How London became the centre of the world

Three decades of growth reinvented the urban landscape in London—and transformed it into the preeminent global city. But amid growing pains and with Brexit looming, can it stay on top?

photographs by Luca Locatelli
Published 27 Oct 2018, 08:41 BST
The Shard reigns over London as its tallest building. More than 70 skyscrapers are under way, ...
The Shard reigns over London as its tallest building. More than 70 skyscrapers are under way, promising to redraw the cityscape even further. The Canary Wharf financial district (seen in the distance) was built on the former docklands of the East India Company. Many of London's new developments are also rising from the ashes of defunct sites born in the Industrial Age.
Photograph by Luca Locatelli, National Geographic

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew lie in a curve of the Thames, seven miles from central London, a pastoral respite from asphalt and exhaust, with thousands of plants collected from the Empire’s far-flung reach. To stroll past beds of Himalayan rhododendrons and Tasmanian grasses is also to  understand the sweep of Britain’s connectivity to the world beyond.

More than 250 years old, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is one of the world's top conservatories. The Victorian-era Temperate House is home to 1,500 species, including the cycad 'E. woodii', a palm-like tree from South Africa extinct in the wild.

At Kew, though, one does not entirely escape the tumult of modern life. The gardens sit directly beneath the flight path into Heathrow. As I admired a massive, ancient oak, relocated from Iran during Queen Victoria’s reign, a stream of jets descended out of the holding queue aloft. Spaced 27 to 40 seconds apart—Kew arborists well know the timing—they formed a line homing in on the busiest two-runway airport on the planet.

At certain times of the day, “it’s just like bees around a honeypot,” says a commercial pilot who details Heathrow’s traffic jams in Craig Taylor’s oral history of modern London. “You’ll be flying back in across from France … and it’s all nice and relaxed… Then you hit the London frequency on the radio and suddenly everyone’s jabbering away. There’s a million and one voices on and the controller’s not got five seconds to take a breath… It’s busy, you’re gonna hold. Everyone wants to get into London.”

Bees to the honeypot: London is bigger and richer than ever, with more than 8.8 million residents—and is on track to add two million more by 2050. Three decades of population upticks transformed London from a fading grande dame into the preeminent global city, a leading centre of finance, with the third largest GDP among cities.

Growth fuelled a building boom that includes several of the largest regeneration projects in Europe. The Thames will be replumbed below with a 'super sewer' to keep raw sewage out of tidal marshes, and London’s skyline will be redrawn with the addition of more than 500 tall buildings—in a city long reluctant to embrace skyscrapers. Crossrail, the £15 billion high-speed underground railway built to ease congestion on the overburdened London Tube—the world’s original subway system—is scheduled to open its Elizabeth Line next year. It’s intended to better connect West London and developing East London, with 41 stations, including 10 new ones, and cut some travel times in half.

In the transportation hub of King's Cross, the Victorian-era St Pancras International and King's Cross rail stations were both given dramatic updates. A modern twist adorns the original facade of King's Cross rail station, which sees 47 million travellers a year (and legions of Harry Potter fans).

Sections of the city are being stitched back together as defunct industrial sites are remade into neighbourhoods designed for the future—focused on pedestrians, public space, and in what may be a new trend, a preference for local entrepreneurs over chain outlets in retail shops. King’s Cross, a derelict railroad transfer point for coal and grain known more recently for prostitution and drugs, is nearing the end of a two-decade facelift. The development includes the renewed King’s Cross and St. Pancras rail stations (the latter home to the Eurostar train to Paris), a new campus for an art and design college, music venues, fountains, and both high-end and affordable housing. Last autumn, Google broke ground on an 11-story “landscraper” that will stretch for 330 metres (1,000 feet), with room for about 7,000 employees. Facebook plans to move in next door in an expanded office for 6,000.

About four miles away on the Thames’s south side, Apple will occupy the boiler room of the historic Battersea Power Station, reconstructed into the centrepiece of the upscale Nine Elms district. The new seat of the U.S. Embassy, the area will boast a park styled after New York’s High Line and, anchored by New Covent Garden Market, is positioning itself to be the city’s food quarter'. The investment by Google and Apple in such large, distinctive campuses is seen as a vote of confidence in London’s stature as a tech hub.

