Professor Tony Travers
Tony is a Professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and he is the Director of LSE London. We spoke to Tony about his perspectives on The DNA of London.
Photo credit: Markus Freise via Unsplash.
So, Tony, what is the DNA of London, and what do you think has led London to acquire or accumulate a certain set of traits?
I think the DNA of London is of a city that has elements of a mass sprawling city, like Los Angeles, but also elements of a compact city like Paris. It has, curiously, elements of both. And so some of it, always was and now, latterly, has been built at densities that are comparable with any other large city in the world, and yet, one of the characteristics of it is that the city sprawls over 1,500km squared and contains areas within it that are really a very long way, both physically and mentally, from other parts of the city. It is a large, continuous urban sprawl. So I think its DNA is in this curious mixture of a classic downtown with dense areas in the inner part of the city and yet being so big as to be, in effect, infinite to most people who live in it.
And are there any other traits that you would pick out about, for instance, what Londoners might identify as being London's biggest traits?
Well, I think, I mean, the first thing to note about the word 'Londoner' is that it's an easily adopted term. There are parts of the world and indeed, parts of Britain, dare I say, where you'd have to live there probably for 60 years before you'd be allowed to adopt the local term for the people who live there. Whereas Londoners see the concept of London as one-- you could kind of get off a train at St Pancras or get off a plane at Heathrow in the afternoon, arrive in central London and immediately call yourself a Londoner. And Londoners would see that as a good thing. So it's a very inclusive concept, and I think the reason for that is partly because so many people who live in London have come to it either from the rest of the UK or the rest of the world.
And so I think that the notion of a Londoner and the notion of the city as a place is a bit amorphous if I'm honest. It was always historically. Remember London as a word wasn't used to describe its government, other than for the city, until 1888-1889. And even today, the concept of London is slightly different to the word and the descriptor of the place, London.
Tony, could you say a little bit about this idea that's quite commonly rehearsed, that London is a city of a hundred villages? Does this concept make any sense to you, and if so, how? And then I'm going to ask you, does London have a geographical limit? Is there a place where London clearly stops and something else begins? And what is the something else?
Well, I mean, the idea of London being a collection of villages is a very powerful one, and it is interesting that the word village is used because that gives you a clue as to the way the British and particularly the English like to see things. And indeed, names on the Underground map are curiously bucolic. Whereas if we were in New York, they'd be talking about neighbourhoods, not villages. And there are rather fewer, in most cities, places that sound as if they're in the countryside on the Subway or on the Metro and Underground map.
So the villages idea, I think, is a real one. It's partly because of the way - and it's not unique to London - London grew, embracing places that really were villages. So villages some distance from London - like Harrow, which is obviously still one; or Blackheath, which is obviously still one; or Hampstead - were embraced by the sprawl from the inner part of the city.
But as I say, the fact that it's described as a city of villages is, in part, because of a way of thinking in, particularly, England about-- and it's, again, not unique to Britain-- the rural past rather than about the very urban, current nature of the country which includes not just London but other very large urban sprawls. So I think that's where the village-- but people do still use the concept 'village' or 'collection of villages' for London.
And the second point was?
So where does London end, geographically speaking?
I mean, this is an intriguing question, which I've spent many happy hours discussing over the years, particularly with my now long-departed colleague, George Jones.
I think, I mean, London ends-- let's start. London ends where people think it ends. So there are definitely people who live in administrative London who really think of themselves as living in Essex or Kent. And there are people who used to live in London, who moved out, who think of themselves certainly as Londoners when they come to support football teams at West Ham or in Tottenham, for example. So it's all a bit messy and complicated in a wonderfully British and London way.
In most places, the end of London is marked by a line in tarmac or by a sign that says 'parking zone enforcement changes here'. There are very few signs that say 'Welcome to London'; in fact, I'm not sure I can think of any that say Welcome to London. You get one or two saying Welcome to the London Borough of Havering or the London Borough of Barnet; drive carefully.
