New London Architecture

London's next 30-year development cycle

Tuesday 19 March 2024

The New London Agenda

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

No city has a right to perpetual success. Baghdad, Athens, Rome and Istanbul attest to the impermanent nature of even centuries long metropolitan glory. In recent decades Mumbai, Milan, Moscow, Hong Kong and San Francisco have felt the shudder of a sudden loss of status. Despite a very long cycle of recent success, London could also decline if we fail to resolve its risks and address its imperatives.

London: A Negotiated City: 

Deep in London’s DNA are core ideas about how we live together. Living by a major river requires certain obvious forms of cooperation; the management of tides, winds and water levels, protection of wharves and moorings, rules and codes through which to share space and much more. Living by a river requires a social contract between all those involved. 
As population expanded around the Thames, the built environment became the key enabler of development. Bridges and wharves, markets and exchanges, homes and offices, and eventually railways, tunnels, airports and roads, enabled our expansion. The invention of the underground railway in London some 160 years ago, addressed our local development challenge, and created a global innovation that has now been adopted by over 200 cities world-wide.
London’s long history of negotiating its preferred place within the realm really took off in 1067 with the charter between Norman King William 1st and the City of London. The rights to trade and associate were enshrined in return for loyalty to the King. That is how we progress, through negotiation.
Since then, London has been through multiple cycles and that ‘contract’ has been tested and revised. Plague, fire, rebellion, war, battle, bombing, stink, smog, flood, contamination, and the losses of empire, industry, and population, have befallen 
the city on occasions. Yet London has proved resilient. London is not a planned or institutionalised city, it is that negotiated city. That means we can always renegotiate London. We have an inbuilt agility.
London has developed the capacity to enrich lives through connections, opportunity and experience. Anyone can become a Londoner, if they move to the city, as long as they adopt its ‘live and let live’ mindset and are open to its cosmopolitanism and quirkiness.

A new social contract for our new cycle?

We know that pandemics, wars, and natural disasters often reveal the underlying frictions and inequalities within civilisations and are therefore often followed by a new era of substantial reform, or might trigger an uncertain, and potentially long, cycle of decline. The overcoming of a major threat through collective action can lead to an increase in both common purpose and social capital to address and resolve deep challenges that thus seem more achievable. After World War II we invented the National Health Service, guaranteeing healthcare for all people for the first time.
Our established social contract has been challenged by the COVID experience. It revealed immiseration of the people through unaffordable housing, insecure jobs, unfair treatment, unbreathable air, extreme inequalities and other sharp disparities. 

London’s leadership in cycles of change

These moments of change are also opportunities to innovate anew. London brings important capabilities to such imperatives that have built up over time.
  1. Drawing upon the endowments of nature, people in London have used the combined effects of a temperate fertile climate, an island location with a proximity to a major land mass, a westerly wind and an east facing tidal river, to embrace an outward perspective on the world that matured over time to become a strategic location between trading continents where London and its language, laws, codes, rules, media and institutions have developed an outsized influence in the world. The world looks to London, providing us with the opportunity both to lead and to magnetise engagement from beyond our realm
  2. London’s long history of evolution and reinvention enables confidence toward change and the future, whenever there is adequate leadership and defined mutual interest. A city that has survived and prospered through multiple cycles is also likely to inspire expectation and confidence externally and will be more oriented towards embracing opportunities to change.
  3. London’s sheer size, scale and diversity provides it both with a form of resilience, and a source of flexibility. Although all parts of London are somehow inter-dependent, they are also distributed in ways that foster independence in contrasting ways, enabling different things to happen at distinct times, in diverse parts of London. This provides a basic kind of security that reduces risk, and a fertile ground for distinctive innovations in diverse locations.
  4. A unique strength of London is its social diversity. This brings people of many perspectives, backgrounds, languages, faiths, orientations, experiences and ages to our city. It provides human awareness, creative spark and global reach that aid change and support progress. It also means that solutions built in London can be relevant in multiple other globally diverse contexts.
  5. At the same time, the scale of London has a mutually reinforcing dynamic: 8.8 million people, 1 million businesses, 6 million jobs and a £1.5 trillion asset base, create a powerful internal market, as well as an attractive hub for mobile population, capital, ideas and businesses. This means London has the critical mass to make change without significant external input, leveraging its multiple forms of existing capital when required.
  6. London is often a reference for what is new and emergent. For several centuries London has been a pioneer of modern society and economy. From establishing the rules of banking, insurance, media, stock markets, currency exchanges, fostering breakthroughs in science and technology, to producing iconic creative leaders in discovery, music, arts, literature, architecture and design, to codification of modern sports, London has defined new ways for new times.
  7. London is the ‘scale up city’. London is both a trend-setting city and an innovation hub. It has an innate ability to take emerging ideas and approaches from across the world and to scale them in important ways. London has the open systems and market depth and dynamics to take great ideas and translate them into codes, systems, ventures, platforms and infrastructures.
Consequently, when faced with times of change, or shift, London is ready to take leadership to define new waves and even whole eras.

