The City of London: Constantly Changing but Forever Historic

This article has been amended from its original version for added clarity. 

What is the smallest city in the United Kingdom with 7,375 (2011 Census) residents? If you said the City of London, you are correct! This is due to the City of London being only 1.12 square-miles, which is why it is referred to as the “Square Mile.” Expanding outward into Greater London, the population rises slightly to an estimated 8.63 million (2015 Greater London Authority Estimate) residents. Expanding once more to the entire metropolitan area, it is the largest in Europe with an estimated 13,879,757 residents. How planning for a city in the middle of a metropolitan area 1,882% larger than itself works is a question we seek to answer as we head to our interview with Gwyn Richards, Assistant Director of Development Design for the City of London.

Riding Cycle Superhighway 7 into the city, we arrive at The City Center to meet with Gwyn. The City Center is a venue initiated by The City of London as a place to learn about the Square Mile. The focal point of the center is a 1:500 interactive model of the City’s built environment. Gwyn explains to us how the model is used not only as an educational exhibit, but also as an important decision-making tool, where new development proposals can be viewed and analyzed through its context of neighboring occupants and buildings, nearby facilities and public transportation. The center also features meeting, board and conference rooms to help facilitate these discussions between the planning office and architects of developments that are seeking planning permission.

London City Model. Photo by Ian Visits on Flickr.

London City Model. Photo by Ian Visits on Flickr.

Gwyn’s main role is ensuring that new developments fit contextually with the surrounding historical context of the city and contribute to the public realm. A major component of preserving historical context is preserving sightlines to specific landmarks, with the largest being St. Paul’s Cathedral. There are numerous points around the city and Greater London from which the vista to St. Paul’s cannot be interrupted. Utilizing the city model, new projects can quickly be analyzed to ensure they do not obstruct the vistas.

St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Gwyn also highlights the fact that the city model allows for smoother development approval. When a developer is drafting a new development, they can now bring in a prototype of the development at a 1:500 scale, put it in the model and talk with the planning department about potential issues that need to be addressed before planning permission would be granted the model is used to assist in visualizing the wider impact of the development proposal, with developers commissioning separate models for their individual project. This process greatly reduces the items that must be addressed post-submission, reducing the timeline and cost of the design phase of development. Without this collaboration on the project before the application being submitted, the timeline from initial submission to development approval can often stretch from months to years, as the city requests changes, the developer submits a revised plan, which must be reviewed again and so on.

The old and new of London.

The old and new of London.

Another large focus of the City’s planning department is making sure that new tower developments are accessible to everyone in London, not just the people that work there. To achieve this goal, public access must be provided, generally on the top floor free of charge (commonly in the form of public art galleries). Gwyn comments on the influence of recent social movements spurred on by the burst of the market bubble, movements that questioned who really benefited from most of the new buildings being built in the “Eastern Cluster,” the area reserved for skyscrapers in the Square Mile. In response to this public concern, the City has initiated a new era of unrestricted, easy public access to new developments in the Eastern Cluster; inclusive design is now a crucial part of new proposals in the Square Mile. Through providing public access and designs which are inviting and complement the surrounding context rather than acting as intimidating fortresses, it is hoped that a greater sense of public ownership will be realized as the Square Mile becomes more inclusive instead of exclusive (Robyn and I tried going to the top of a tower that had a café, but were turned away because we did not have a reservation). This move extends to the people working in these buildings as well, as the city progresses towards flexible commercial space, in which common areas such as copy machines and break rooms are shared, moving away from singular, large units. There is also greater attention to detail at street level, where the space around a building’s footprint used to result in “dead space,” or simply a space that people move through rather than gather in.

New development and enhanced public realm coming soon (once the falling bolt issue is resolved).

New development and enhanced public realm coming soon (once the falling bolt issue is resolved).

Moving on, Gwyn touches upon a topic that is of great importance to solar-powered Robyn: sunlight angles for residential buildings. This is part of the reason why high-rise development in the City of London is restricted to the Eastern Cluster – residential buildings are not allowed near towers due to the reduced sunlight. There are minimum standards of sunlight that residential buildings must attain, which is not possible when in the shadow shed of high-rise buildings. Back in the United States, New York City has a distinctive skyline with “wedding cake” buildings, which taper as they rise. This is to ensure sunlight reaches street level, and has been the standard for decades. However, the standards are not as strict as London which deals with residential sunlight minimums, and the development boom in Mid-Town and around Central Park over the past few years have come with complaints from existing residents about loss of sunlight access due to taller buildings being constructed.

Finally on the topic of historic preservation, Gwyn surprises us with the news that the City of London does not spend huge sums on historic preservation due to the vast majority of the City’s buildings being under private ownership. However the City does spend significant resources on the buildings they do own, such as Leadenhall Market, Guildhall, Tower Bridge, etc. Rather, when a developer comes in with a proposal, preservation elements are a stipulation of approval for the project. This method is possible in a city which has a commercial occupancy rate greater than 95% and huge unmet housing demand, but is not always easy in more depressed cities in which development must be incentivized. Gwyn points out numerous projects in and around the Eastern Cluster which have had historic preservation components, from a bank turned bar to preservation of old coffee house facades which date back from the mid to late 1800’s, the beginning of the market economy in London.

Historic market in the center of London.

Historic market in the center of London.

Along with showing us the fascinating London city model, Gwyn took Robyn and I on a detailed tour around the Square Mile, guiding us through medieval alleys, historic markets, and post-modern skyscrapers, pointing out the numerous instances in which the planning department guided redevelopment to better complement the historical context of the surrounding cityscape. While there is a large effort to retain London’s historic look and feel, new development and styles of development are necessary for the city to retain its status as a major economic engine. Many modern buildings have become iconic structures in London, such as the Lloyd’s building (The Inside-Out Building), 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) and of course 20 Fenchurch Street (The Walkie-Talkie). Gwyn informed us of a little mishap that the city experienced with The Walkie-Talkie in 2013 in which the design and orientation of the building acted as a concave mirror for the sun, focusing sunlight onto the street with such intensity that ground temperatures of up to 243 were observed. This glare issue resulted in the partial melting of parked vehicles and scorched doormats in buildings within the affected area. Needless to say, Gwyn’s department worked with the developer to implement a solution to the problem, and are now in the process of evaluating the effect of the building on street-level winds.

"Wind-skirt" to minimize drafts created by the tower at street level.

“Wind-skirt” to minimize drafts created by the tower at street level.

During our time with Gwyn we were introduced and exposed to some of the complex inter-workings that take place in London’s development and redevelopment decisions. In an effort to reduce some of these complexities, London has introduced numerous measures, the most visible being the London City Model. Utilizing the model for new development proposals, it has been possible to greatly streamline the development application process while not compromising the historic character of the City. Thanks again to Gwyn for taking the time to meet with us and share the story of ever-evolving London.



  1. Diane Keefe

    Fascinating! You had a one of a kind tour that most people would not even have thought about. I did not realize that St. Louis and London are similar in their geography with St. Louis City, St. Louis County and surrounding Metropolitan area. HMMM!

    Did you make it to Picadilly Square and see the doubledeckers?

    Diane xoxo

  2. DeeDee

    Enjoyed reading your post Kyle. It was interesting and informative. It seems like Gwyn was a great guide – bet that tour of the Square Mile was wonderful. Londons scale model reference guide would be useful to the Planners of Midtown and Central Park it sounds like.
    I look forward to reading more posts in future.
    Love you.

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