So it's amorphous, and it's always been amorphous, partly because the first name given to a London-wide authority was the Metropolitan. In fact, Metropolitan Police is still there, Metropolitan Board of Works. And that was because the notion of turning places outside London into London, it was always a bit ambiguous. So London remains more a state of mind for many people than an urban area in a way that for other cities-- in Paris, the walls are the end of Paris, and then you're in the Banlieue.
Thank you very much, Tony. I'm going to ask just one more, just to clarify this for our international audiences, as it were. You said that in 1886, the term London was then applied to an area beyond the City of London. Do you just want to articulate that very clearly what happened?
Yes. Well, I mean, from Roman London, there had been a city in London, Londinium, which became the Anglo-Saxon city in a slightly different place of London wick, which evolved, and it moved back towards where the ancient city of London had been and became the City of London as charted by King William I after the Norman conquest.
And from that point till today, the City of London remains a single jurisdiction. And as there was sprawl, micro sprawl, as it'd be seen today, outside the original City of London, as defined by those ancient boundaries, it assumed names like Westminster and Suffolk but wasn't really called London. And during the 19th century, efforts were made to build sewers and other infrastructure via a weak-ish joint committee of not only the City of London but all of the parishes and districts and joint boards that had appeared in the sprawl around the original City of London. But so as not to challenge the City of London, the word 'Metropolitan' was used - as it had been in 1829 for the Metropolitan Police - covering this wider area, leaving London as the City of London.
And it was only in 1888, '89, partly as a by-product of creating a unified system of local government across the whole of England and Wales, that London was what was left, really, on the old Metropolitan Board of Works area and became known as the London County Council. That was the first time that the word London had been used to describe the surrounding area to the ancient City of London.
You've touched on a little bit there, in one of your first answers to Greg's question, London in relation to other cities in the UK, and I wonder if you could reflect a bit more on that and also how London sees itself in relation to its position in the UK system of cities and in relation to the next larger cities.
Well, we know from academic and other studies of this that the gap in scale between London and, say, Greater Manchester or the wider Birmingham, West Midlands or the Leeds City Region areas is-- it's a bigger gap than you see in many other countries between the biggest city and the next biggest cities.
And I think that fact, which is an artefact of history-- London just grew to be this big; Greater Manchester and Birmingham, West Midlands didn't grow as big. A lot of this has to do with the industrial revolution and the way cities in different parts of the UK grew. But the relationship between London and other cities partly has to be viewed through the crystal of this size difference but also partly through the more complicated reality that not only is London by an order of magnitude substantially bigger than any other city, it happens to be the seat of government in a country that happens to be very centralised. So these are two things that are nothing to do with London, really, except they are.
So it wasn't necessarily that London, partly because of its ancient origins a thousand years ago, is rather a central-- England's a centralised country, and that's the basis of the United Kingdom until quite recently. That means that London has come to represent not only a very large city with all the agglomeration consequences of that but also the word London means centralised power. Now, that would be true if the government of the United Kingdom was in Warrington or more topically, York. It would still be centralised. It's centralised because it's centralised, not because it's in London.
However, if you're outside London, you simply see that as London's fault, as if somehow the people of Barking and Dagenham were conspiring with the people of Hillingdon to traduce the good people of Gloucester. And it's just they're different things. And, as I say, if the UK government moved to York, it would be centralised in York rather than centralised in London. Then people would blame York for everything. So I suppose the point I'm struggling towards is that London is both an order of magnitude bigger city but also the capital in a very centralised state, at least as far as England is concerned.
One of the questions we wanted to ask you was if you could identify any key leaders in London who have either shaped the city through its history or led it through periods of crises or periods of joy. Are any people that stand out?
Well, there are key individuals. The tragic nature of history is I'm going to give you a list of men, almost all of them white. So I apologise for that. If you were coming down from number one in terms of the people whose shadow is still cast over London, they-- and this is not really number one, two, three; these are sort of slightly different spheres.
So let's just-- Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who's through dint of personality rather-- he's an engineer-- but personality, managed to deliver London's extraordinary gravity-driven sewage system, the few straight roads that exist in London and generally delivered the underpinning infrastructure, at least of inner London. So he'd be one person.
