Can planners make London smile?

Inner London has been contradicting the successful economic trajectory of the global capital for more than thirty years. Planners have been part of the struggle to end this dichotomy.

Within his inaugural lecture in February 2014 at the University of Oxford, Prof. Daniel Dorling showed a map of England, Wales and Scotland composed of smiley faces. The map was a cartogram that depicted the distribution of voting, housing, employment and industrial composition in the 1987 General Elections. The faces either smiled or frowned based on the unemployment levels of each local authority area as per the 1981 census. One of the striking areas within the map was inner London, with a cluster of frowning faces surrounded by a sea of smileys.

Not much has changed in thirty  years. In 2011, parts of inner London were still frowning. The London region ranked third after the NorthEast and West Midlands regions in terms of unemployment with London at 7.3%, West Midlands at 7.5% and the NorthEast at 8.1%. In terms of unemployment percentages at the local scale Newham (6.9%), Hackney (7%) and Barking & Dagenham (7.3%) in London were among the top 10 unitary authorities within England and Wales.

ONS Unemployment 2011 and 2001

(For the interactive map on the ONS website click here)

Despite these figures London is viewed as a success story. This is due to its prominent role as a global city and its contribution to the national economy. To justify its success, it is sufficient to flip the coin and look at statistics pertaining to the other half: people in employment. Since 1997 (the first year when the data was collected) the London region has topped the chart for median gross weekly earnings across England and Wales.

“In April 2013 London topped the regional list for median full-time gross earnings, at £658 per week. Employees here earned £121 more per week than the next highest, the South East (£537) and £140 more than the median for the whole of the UK (£517)” (ONS 2013)

These two statistics are telltale signs that the complex dynamics fueling inequality in London are alive. This is not surprising. Inequality has been the main concern of academics and policy makers throughout the years.

The dichotomy posed by the strong economy versus local unemployment places London at a vantage point in terms of planning practice compared to the former industrial areas of England and Wales. The dynamism offered by the global city provides an engine that can possibly be tapped to enhance the conditions of those who have difficulties in joining the workforce. The resources of the capital coupled with a strong planning culture, have made London a top priority in terms of national policy objectives and local planning initiatives. As such London has become a veritable case study for regeneration policies. However despite this unique position (or because of it) planning ideals remain elusive:

“The political and public policy challenge is to find ways of ensuring that a commitment to the delivery of social and community regeneration is actively maintained and not lost in the drive for economic renewal”. (Imrie et al. 2009 p. 321)

Yet space is of out-most importance in how inequalities play out in the capital. Referring back to Prof. Daniel Dorling. In a long term overview he and co-authors looked at the geographical incidence of poverty in London through a comparison of the Charles Booth Poverty Maps dated 1896 and the 1991 Census and have found the geographic distribution of affluence and poverty to be similar in both years. Despite a span of a century, the socio-spatial configuration of London has endured.

Planners have put their minds together to resolve the persistence of inequality in the capital. However the question remains as to whether they will finally be able to make inner London smile.


Dr. Basak Demires Ozkul has completed her studies at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL; looking at the long-term development of settlement structure of England and Wales. She has also studied and worked in Boston, MA USA; focusing on low income communities in developed and developing countries. She currently resides and continues her independent research in Istanbul, Turkey, her hometown.

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