The centrepiece of a mile-long redevelopment along the Thames, the Battersea Power Station will be home to offices—Apple will be the main tenant—and residences. Critics say the project is too focused on luxury in a city short on affordable housing. Investment in the district, called Nine Elms, was bolstered by the arrival of the U.S. Embassy, which relocated here from its historic seat in Mayfair. Two new Tube stations and riverside piers will better connect the area to the city.

London’s prosperity arrived with the usual set of urban headaches, and as they have worsened, many wonder whether their great city is losing its allure. Traffic is terrible. Air pollution is blamed for a marked increase in asthma deaths in children and the elderly. Rising land values have pushed housing prices beyond the reach of average Londoners, forcing even well-paid professionals to pack up the kids and move out in search of affordable places where a family can live.

And in what could be a reversal of fortune, Brexit—London’s pending withdrawal from the European Union—has prompted dire assessments that the boom is over.

“We still really don’t know what the shape of Brexit will be or what effect it will have on London,” says Richard Brown, research director for the Centre for London, a progressive think tank. “It’s thrown a level of uncertainty in what seems like a smooth growth trajectory.”

Will boom indeed turn to bust? Can London remain the world’s great trading city and an appealing place to live? The idea that London teeters on the edge of unraveling seems unimaginable, especially as construction cranes continue to swivel across the cityscape. It also undervalues historic strengths embedded in London’s DNA that have carried this conglomeration of villages through 2,000 years.

Passengers at the Highbury & Islington station wait for a London Overground train. The Overground network bridges areas of East and South London that are not connected to the centre by the Tube (Underground). Traveller numbers doubled between 2010 and 2017.

Londoners like to talk about their city’s resilience. They predictably point to its survival through plague, the Great Fire of 1666, and the bombing raids during World War II, known as the Blitz, as evidence it will prevail against today’s challenges, including its European divorce.

“London is in a privileged position where it’s kind of untouchable,” says Peter Griffiths, a city strategist at ING Media, a communications consultancy specialising in the built environment. “It’s so far ahead of other cities, it can get away with things that other cities can’t.”

English is the global language. Connections established when the empire was capital of a quarter of the world still exist today. Those links, especially to Asia, give London an edge over European competitors aspiring to move in if London stumbles.

And don’t overlook the fact that it was the British who mapped global time zones. London sits at the centre of the world because it placed itself there when it drew the prime meridian, where east meets west.

Pedestrians converge at Bank Junction in the City of London, the original financial district. The Royal Exchange (centre) dates to 1571, though it was twice destroyed by fire. It's now a retail destination, drawing shoppers and diners where brokers once gathered. A rising tide of modern monuments, with names like the Cheesegrater (right) and the Scalpel (far right), surrounds the area.

London’s Big Bang

The last time London was this large was in 1939, when its population reached 8.6 million on the eve of World War II. For most of the previous century—the Industrial Age—London had been the world’s most populous city. But war left it in shambles. Those who hadn’t fled ahead of the Blitz—which killed 43,000 civilians and obliterated more than 70,000 buildings—fled the chaos of reconstruction afterward. They resettled in “garden cities” that grew into the suburbs of today and hunkered down as their country slogged through nearly five decades of economic ups and mostly downs.

As the manufacturing industry splintered, the docks of what was once the world’s largest port fell victim to shipping modernization and closed. The death in 1965 of Winston Churchill, the great prime minister, marked “the last time that London would be the capital of the world,” the Observer noted. Population continued a downward slide, bottoming out at 6.7 million in 1988. By then London’s fortunes had changed with deregulation of the financial services industry, known as the Big Bang, along with the shift to electronic trading, which enabled London to rival Tokyo and New York. A new financial district rose on the ruins of the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, a marshy nub that juts into the Thames. Canary Wharf, as the district is called, became London’s first modern large-scale regeneration project.

Immigrants and foreign investment flowed in, and growth became the story of London for the next 30 years. Today Canary Wharf employs more than 100,000 people, and London has become a magnet for young, bright professionals from every corner of the world—who’ve changed the face of the city. Nearly 40 percent of London residents were born outside of the United Kingdom, and 300 languages are spoken on its streets.

London is home to about 300,000 Indians, and well over 100,000 each from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands moved to London as the European Union expanded. The city is home to about 177,000 Poles, and since restrictions on workers from Romania and Bulgaria—the bloc’s poorest countries—were lifted in 2014, their numbers have risen to nearly 200,000. Officially, 82,000 French live in the city, though other estimates go as high as 250,000. London officially topped its 1939 peak in early 2015, when the city took note of the 8,615,246th arrival. The individual was never pinpointed, but it’s likely the newcomer showed up in a maternity ward than a border station—the immigrant population had started a baby boom.