Second would be Lord Ashfield alongside Frank Pick, who generally gets more coverage. Lord Ashfield was British born, went to America, ran railroads in Detroit and then was brought back to create the so-called Combine, bringing together the loss-making Underground and the profitable buses to form the basis of what became London Transport. And Ashfield, who was another, like Bazalgette, immensely charming person, who by dint of character was able to convince governments-- and he was a politico-- but to convince government to allow London Transport to issue bonds, to extend the Underground and create what was the best public transport system in the world. He's less well known than Frank Pick, who was the managing director of the London Passenger Transport Board, as it was called then, who is famous for bringing in great designers and leaving London Transport with its fabulous design heritage. So he'd have to get in the list, too.
Herbert Morrison, leader of the London County Council between 1934 and 1940, who ran the London Labour Party and the LCC with a rod of iron-- a very, very dramatically political person who went on to have a major role in Churchill's War Cabinet and in the post-1945 Labour government. But again, more than any other single leader of London, probably would be seen as totemic.
So I think those-- I mean, I'm sorry, they're all men and they're all white, but history is what history is. I have a slide deck of women who are famous in London, but they're not quite at this level of historical prominence. So those would be-- and there's four there. Those are the ones-- and they are all relatively historic. I think, the nearer you get to today, it's harder to judge people in historical context. So it's not that I don't think there's anybody subsequently who wouldn't be worthy of inclusion in a list eventually; it's just they're too close to us now for me to be certain.
And on that, I'd love to ask what you think London's greatest inventions are. And I think it's a similar sort of question where you have to look into time to judge the world-changing impact of those things, and obviously, there are many. But I wonder, if you could pick out a few, what would they be?
I think the single greatest invention for London was London Transport. I mean, the very words London Transport-- and with its brand image which is one of the most powerful brand images on the planet, certainly, for a public corporation. I mean, Coca-Cola probably has a more visible brand image internationally, but I can't think of a utility in the world that has a more powerful image than London Transport and its signage and its typeface-- its own typeface.
So London Transport, which without question was the greatest thing of its kind in the world in the '20s and '30s; lost its lead in the '60s and '70s; recovered, somewhat, latterly; under threat, again, as are all transport utilities, for reasons we'll come on to, no doubt. So that would be it's-- I think that would be its primary; that would be the number one.
Institutionally, I think the Metropolitan Police probably deserves a measure as well. Created in 1829, in many ways, by global standards, a model police force, the notion of policing by consent, which is complicated in modern times but noble. The Met has its failings, as we all do, but by international standards, it's a more democratic and more articulated version of an accountable police force than many places have.
Beyond that, I could list an array-- it's all a bit physical and institutional. I mean, latterly, I would say - and this is vastly more amorphous - I think London has become a global exemplar of a very, very large, very complex, multicultural city with people living together, born in all corners of the globe, in reasonable harmony - I wouldn't say perfect - and there are very few places that are like that. I mean, the diversity of the diversity is amazing.
Look, compare London with New York or Toronto, which are analogous in terms of the number of people born overseas who live in the city, there are probably relatively-- sorry, the percentage is higher in Toronto, similar in New York, but the diversity is less diverse, I think. And we take it for granted, really, that quite so many people from different places around the world can live together on a very small piece of land in relative harmony, fitting broadly into the normal UK political and economic system without much challenge. So, I mean, I'd say analogous things about Birmingham and Manchester, actually, and Leeds, but that's for another day and another project.
Tony, let me pick up a couple of questions, if I may, because I know where we're going to head, to talk about the future. But is there any particular ways in which London deals with shocks or crises or recovers or not from shocks or crises that you think are noteworthy? And I guess I've got economic shocks, pandemics, Blitzes, all sorts of things in my mind. Anything obvious to you about that?
Well, the lesson-- and history is always interesting for parallels and for lessons, and I think the lesson of history is that London has proved spectacularly resilient. Though, there's a qualification to this. So spectacularly resilient in the sense that, like all European cities, suffered from desperate outbreaks of bubonic plague, most famously, in 1665, followed a year later by the Great Fire, and that appeared to be a great pairing of events in the city in a square bracket.
