In an extract from his new book Slow Burn City, the Observer architecture critic Rowan Moore declares his manifesto – that if London is to grow to 10 million, it desperately needs an intervention
Cities change. They renew through consuming themselves. Districts are remade and repurposed, populations churn, buildings are adapted or demolished and rebuilt. A city’s fabric is made out of the raw material supplied by the past and becomes the raw material for the future. This includes its cultural fabric – traditions of art, music or cuisine grow up which will be exploited and reinterpreted. Its places are formed, inhabited, acquire value, are appropriated, decline, are recreated.
London has a particular ability to change in this way: areas that can move from one social group to another and between ethnicities, or from industrial to artistic. The common land of a heath might have agricultural purposes, be exploited for quarrying and housebuilding, be rescued for a wider populace, be inhabited by visionaries, radicals, kite flyers, clerks, cruisers, families.
In the first decade and a half of the 21st century, London started consuming itself with accelerating voracity. Change tended in one direction, towards the conversion of all qualities into investment value, especially that of residential property. Such change tends towards sterilisation and irreversibility, without a crash or an external catastrophe such as a war. It threatened qualities that might have been thought fundamental to the city: its availability, generosity, fluidity and social diversity. It looked as if London could consume itself at a rate that might liquefy into profit its vital organs of work and society. Most obviously its desirable areas, its quite nice areas and even those that were just about tolerable were being priced out of range of most of its citizens. More subtle were the ways in which its freedoms and pleasures, even as they grew in sophistication and abundance, were priced and scripted. […]