What’s going on and what does it mean for city planners?
London was the world’s biggest city for a hundred years until overtaken by New York in 1925. From it’s 1939 peak of 8.6 million London had lost two million people by the 1980s, but then began to grow again.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics released this week show just how fast this growth has become – around 125,000 more Londoners a year. London is now forecast to finally top it’s 1939 peak as soon as 2016. By 2021 the ONS thinks London will have overtaken the South East as England’s most populous region.
Looking further ahead, by 2031 London is expected to top 10 million people, joining the world’s growing group of “megacities” (although some would argue the wider London region, beyond its adminsitrative boundaries, already qualifies it as a 10 million strong megacity).
London has always been a city of migration – both in and out. It’s population is swollen by young adults from the rest of the country and beyond, but until recently this was matched by older people quitting the city.
That balance has changed, but the surprising thing is that the biggest contribution to London’s growth is now not migration by what demographers call “natural growth” – a high and rising birth rate. Last year 135,000 new Londoners were born, but only 49,000 Londoners died.
London is going to grow, but is going to remain one of the youngest cities in Europe. And the growth is spread across the city, although strongest in outer and east London. It’s not inevitable, of course, and economic and demographic circumstances change, but the remarkable thing about the ONS forecasts is that London’s population is forecast to grow so much despite their assumption that the baby boom will level off, and that net in migration will fall.
What does megacity London mean? Above all it is going to mean huge investment. Houses for a couple of million more people. Schools for 130,000 more children. And more transport capacity – Crossrail may have to be only the start. It is also going to mean higher densities, which puts a premium on environmental quality.
But while the cost of this investment will be huge, the benefits could be enormous too. It means a growing tax base and a huge workforce. More workers bring economic “agglomeration benefits” – the idea that the whole can become greater than the sum of the parts.
Having 10 million Londoners can increase overall productivity and prosperity, if we invest and build for them now.