King Charles II and Sir Christopher Wren rather naively thought they could re-plan London immediately after all of that, and before they got round to doing it, the merchants had rebuilt new properties on all the old street lines. And that was the end of that, which is itself instructive. So plagues, cholera epidemics during the 19th century.
And what all these have in common with the Blitz is that affluent people often fled the city to places of safety. Something that you can see happening. Much discussed in New York as we speak, as 400,000 people leave Manhattan to go to live on Long Island-- and question, will they come back? Fewer left London in the pandemic. And London recovered from all of these things, from the banking crisis of 2008, which I for one thought was going to be far worse than it turned out to be. So what you have is resilience.
But - and the qualification is this - it doesn't happen at the speed we generally think of things taking place because these days because of the speeded-up nature of societal change and economic change and globalised trade - again, it's not new, but it's faster and more instantaneous - the expectation that along comes an event and then six months later we're back to normal is a very powerful one. And the lessons from plagues, fires, the Blitz-- the Blitz is perhaps the easiest to understand because it's still within the memory of people who are going to bed and getting up every morning in London today. Obviously, there must be, actuarially, if you do the maths, between 75,000 and 100,000 people living in London today who can remember the Blitz. And the thing about that was that an attendant public policy meant that actually, London declined for a number of years after. It wasn't just the Blitz, but industrial change, public policy towards new towns meant that London economically and in terms of population declined over quite a long period after 1945. Of course, it didn't decline in every way, but it declined in some ways and then recovered sharply after the mid-80s all the way through till today.
So the lesson is that decline can occur. A third of the population died after some of the plagues but it does recover. The only question is, how long is the recovery? How long will it take? And that's always an issue. And I think the lessons from history are that recovery is almost certainly inevitable, but the timescale over which it occurs is not necessarily short.
And just to be even more precise, what is it about London that has these ingredients of recovery in it that makes it different from another city that might go into a terminal decline after such a shock?
Well, I mean, it's a good question. It's hard to be absolutely certain what it is, but it almost certainly has something to do with London's size relative to the rest of the cities in the country. That is, the internal dynamics of a city of nine million people are such that-- it's rather like the sun, really. The sun is self-generating, and London is a bit like a star in the sense it's self-generating at all points.
I think the other thing is that big cities have always been and remain magnets for, in no particular order, the young and ambitious, people with money to spend, people who want to have fun, people who want to do bad things. I mean, add to your list of the-- because the cloak of anonymity-- I remember going to a lecture by Kenneth Jackson, who is the editor of The Encyclopaedia of New York, and he did a lecture at UCLA to launch the-- it's probably a new edition of this excellent volume. And in the course of the lecture, he made the point that big cities like New York - and it's true of London, obviously, and others are, to the people who don't live in them, a kind of ominous threat. That is, they are places where if you die in the street, people will step over you. And there is the permanent threat of the city.
And yet for other people, they are places of liberation because the very anonymity that the city creates means that if you are, you know, from a persecuted minority, most obviously, you can go and settle in the big city, and the cloak of anonymity will protect you. So that is a very powerful driver, I think, why minorities will always want to move into cities.
So now you've got quite a significant list of people who are going to find big cities attractive to which the last I would add are the powerful. And again, here, my reference point is - and I'll explain this, not now, but afterwards - in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the excellent Tom Wolfe book about New York. And reading that book - a bit like Dickens in London in the 19th century, highly emblematic of a city at a time - it's clear that people who are powerful can only feel powerful if they're surrounded by people who tell them they're powerful. You can't be powerful at home with the dogs and cats and family, but if you're in your office or in the big city going to a restaurant, the power that you've earned, you think, will be reinforced by people telling you or implying to you.
And I think that for the people who run the command-and-control functions of institutions, be they government or big companies or arts institutions, at some level, the need to be near other people like yourself is a very, very powerful driver, and it's what bedevils efforts to move bits of the media out of London. And then you discover that all the command-and-control functions remain in W1, and sport is sent to Manchester or to Salford. Now, I'm not undermining-- not being snotty there; it's just a reality. So I think that there's a list of reasons why big cities, not just London, will survive over time, even if they had bad periods.
