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On suburbs (part 2: history)

Oh dear. In my first suburbs post, I forgot to include the most deeply-seated of my prejudices: history. Viz., the history of London, which I studied for my doctorate. Though it may seem odd, I actually started studying early modern London because of my interest in modern American urban development, and before I got my current swish job, I fully intended to pursue an urban planning degree back in the US after I finished my D.Phil.

One chapter of my thesis

focuses on the City of London and its relationship with the liberties in the century after the dissolution. It begins by considering the liberties in a metropolitan context, as just one part of the jurisdictional milieu in which the City and its governing Court of Aldermen operated. It puts the liberties in an historical context by considering their position vis-à-vis jurisdictional battles in provincial English cities, the rapid population growth of early modern London, and the faltering institution of sanctuary.

Here’s the rub on early modern London: in the 150 years after 1500, the population of exploded. Despite an extremely high mortality rate, the population went from around 40,000 to around 450,000 people. Over the same period, the percentage of the metropolitan population that lived within the City’s boundaries fell from 75% to 25%.

In a world before demography or economics existed, it’s not surprising that both the civic and national government couldn’t comprehend what was happening. In an effort to stem the growth, some half-hearted efforts were made by Parliament or the Privy Council to retard the growth by banning new construction. Those failed. Go figure.

What the City didn’t do, though, was expand its boundaries (apart from a half-hearted attempt in 1550 to govern a small area south of the river as Bridge Ward Without). As a result, London’s suburbs–everything other than the square mile of the City of London)–developed a cobbled-together system of government relying primarily on local parishes and the county administrations primarily of Middlesex and Surrey. As the metropolis continued to grow, it became obvious that this patchwork was not up to the task of governing what grew to be the largest conurbation in Europe and eventually the world. By the early 19th century it was obvious some services had to be superimposed on top of “London”, and so the Metropolitan Board of Works and the Metropolitan Police evolved into being.

It wasn’t until the Local Government Act, 1888 that things were put right. That means the unwillingness of the mid-16th century aldermen to annex the growing areas immediately outside their jurisdiction went uncorrected for 350 years. Ouch.

Back to the present: I think American cities have made the same mistakes since the end of WWII. The GI Bill’s home loan provisions, the building of the interstate highway system and several other mid-20th century phenomena worked together to suburbanise large swathes of the United States, much to the detriment of our quality of life–then, now, and in the decades to come.

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