Visitors take in the view from the top of 20 Fenchurch Street, known as the as the Walkie-Talkie. Despite a controversial design—a "bullying presence," one critic called it—last year it sold for $1.7 billion to a Hong Kong firm, a record price for a building in the city.

Towering heights

To get a bird’s-eye view of the city’s evolving skyline, I went to the top of the Cheesegrater—Londoners have a propensity to nickname their skyscrapers—with Peter Murray, an architect who heads New London Architecture, a design forum. London still has one of the lowest urban densities in Europe. When cities began building skyscrapers in the 1880s, London never swooned. Londoners don’t even use the word. The preferred term of art is “tall buildings,” meaning buildings of at least 20 stories.

The Cheesegrater, formally named the Leadenhall Building, takes its nickname from its angular, wedge-shape top, a design feature that complies with London’s 'protected views,' which prohibit sightlines to historic landmarks from being obstructed. At 52 stories, it is the second tallest building in the Square Mile, the original financial district also known as the City of London. We look out at the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and, around the corner, St Paul’s Cathedral, which at 120 metres (365 feet) was London’s tallest building for more than 200 years.

The Gherkin went up over community objections, replacing a historic building damaged by an IRA bombing in 1992 that many wanted rebuilt. The pickle-shaped column is now one of London’s most beloved and recognisable icons. Its popularity helped smooth the way for a cluster of skyscrapers. By 2020, the collection of towers will include Flower, the Vase, and Can of Ham.

Looking out, the sweep of the city lies before us, cut by the oxbow curves of the Thames. Murray points east: 252 of the new buildings are going up in East London. Only a few of the total will truly scrape the sky; most will be in the range of 20 to 30 stories. The future, Murray says, will push development to the outer boroughs, clustered around rail and Tube stations, creating multiple centres where people can live and work and shop—and abandon the long commute into central London.

Designed in the 1930s to limit growth, the Green Belt still endures. Some say portions of the belt (here in Redbridge), which is mostly private land not open to the public, could be tapped for development. It's not all green: brownfield sites and derelict buildings sit within its borders.

What we can’t see from our perch just beyond the horizon is the Green Belt created in the 1930s to keep sprawl in check. At three times the size of the city it encircles, it eventually forced development to leapfrog over it, and now it feels to some like an ever-tightening stranglehold around London’s girth. It includes parkland, golf courses, farms, but also brownfield and derelict building sites. Only an estimated nine percent is publicly accessible. Suggestions that the Green Belt is the solution to London’s housing problem are as plentiful as London rain. But most development is barred, and efforts to open it up to builders amount to political suicide.

Murray favors what he calls “sensible planning” around it. “But that doesn’t mean let it rip,” he says.

A new brand of leader

The son of a Pakistani bus driver, Sadiq Khan was elected mayor in 2016, as London’s growth was clocked at twice the rate of the rest of the country. Brexit passed a month later. While London voters overwhelmingly opposed leaving the EU, elsewhere the vote reflected a backlash against immigration and resentment that prosperity had not spread to the rest of the country. London may not contend with the megacity-level of growth in Asia and Africa—according to one analysis, Lagos, Nigeria, now takes in 70 new residents an hour to London’s nine. But that’s still about 70,000 annually—the growth Khan’s London Plan anticipates through mid-century.

The plan attacks threats to London’s livability on all fronts. To meet the goal of becoming 'zero carbon' by 2050, he envisions a city with fewer cars and more bicycles, and plans to turn London’s buses to electric energy and prohibit the sale of new diesel cars.

Parks and green space make up a third of the city. Revellers barbecue at London Fields in Hackney, an area of East London increasingly popular with young residents. It shows in housing prices, which have risen more sharply than elsewhere in the capital.

His efforts extend to finding safer ways for children to walk to school and better protections for women at night. Khan even has a plan to save London’s historic pubs, closing at an alarming rate as a result of higher rents and taxes and changing drinking habits, and targets fast food as a way to tackle obesity. And Khan signed onto a campaign to designate London, a city with 8.4 million trees and multiple large parks, as the world’s first National Park City. The project is the brainchild of geographer and National Geographic explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison.