Tony, thank you very much. I've got two more questions in this vein, and then we'll come back, Caitlin, to you, to follow up. So you've already mentioned one thing I wanted to ask you about. There's a story about London that it's a haven for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, the persecuted, immigrants seeking to improve their lot. How far is that story true from your point of view? Has London been a haven for the world's dispossessed?
Well, it would appear so. I mean, the fact that, as of today, just under 40% of London's population are classified as non-white - slightly ugly measure, but it's the census measure - and just under 40% were born overseas-- these groups only partly overlap these days. Lots of people who are non-white are British; they were born in the United Kingdom, so the descendants of the Windrush generation, most obviously.
So now, some of the earlier migrants came for economic reasons - and I think many of them come for economic reasons - but some do come for asylum-type reasons. And for all Britain's failures - and there are many - I think that the UK is a reasonably stably run country with reasonable standards of liberalism and equality, which mean that for many people in countries where the GDP is substantially lower and/or there are wars and/or your groups are persecuted, Britain, also an Anglophone country, nearer many parts-- an English-speaking country nearer many other countries than, say, America or Canada is a convenient place to get to.
So if you add all of that together, I think, London has become a sort of global city in terms of its ethnicity national makeup, and it does it reasonably well. I mean, there are a thousand things wrong with it, but it could all be done worse. And the capacity of the city with its incredibly flexible housing stock spread out over 1500 square kilometres means that migrants can arrive and sort of disappear into the city quite easily, and that is also quite attractive, I think, for some people. So I think it has proved a relatively good meeting point for people escaping persecution and indeed, for economic migrants who include everybody from people fleeing poor countries to American bankers leaving Donald Trump's America.
Thank you very much, Tony. So one other question that I had, then, was about the point that you made really coming out of the Great Fire of London, that London is often contrasted with other cities as being a kind of unplanned city or an organic city. How do you view London in comparison to the other sort of great cities of the world in terms of whether it's planned or whether it's unplanned? What's your view about that?
Well, it's not only unplanned, I mean, it's self-evidently unplanned, but the unplanned nature of it has spawned a government system which reinforces the unplannedness. So let's just talk through that. So if we look at two cities with which London is most often compared, which is Paris and New York - and it does have a lot in common with both of those cities - each of them is famous in its way for an intervention by planners. The New York grid being the most obvious one, literally visible from space, or Baron Haussmann's re-development of one of the most fascinatingly dense urban spaces in the world, so Haussmannian Paris.
Well, London didn't have either of those. The nearest it had was Sir Joseph Bazalgette as chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who managed to build a handful of slightly straighter streets and a sewage system, and that was it, really. And then you've got great estates in London, aristocratic estates who built minor grids here and there. But once you get-- and that's all in London up to about 1880. Thereafter, most of London was built by sort of small building companies building a few houses here and there, randomly over a thousand square kilometres. So you can imagine what that looks like, and what it looks like is a sprawl. I mean, it's just a sprawl.
And the fact that the government of the city also evolved from the original City of London as a unit of government to small units of government around that, and then small units of government around that, which are occasionally merged into slightly bigger units-- but even today, the primary units of London's government, despite perceptions to the contrary, are 33 municipalities rather than the citywide Mayor of London. The mayor has some powers, and they're substantial over transport, policing and economic development, but for most people, they live in a borough. And so the sprawling, unplanned nature of London is reinforced by the fact that there are 33 powerful municipalities running the city's government that are unique.
I mean, there are other cities with two levels of government - Berlin and Tokyo, perhaps, best known to me - but even there, the citywide government is the primary unit of government. So it reinforces a sort of competitive and collaborative form of London, which is why if you look at the skyline, some boroughs have built loads of tall buildings and others virtually none.
So I wonder if there are any myths or misconceptions that people have about London, whether that's in the UK or around the world, and what the implications are for London if people believe in these things?
