property prices force more inhabitants to the far-flung extremes of the suburbs, can cities stretch too far?

In London’s case, Kopec believes that its steady outwards spread is inexorable and could eventually see greater London encompass towns such as Slough and Reading – more than 25 miles from the heart of the city yet just nine miles from Heathrow airport on the current boundaries marking Greater London. However, she does not believe that will necessarily harm the brand of London itself.

“The ingredients that make London successful are not going to change. It has history, great places to go, theatres, places to eat. What really needs control is ensuring the city develops the areas of business it needs to survive, like creative industries and smaller businesses; these need to be able to grow in London."

“One of the struggles is where the city keeps the ‘making’ parts like the manufacturing sector. Housing costs are impacting the industry’s workforce. If they have to live too far away then the city starts to unpack. So you can see the importance of these new nodes as the city expands.”

Housing the city’s workers

Kopec cites housing market conditions as a major concern, suggesting that more social housing provided by councils may be one answer to keeping workers in the city and locations attractive to business. Although she also points to the green belt areas around London as a potential area for future development which are significantly closer to the city of London.

It’s a controversial suggestion with many politicians and environmental groups – not to mention existing residents – keen to protect the city’s green space and open land, says Jon Neale, JLL’s Head of Research in the UK.

“In somewhere like Paris it is quite simple, you build more on the outskirts, but we can’t do that in London,” he explains. “You can build on ex-industrial land and there is no opposition to that. People tend to build where there is least resistance, so you end up with more building in east London and little in areas like Surrey or Buckinghamshire, where there is a big demand for housing. Of course, ancient woodland and meadows are extremely valuable, but we need to stop thinking about urban growth into intensively farmed areas as a bad thing.”

Neale cites Bogota as one city getting growth right, with its guided bus-ways leading sustainable growth. He is also a fan of how things are being done in the Netherlands.

“The Dutch were facing high levels of household growth and is now building these new towns around the Randstad, particularly around Amsterdam. There is also IJburg, which is a new island in the river.”

The need for a new way

Neale believes that costs and an unwillingness from government to exploit the green belt prevent the UK from copying such innovative schemes – and this can have some negative consequences.

“You end up with a reversal of what we’ve seen in the past,” says Neale. “The suburbs are becoming more deprived and we are seeing this is in cities such as New York.”

Despite many cities moving ever outwards, Neale does not believe that it necessarily leads to a loss of identity, even where the space between them and neighbouring towns becomes blurred.

“If you look at how fast London changed between 1920 and 1940 and then how it’s changed in the last 70 years, there is no comparison,” he says. “That change in the 1930s was enormous and can never be repeated. Parts of London are still very distinctive, whether that is Notting Hill, Peckham or Hampstead. If you think about it, parts of London are still more distinctive than a lot of towns outside of the capital are.”

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