The idea, Raven-Ellison says, is to encourage Londoners to be more engaged with the city’s environment, which includes 15,000 species of wildlife and plants. “One in seven children has not visited a green space in the past year,” he says. “I am talking about a cultural shift and challenging people’s notions of what their relationship with nature should be like.”

The Brutalist Barbican Estate originated in the 1960s on an area left empty by World War II bombs. With 4,000 residents in three high-rise towers and low-rise complexes, set in a landscaped area with a lake, the 40-acre estate was intended to exemplify utopian urban living.

Khan’s most daunting task is housing. He campaigned on the premise that the election would also be a referendum on affordable housing; after he took office, he announced that London needs 66,000 new houses a year just to keep up with growth, and pledged that half would be “genuinely affordable.” Khan has won more than £4.6 billion in government funding to build 116,000 affordable homes by 2022. Many admire his housing ambitions, but point to mayoral limitations: the mayor sets strategic targets for the city, but the 33 municipal councils approve developments within their respective borders.

“Despite plan upon plan upon plan to build more housing, the truth is the rate of construction is nowhere near keeping up with the growth of the population,” says Tony Travers, who directs government studies at the London School of Economics.

Jules Pipe, one of Khan’s 10 deputy mayors, explained why it’s so essential to try. “If we exclude swathes of the public from being able to live and commute cheaply in the capital, then the whole capital begins to fail on everything, from being kept clean to whether we have a shortage of doctors at the hospital,” he says.

With the city's 100-mile network of canals—Regent's Canal in King's Cross seen here—houseboats became a response to high rents on land. But boaters face rising mooring fees along with new restrictions that limit access.


Central London is often viewed as an island for tourists and Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes who spend just a few weeks a year at their multimillion-dollar properties. Simon Jenkins, a former chairman of the National Trust and a veteran journalist, sees London as becoming more of an investment market than a place where people actually live.

“They want to put their money into it and leave it, as if the city had become a bank,” he says. “These towers of luxury apartments are simply blocks of gold.”

Trevor Abrahmsohn, an estate agent to the rich, says one of the side effects of being a global city is that it attracts wealth. The Qatari Royal Family owns more real estate in London than the British Royal Family, a portfolio of quintessentially British icons that includes Harrods and Claridge's, most of the Shard, the former U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square (which will reopen as a luxury hotel), 20 percent of Heathrow Airport, and a portion of Canary Wharf.

London has a glut of luxury properties, and an 'average' home now costs nearly 14 times the median salary, according to Bloomberg. Prices have risen as foreign buyers have been drawn to real estate for investment, with China and Hong Kong leading the way.

“When the Shah of Iran was ousted, his first port of call was London,” he says. “When the Nigerians made money in oil, they bought in London. When the Indians made money on the Nigerians, they bought in London. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Russians bought, and now it’s the Chinese.”

The Battersea-Nine Elms project, which stretches over 500 acres along the south bank of the Thames, is seen, fairly or unfairly, as a place filled with those stacks of bank accounts. It earned the name Dubai-on-Thames after the first round of apartments were sold mainly to foreign buyers.

But the project also illuminates why Khan’s housing targets may be so hard to reach. The power plant, one of the world’s largest brick buildings, has long been a beloved landmark on the skyline. “An industrial St Paul’s,” Jenkins says, and possibly large enough to fit St Paul’s inside. Pink Floyd featured the plant on an album cover, and several blockbuster films have used it as a backdrop.

In 2021 about 1,400 Apple employees in London will to relocate to offices carved out of the boiler room at the Battersea Power Station, a coal-fired plant decommissioned in 1983. Featured on a Pink Floyd album cover and in a handful of blockbuster films, it's a London icon in a league of its own.

The plant closed in 1983. But its fame also saved it from—or prevented, if you prefer—demolition, locking in the huge cost of refurbishing it. Multiple developers came and went. In 2012 a Malaysian consortium took over the nearly £9.3 billion project, which includes remaking the plant into commercial and residential space and restoring its four chimneys. The developers also contributed nearly £300 million to the £1 billion construction of two new Tube stations, improving access—expenses that won them a reduction in the number of affordable housing units, to less than 20 percent.

Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth borough council, which approved the project, says the infrastructure and restoration more than compensated. “Every development has a finite contribution it can give to the improvement of public services,” he says. “Affordable housing is one component.”