Well, the most obvious myth about London, which, again, is not unique to London, is that, to use an antique cliche, the streets are paved with gold. But it's not true only of London; this would be as true of New York or as the wider Paris area - not the city, but the wider Île-de-France version of Paris - I mean, because these cities are simultaneously full of some of the richest people, richest and footloose people on the planet who mean that there are gilded restaurants serving, you know, lark's tongues, night by night, to people who can afford to pay riches beyond the dreams of avarice for it, but they're also the largest concentration of the poorest people in the same country.
Now, that's often viewed through the slightly complicated lens of inequality. I mean, inequality is a real thing - don't get me wrong - but there's a difference between, in my view, normally-viewed inequality across a country and the kind of differences in income and living standards of people in very large cities, which are themselves an artefact of who chooses to live there, which tends to be this odd mixture of the very rich, who can afford it, and the very poor who are left there almost with no choice and/or who may have chosen it, by the way. So nowhere was the concept of the median more important than the average than in a large city like London. So I think the misconception is that, you know, the people of Barking and Dagenham eat at Scott's Restaurant every evening, which I think in many parts of the UK is a very easy-to-understand misconception.
And one of the things that I've been doing in the last three months, because of the incident we haven't talked about so far, is to walk hours on end through parts of London. And for all the unspeakably beautiful streets-- London has some of the most beautiful domestic architecture of any city in the world. So for every street that looks as if it's, you know, a sort of extended version of Portmeirion in inner North West London, you've got whole sections of the city, say, on the inner-outer part of South London which are poor by the standards of any northern city in the United Kingdom. But the poor people are invisible to public policy debate.
Now, the same is true of New York and outer Paris. Outer Paris and parts of the outer boroughs in New York contain some of the least-privileged-place people who live in France and the United States, respectively. And race is tied up in this as well; I haven't talked enough about race, probably. So I think that's the biggest misconception: everybody in London's rich. They're not.
Tony, there are sort of three points we do want to pick up. One is obviously the one you've just alluded to which is COVID-19 and what you think it means for London. A second one is about kind of London's future, and how does its inherited DNA, as we might call it-- how will that influence and shape London's future? But if you want to pick up and talk a little bit more about race, we could do that right now before we get there.
So I guess the question would be that London-- you've already said that London is an extremely multicultural, multiracial city. It's also a city that has had very particular outbreaks of race-related riots. And it's also just recently been a city where there's been a strong manifestation around the Black Lives Matters agenda. What do you think London contributes, as it were, to this conversation about race relations around the world?
In my view - and this is definitely a subject to talk to other people who will have more immediate views. I'm alert to living in a city which personally, I consider to be strengthened and I'm proud of because it is so ethnically diverse. But I can see how that that is a slightly complacent take on the issue because it kind of treats people of colour’s experience of the city as if the only thing that matters to the city is that you get interesting restaurants, and people in power can feel that they're part of an enormous melting pot-- glorious mosaic, as I think David Dinkins famously called New York. So I think that the challenge is that partly, it's very complex.
Let's see if we can do this quickly. So first, many, many-- the politics of race are complicated in Britain because most people of colour live in big cities, okay? So there are districts within an hour, probably half an hour's train journey of Central London where the white-British population is 98.5% of the population, so not far from London. Whereas London itself and some districts near London, Slough, most obviously, are now at a point where more than half the population is non-white British: Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds, West Yorkshire, more generally, South Yorkshire, in parts - West Yorkshire more. The same would be true to varying degrees in those cities. In Leicester, probably more so, actually.
So it's easy to view the sort of glorious mosaic view, take the glorious mosaic view without thinking through the very real challenges of many people of colour, partly because unlike America, where black African-Americans have existed for, you know, hundreds of years, in Britain-- I mean, there always were black people and migrants in London, but really, this is an issue since 1948 with mass immigration. So for all sorts of reasons, people of colour in London are less embedded in political and elite institutions. And to question how that process can rationally be speeded up, particularly in a country where poor white people don't do well out of society either, I mean, in a sense, it's the issue of the moment across Britain and America and France and a whole range of countries.
