London Calling: how London seems to have changed in the last fifteen years…

I moved back to London in the spring after a fifteen year absence in Edinburgh. People keep asking me what changes I have noticed, and I thought I’d jot some thoughts down. I grew up in London and lived here on and off until the mid 1990s – through the depression of the 70s, the yuppification of the 80s and the boom and bust of the 90s. Of course, my observations are completely anecdotal, and I am certain I have changed as much as London, and I am hanging out with different people in different parts of the city. But still…

  • London seems really busy. The West End seems packed to bursting the whole time, but the outer environs seem crowded till late at night, too
  • it feels like there is a lot of money around – pubs and restaurants are heaving at all times of day and night, shops are busy (though that might be because most of them seem to have closing down sales on!)
  • at the same time, it feels like there is more inequality around too – more rich and more poor
  • it seems like a much more cosmopolitan place – there is a far wider variety of accents and languages spoken in all social strata. This could be because I am venturing further afield, into parts of London with a higher proportion of immigrants, or it might be a reflection of social changes
  • transport also seems really crowded: off-peak tubes are as full as rush hour tubes used to be, and rush hour tubes are now hellish; the North London line – a small overground railway which runs from Richmond in the west to Stratford in the east – used to be a deserted backwater, never busy and seemingly ripe for closing down: now it is standing room only (and not just at the rush hour)…
  • transport seems much more co-ordinated and joined up – either the introduction of Oyster cards or the creation of Transport for London seems to have changed the way transport actually works
  • but there is so much engineering work going on at the moment that the transport network – at least the bits that aren’t buses – grinds to a halt at weekends. This is a good thing, inasmuch as it is investing for the future (albeit that, at least as London Overground goes, this future is designed to serve the 2012 Olympics) – but it is still a pain
  • no pub is just a pub any more: they all seem to have become gastro-pubs; on the other hand, they seem much brighter and lighter than they used to be – and the smoking ban makes them much more pleasant places to be. (The Scottish Government brought in a smoking ban a couple of years before their English counterparts.)
  • public spaces are used much more. This is most obvious in Trafalgar Sq, where the pedestrianisation has opened up the space to passersby – seeing the square crowded with people – locals and visitors, it would appear – sitting around eating, drinking and talking makes it seem positively continental. The desire for people to sit at pavement tables outside restaurants and pubs seems a little bizarre to me – perhaps another result of the smoking ban: and at least the diners and drinkers can get a double dose of toxins – from both their cigarettes and traffic polution
  • a lot more people seem to cycle and walk than they used to – possibly down to the city’s congestion charge in the West End and the City

I’m sure other thoughts will surface over time, and maybe these will fade as I become a more fully integrated Londoner again; maybe I’ll get used to the crowded tube. London seems to be thriving – it has got by very well without me – but it isn’t as easy to livein than Edinburgh.

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