The development will also contain a new park, two riverside piers, two primary schools, two health centers, and improved routing for bicycles.

“The greatest challenge in any urban setting is how do you renew an area and provide the things that make urban living bearable and desirable?” he asks. “You can’t do that by doing a lot of one thing. You need to do lots of bits of things.”

At the site of the 2012 Olympics, now known Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the ArcelorMittal Orbit offers views and is billed as the world’s longest tunnel slide. The games spurred a larger redevelopment of Stratford, part of emerging East London.

Olympic legacy

More opportunity may be found at the site of the 2012 Olympics. It’s been converted to a much-used Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with the swimming pool complex, the velodrome, and the stadium. The athlete’s village, where 17,000 slept, was refashioned into nearly 3,000 apartments. Half rent for market rate, half qualify as affordable, many with enough bedrooms to hold a family.

In June, Khan outlined a £1 billion expansion that includes more housing, a dance theatre, new campuses for both the London College of Fashion and University College London, as well as a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the run-up to the games, then Mayor Ken Livingstone emphasised the event’s potential to jump-start a regeneration of neglected, impoverished parts of East London. Ricky Burdett, head of the London School of Economics’ cities programme and a top advisor for the games, says the pieces are in place for the kind of multi-decade renewal like King’s Cross.

Pedal boats cruise past the London Aquatics Centre, an Olympic venue now open to the public. In the surrounding area, a plan to build 800 homes, two university campuses, a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other cultural institutions will form Stratford Waterfront, a new district.

“When we first looked the site over,” he recalls, “we said we must be nuts. There were tyres burning in the centre, where the Olympic stadium was built.” One of the first chores was to connect the site to the surrounding area by building some 30 bridges, viaducts, walking paths, and bicycle lanes. “None of this would have been built if it were not for the games,” he says. “But this is a 35-year project.”

Our tour ends near Tower Hamlets, a borough that may most represent London’s changes and contradictions. It’s tiny, encompassing only eight square miles, much of it former industrial dockland. But it’s the fastest growing borough, with an estimated 308,000 people, containing some of the city’s poorest enclaves, and some of the richest.

The borough has been a beachhead for newly arrived immigrants for three centuries. A landmark building encapsulates those layers of history: It was a meeting house for French Huguenots during the 18th century, then a synagogue for Jews fleeing Eastern Europe, and is now a mosque. The nearby streets have been renamed Banga Town, in celebration of the Bangladeshis, now Tower Hamlets’ largest immigrant group.

About 10 miles downriver, the Thames Barrier protects central London from tidal flooding, storm surges, and rising sea levels. Its 10 steel gates can be lifted as high as a five-story building.

The borough also takes in Canary Wharf, the third largest contributor to the U.K. economy. Among the tall buildings going up across London, 85 are being built in Tower Hamlets, more than any other borough. Many are part of an expansion to transform Canary Wharf into a livable community instead of just a workplace. It’s where uncertainty about Brexit’s effect on its thriving financial services industry is keenly felt. Some construction has paused. Rumours abound about banking jobs shifting to Paris or Frankfurt. In July, borough leaders set up a Brexit commission to deal with the consequences should jobs disappear and immigration limits be set. John Biggs, the mayor of Tower Hamlets (one of four boroughs with its own mayor), calls Brexit “the most significant change to impact on our country in a generation.”

That may be an understatement. When the U.K. leaves the European Union, says Centre for London’s Richard Brown, it will be the first time in centuries that London will be standing alone in the world.

“England went from being an imperial power with a long history as a trading empire, and then afterwards as a principal city within the EU,” says Brown. “The transition to this new status, whether as an unleashed global city or something less powerful, is quite dramatic.”

Still, optimism can be found in some Canary Wharf quarters. One of its newest additions, the station for the new Elizabeth Line, is a rail station for the ages, its seven stories loaded with retail, shops, cafés, a movie theatre, and a gym. But take the time to go all the way up to the roof. There, a “meridian garden” stretches out for nearly 300 metres (1,000 feet), with east and west 'hemispheres' neatly planted with flora native to countries visited by the ships of the West India Docks. I paused in the centre, at the dividing line where the hemispheres meet. We’re just a short boat ride from Greenwich, where longitude zero is located at the Royal Observatory. A replica of the prime meridian is here, another reminder that no matter what else befalls it, London remains at the centre of the world.

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