So what I think is that London has managed race reasonably well, as Britain has, but there are-- and you rightly point to them. There were race riots in London in 1957, the first [after?] Notting Hill riots. And from then on, from time to time, there are out-- what's the word I'm looking for? Outbursts isn't quite the right word, but occasions when there are civil disorder generated by issues relating to race. This can be because of police action or perceptions of police action.
Now, deconstructing all of that, it would be worthy of a project of this kind in its own [term?]. But I suppose what I would say is that London's been relatively good. If you look at the number of South-Asian counsellors on London boroughs, there's quite a number. Fewer Black Africans and Caribbeans and very few people from East Asia, so it varies by different groups within the London population. The UK Parliament is more representative than it was. London, now, currently has a Muslim mayor, a person-of-colour as mayor. Still hasn't had a female mayor.
And Black Lives Matter. There was a significant Black Lives Matter visibility in London. That's because there are many people of colour living in London, not because it's the place where the greatest need is. But that's fine because as with Extinction Rebellion - we've seen some of the analytics of that movement too, recently - London's the place where people, perfectly reasonably, hold protests in order to get attention because they'll get attention in London because that's where the media are and always will be.
So I think that this is just work in progress. And for those in elite positions, be it in government or in large companies, they're simply going to have to spend more time articulating where individuals and groups have been left behind and making the whole of the society fairer. And in London, that will have to happen faster because there are so many people from different backgrounds, religions, minorities here compared with the rest of the country.
So there's two other questions. One is London and COVID-19. And in a sense, I suppose, the question is, what's particular about the way London has experienced the pandemic or managed the pandemic? And then the final question will be London's future and how much of this inherited Londonness that we've been talking about do you think might be important in London's future. Would you like to go for COVID-19 first? What is it about the way London's experienced it or managed it that you think is distinctive?
I think London as a-- in terms of management, I mean, we know - as we are all epidemiologists now, we joked, for the avoidance of doubt - London has experienced a larger number of, within the UK, a relatively larger number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. And that brings with it the heavy implication, given what we know from other cities around the world, that places, where people meet, are more likely to see mass transmission than places where they don't. Going back to the reason that cities exist in the first place and indeed, to deliver myself of another cliche, social distance is the enemy of agglomeration. And that has a profound potential impact on London and other large cities until and unless we get back to some kind of normal and even, perhaps, if we do.
The public health response is as good as the UK Government's public health response. We'll wait for a public inquiry on that. I'd say, at best, the UK public health response would put it in the middle of the pack internationally. That’s the kindest thing you could say, but that's for another day in another study.
As far as London's own institutions of government have performed, I think they've performed well. I think the London boroughs, working through it with City Hall and national government, have worked as well as in any other part of the country. Subnational governments work well on emergency planning; now, working on tracking and tracing and local lockdown. That's all been handed to the boroughs, actually, now, to handle, and City Hall. So the machinery of government have performed all right.
The awkward question - and, again, not only for London but for all analogous major cities - is what the impact will be on the economy for the reason I've just hinted at because downtown areas of cities - central London, central Paris and Manhattan - rely on, effectively, people being squeezed together to get onto public transport, crammed together in theatres, crammed together in colleges and other places. That's the way it works if it works at all. And until and unless a way can be found of making it safe and people feel confident, then the agglomeration that was the basis of city centres and downtowns working cannot fully recover, cannot fully return.
So now, if you go back to plagues and cholera and the Blitz, they all had a similar effect. Though actually, during the Second World War, the London and the central London economy kept running throughout in a way that hasn't been true of lockdown. So I think it's too early to say how this will pan out. And again, if we look out 20-25 years, I think that city centres and downtowns will have reasserted themselves, and we will be back to some kind of normal.
The more intriguing question is how much the economies of these places restructure in the short- to medium-term as a result of the fact that, to use obvious data-- used to be one and a quarter million people would come into central London by public transport and other means in the morning rush hour. And the current number will be, at best, 15% of that. That's what TFL's data show. And the figures are exactly the same for New York; only about the same number of people using Subway.
