LONDON - When Charles Dickens wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in the 19th century, he was trying to capture the spirit of two history-soaked European capitals, London and Paris, in the days before and during the French Revolution. If Dickens were alive today, though, he could write a book of the same title without ever leaving London.
The city is in the midst of a physical transformation greater than any it’s seen since the post-World War II era. The museums, monuments, cathedrals and palaces that have lured foreign tourists for centuries are still there, but new developments are changing London’s character in significant and controversial ways.
“Despite what visitors may expect, we’re not all thatched cottages, beams and Tudor,” says Peter Murray, director of the London Festival of Architecture.
What visitors found when they arrived in the past - a mainly low-rise skyline punctuated by a handful of high-rise structures - reflects decades of strict adherence to building restrictions in the city center.
The upscale West End is full of Edwardian, Georgian and Victorian structures, sprawling royal parks and government buildings. The East End, which was heavily bombed by the Nazis during World War II, contains a hodge-podge of mostly nondescript 20th century office buildings, St. Paul’s Cathedral and scattered remnants of the ancient merchants’ quarter.
Now, London is spreading outward, gentrifying its grittier pockets and - in a few notable instances - thrusting further upward. The current economic downturn has put some high-rise projects on hold, but plans are moving ahead for a dramatic 72-story building, dubbed “the Shard,” to be built near Tower Bridge with the backing of Qatari investors. Forecast for completion in 2012, it will be Britain’s tallest skyscraper and one of the tallest in Europe.
Despite the oft-cited objections of Prince Charles to modern architecture - saying a new skyscraper will mean “not just one carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend, but a positive rash of them that will disfigure precious views and disinherit future generations of Londoners” - the city has proven more accepting of the modern in recent years.
Murray said that when the prince, who favors “traditional, neo-classical” architecture, sponsored a design competition for buildings near St. Paul’s Cathedral, “people went for more contemporary design than his more traditional view of the world.”
Ken Livingstone, the London mayor who lost a bid for re-election earlier this year, was a key ally for developers pushing bold projects. It was during Livingstone’s tenure that a 40-story, pickle-shaped office tower known as “the Gherkin” opened in the financial district several years ago. The building, initially reviled by many Londoners, has become more beloved over time.
Even Canary Wharf, an earlier development of nearly identical glass towers built to house financial and retail businesses on once-derelict docklands, gained popularity in recent years. Whether commercial real estate prices hold up in the financial crisis when high-profile international tenants have been so hard hit remains to be seen.
Europe’s largest revitalization project is currently unfolding in the Thames Gateway, an area stretching 40 miles east of the city center on both sides of the River Thames.
Work in the area is currently focused on the future site of the 2012 Olympic Games, but almost half of the capital’s new housing is due to be built in the gateway in coming years. There will also be acres of parkland, recreational space and commercial zones in an area long known for its poor population and derelict industrial sites. Two new stations along the Eurostar high-speed rail line, which links London to Paris and Brussels, have been added in the area in the past year.
A smaller revitalization project near the city center got a boost in October when the U.S. Embassy announced plans to move to a gritty industrial patch south of the Thames from its current home on posh Grosvenor Square - where neighbors have balked at the embassy’s expanded security requirements - if Congress approves and local planning permission is granted. The Embassy reportedly looked at some 70 properties in London over two years before settling on the five-acre site in Nine Elms, near Vauxhall.
Three key factors - years of economic growth, a population explosion and a successful bid to host the Olympics - are behind many of the changes reshaping London. During the 1990s the city’s financial sector took off, boosting overall prosperity and luring high-flying financiers from around the world.
At the same time, Britain opened its doors to a flood of workers from Eastern and Central Europe whose countries joined the European Union in 2004, allowing them visa-free entry. As a result, London’s population increased by about 542,000, or 8 percent, to 7.56 million, from 1997 to 2007. The Office for National Statistics has said that the population could hit 8.8 million in two decades.
However, new construction failed to keep pace, as much of the city’s infrastructure - roads, subway system, train lines and airports - grew more dated and overcrowded.
“Britain is notoriously, appallingly slow about making its mind up about big projects,” says Paul Cheshire, an expert on applied urban economics at the London School of Economics.
Cheshire partly blames a “labyrinth” of government bodies and other organizations that are involved in decisions on big projects. He says past policies of both major political parties added to the woes: The Labor Party, whose strength has traditionally been in the north and west of Britain, long underinvested in London’s infrastructure, and then tension between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and local officials in the 1980s meant that “all city-level government was abolished,” leaving a hodgepodge of borough offices to manage on their own. A new citywide organization, the Greater London Authority, wasn’t created until 1998.
Current plans, if they can be fulfilled, are ambitious. On the housing front, London’s target is to build 30,000 new houses per year, although Murray thinks the figure needs to be trimmed due to the economic slowdown. Housing prices, still quite high by international standards, have been sinking in recent months.
On the transportation front, Eurostar - and its new London hub at the refurbished St. Pancras station - has proven popular with Londoners. Plans for other transportation projects, however, have sparked ongoing controversy.
Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport and the biggest of five near London, is consistently rated one of the worst in the developed world by business travelers. The government is expected to announce shortly whether it will build a third runway. If the runway is built, opponents fear that the current annual flight limit of 480,000 at Heathrow could go as high as 720,000, generating additional aircraft noise and carbon emissions.
There’s fierce opposition to Heathrow expansion in the neighborhoods and suburbs already bombarded with aircraft noise. “It’s gotten worse over the years, and I suspect it will become unbearable,” says John Williams, a retired scientist from Shepperton, as he watched a line of planes come in for landing over the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, a leafy western neighborhood. “When one (plane) comes over, you can look up and see the next one already to come in behind it.”
Residents say the flights begin at 4:30 many mornings, jolting them from their slumber. During the day phone conversations and school lessons stop until the noise recedes, and weddings are scheduled to coincide with quieter hours when an alternative runway is in use.
Despite the objections, Cheshire predicts that the government will approve a new runway.
Other big infrastructure proposals include an east-west rail link across London, and Boris Johnson, the new mayor, has commissioned a study to consider building a new international airport offshore in the Thames estuary, with high-speed rail links to both London’s center and continental Europe.
The success of all these projects depends not only upon political will, but also on funding. And that, in these tougher economic times, cannot be taken for granted. For all the grand plans, Murray said, “the current economic situation is clearly changing the speed at which these things can be done.”
(Sell is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)