The Back Story

In the cycle before the last one, roughly from 1950 to 1980, London had been plunged into a deep post war decline. Bomb damage, population loss, deindustrialisation, growing calls for independence of colonial territories, fragile post-war finances, with a diminished place in the world, led to a London that was grey, drab and vexed. New York had emerged as the pre-eminent city of the mid 20th century. London was beaten.
Valiant attempts to renew London’s verve, such as the 1951 Festival of Britain (which first initiated the regeneration of the South Bank) would only find their true engine several decades later when globalisation triggered a new development cycle. But the revised post war social settlement did lead to expansion of public services including health (the NHS), transport, housing and education, with renewed infrastructure investment and rehabilitation. This eventually led to population stabilisation and then growth, with a new cycle of migration into London.
London’s hard power as an imperial capital rightly diminished, but its leadership and soft power in banking and finance, media, publishing and broadcasting remained strong, as did its universities. Deindustrialisation and unemployment fuelled edgy creative and cultural production, most obviously in the punk scene of the 1970s. London’s role in the wider popular music of the time included the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Kinks and of course The Clash, whose anthem London Calling rehearses our DNA strapline: ‘We Live by the River’.

The Recent Cycle

In the last cycle (from c 1990 to c 2020) London gained vast new opportunity from accelerating globalisation in media, education, information, finance, services, IT and creative industries. The revised ‘contract’ was then about how a new ‘world city’ would serve the nation with opportunity, high-value jobs, tax revenues, connections and foreign investment, through specialising in newly globally traded services, technology and creative content. 
The idea was to let London grow and to assume that all would benefit. This recent cycle of globalisation led to massive reinvestment in London’s built environment at waterfronts and docks, markets, stations, stadia and the densification and diversification of successful business districts, combined with widespread regeneration of the period housing stock. 
As the global cycle matured and required ‘hub cities’ in each continent, London’s bounce in the 90s and 00s led to rapid population growth and diversification, with it reclaiming its crown as one of the world’s great cities, consistently vying with New York for top status.
As that cycle concluded, London confronted the major challenge of the Global Financial Crisis. 
It took time for the full implications of this ‘world city model’ to be revealed. Whilst London prospered overall, and attracted new talent and massive investment, the gaps between London and the rest of the UK grew wider, and the inequality and affordability within London got markedly worse. The unintended consequence of globalisation in capital mobility was inflation in real estate prices in global gateway cities as capital flooded into them.

The New Cycle

Our new cycle is beginning. The COVID pandemic closed the constrained mini-cycle that had teetered forwards in a troubled way since the GFC, the Brexit vote and the anti-London sentiment of recent Conservative Governments. The Pandemic itself revealed in great detail the extremes of inequality and vulnerability in our city and made a powerful case for wider reforms in housing, air quality, health care, and public space.
London can now lead the world to build a new social contract that addresses planetary, social and spatial justice. This new social contract will be intolerant of high carbon living, and much more focused on access to clean air, healthy lifestyles and affordable housing. It requires a city that works for all its citizens, not simply the high skilled 
or well paid. London must also take more responsibility for its relationship with other regions and towns, creating good neighbour policies and programmes and collaboration for mutual advantage across the nation. 
This is London’s opportunity to define the new contract for a future 10-million-person city as we move towards a world of 10 billion people living in 10,000 cities, where multiple leadership models and proven practices of metropolitan success are needed. London can serve the global network of reinventing cities, by being a leader in urban innovation.

Shaping a Better City: A New London Agenda

 In our modern world of ongoing rapid urbanisation and planetary peril, the built environment will only grow, thrive and succeed if it fosters the social contract that in turn enables it. The built environment is the fabric of the city. It is the places and spaces that enable shelter, consumption, interaction, mobility, trade, productivity, culture and collective experience. The built environment hosts the whole city 
and provides that city with its agility, flex and power to change, or with its force of resistance and rigidity. 
The post pandemic city is recasting urban value less about commuting and concentration and more around habitat, innovation and experience, underpinned by a fresh approach to place leadership. This is encouraged by a growing recognition of the potential of social capital and physical agility to both help us remake our city and also foster new forms of value. In London, our experience has been that the most successful reinventions of place have been ones where high social value has been central to the mission, leading to a high-trust and high-confidence equilibrium that has ‘crowded in’ diverse activities, people, communities and amenities, sucking in other forms of capital. 
The built environment is core to the new social contract. It is an eco-system that can be agile, intelligent, sympathetic, inclusive, sustainable and resilient. It has personality. It is the active ingredient in urban change. We are shifting from the built environment as a collection of passive assets, to it being the city fabric that is dynamic as a platform, a service, and an experience.
No city has a right to succeed. In the long-run success of cities, the physical fabric is a secret weapon because it inspires human imagination, shapes other changes, and drives urban invention. No city can succeed without optimising its physical shape and built form to meet the needs of its people and the planet. If we don’t learn, and show, how to do this now, we face a long cycle of uncertainty and perhaps unmanaged decline. 

The New London Agenda

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

New London Agenda


New London Agenda

This article was originally featured in the New London Agenda, our framework for best practice in city-making.

Read the full New London Agenda here


The New London Agenda: Dipa Joshi


The New London Agenda: Dipa Joshi

Dipa Joshi, Architect and NLA Diverse Leaders Steering Group Member, speaks on why we need an Agenda and the importance...

Watch video
The New London Agenda: Martyn Evans


The New London Agenda: Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans, Creative Director at LandsecU+I, speaks on why we need a New London Agenda and how the document will play...

Watch video
The New London Agenda: Stephen O'Malley


The New London Agenda: Stephen O'Malley

Stephen O’Malley, CEO and Founding Director of Civic Engineers, speaks on why we need an Agenda and how the six principl...

Watch video

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

Billing type:
All prices exclude VAT
View options for Personal membership