Now, we're then in the world of wondering how much of the change will be short term, or how many people will choose to work at home more-- whether that will open new spaces that new businesses can move into. Which if the recessions of the early 1990s is anything to do, we'll get lots of new businesses with lower costs associated with them. If you look at the arguments made about San Francisco, New York, Melbourne, London, that all the creatives were leaving, all young people were leaving, great big cliches, I didn't believe all of this. But anyway, that's what was said.
Now there's no reason for that; no reason for anybody to leave now. There'll be lots of space for everybody. Private rentals will fall; office rentals will fall. All your creatives and your bright, young things with start-ups will now be able to take up space exactly where they want to. However, a number of other people will be working from home, possibly forever. So how this works its way through the system, we just don't know. If I had to guess, there will be a period of relative decline for downtown areas, central areas of cities that will lead to outer areas of London and beyond the London boundary, gaining track, gaining economic output.
Now, unless this is managed, this leads to a city we've referred to once, but not as much as perhaps we should have done-- what I would call-- there's a risk in all of this of the Los Angelesification of London and indeed, of other cities, which is that the safe place to go-- bear with me. The safe place to go might be thought to be either an Outer London centre or some nice place in Kent or Berkshire or Surrey, where you can buy a bigger home with a garden and drive to work. And in this sense, Los Angeles, with its wonderful freeways and everybody driving everywhere, seems like the prototype of the post-COVID city.
Now, you only had to say that to think of what environmentalists are going to make of that and what, indeed, most urbanists will make of that. So I think that public policy will, at some point, kick in and that governments will want to help city centres and downtowns recover not just for and of themselves but because of the deleterious consequences of not doing so, which I think in London terms would mean the possibility of an even bigger London spread over an even wider area, which would be even more dominant in the United Kingdom. That, I think, is the potential threat of government at all levels not trying to re-assert the sort of density benefits that all urbanists, as far as I can see, apart from one or two in America, had come to believe.
Yes. So if we'd have asked you the right question, was there anything that you wanted to say about London and its DNA?
Well, I didn't properly answer the DNA question, it occurred to me, at the end of it, because the DNA question-- I mean, London is an ecosystem; the ecosystem is the sum of its parts. And what I find myself fascinating about it is not only the unimaginable size of it-- I mean, just unimaginable size. I mean, it is-- and I picked this idea up from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and I don't know which one, embarrassingly, but where a character, at one point, musing on New York observes that the city is essentially infinite. Once something is so big that you can't actually imagine all of it or indeed where it ends, it becomes, in effect, infinite. And London is in effect, for most people, infinite. It is rather in the way a child sees everything bigger than it really is. For adults, even, London is bigger than anything possibly could be, and that idea, for and of itself, I think, is an intriguing one.
And the fact that London is so geographically large - so it's two and a half times the size of New York City with the same number of people living in it - gives it great resilience; great, great resilience. So even if the downtown central area were to be affected by COVID-19 or something else to happen with terrorism, which we haven't really talked about, from time to time, the rest of the city just carries on.
And if you look at-- the outer part of London during COVID-19 never really closed at all. I went walking in the streets. Even in the outer parts of inner London, in West London, places like Golborne Road and Ladbroke Grove never really closed down. They were always full of people at the weekend. So there's plenty of other parts of London that can prosper.
And so the DNA point, I think, just to reinforce it, is that its epic size and flexibility and the 33 authorities, all of which can compete and collaborate, is a massive strength in the long term. And the fact is that I do worry about Los Angelesification because of COVID-19. But the great news is that the excellent public authorities on the other side of the boundary don't want it. They don't want-- the great thing about Kent and Surrey and Berkshire - well, Berkshire doesn't exist, but the former county of Berkshire and Hertfordshire - is that they have excellent county and district councils who are kind of aligned with the London idea of London growing and becoming more dense because that's what London wants. And most of those counties and districts don't want sprawl in them, so it's a marriage made in heaven. So that's why I'm a bit more optimistic about the medium term. Because of the complex DNA not just of London but its neighbours as well.