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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May 2017 > The nowhere neighbourhood

The nowhere neighbourhood

London is building a new district where no local can afford to live

T here haven’t been elm trees in Nine Elms, in south west London, for 300 years. When the railway reached the south bank of the Thames at Battersea in 1838, the area was a swamp dotted with windmills. By the end of the 19th century, when Charles Booth mapped the socio-economic classes of London, the area was industrial, and included a coal wharf, a saw mill, gasworks and coke works. A few tenement streets were marked in black which, according to Booth’s categorisations, designated “the lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal.”

On the A-Z London map from 2000, there are no longer any residential streets in the area. Instead there are only the brown outlines of HM Stationery Office, New Covent Garden Market, a Sorting Office and Battersea Power Station (disused). Two access roads end in a beige unmarked territory, as if there were nothing there at all.

Recently I cycled along Nine Elms Lane through grit sprayed up by the cement trucks grinding past. It is a noisy place of metal thunderclaps and jack-hammer drilling. Muddy builders in fluorescent yellow vests man temporary traffic lights and cranes loom over the plywood construction hoardings. Among all this building work still stands the famous silhouette of Battersea Power Station, its four 103-metre chimneys in various stages of destruction and reconstruction.

The 40 acres of the old power station development are the centrepiece of the vast Nine Elms “Opportunity Area,” which encompasses not only the power station site but a giant swathe of the Borough of Wandsworth and part of neighbouring Lambeth. The numbers are huge: £15bn of investment, 25 different sites to be built over 25 years, 16 developers, 16,000 new homes, 25,000 new jobs and over half a million square metres of mixed use development. There will be office blocks, residential towers, and a redeveloped New Covent Garden Market. “London’s Diplomatic Quarter” proclaim the advertising posters around the moat of the new American Embassy, a shiny cube covered with an exoskeleton of halberd-shaped spike-arcs. The Dutch Embassy is also relocating south of the river and the Chinese are apparently interested in moving from their gloomy Portland Place mansion. There will be two new tube stations along a Northern Line extension. There are even plans for a footbridge across the river to Pimlico (although Pimlicans are up in arms). Nine Elms is the largest development in London and when it’s done, the capital will have filled a wasteland with a whole new neighbourhood. It will take a generation to build.

After almost a century of urban sprawl towards the home counties, London is turning back again to face the river and rediscovering its canals—no longer moving out but moving back in. Moving east, there is a new “International Quarter” around the Olympic Park in Stratford, a new postcode, N1C, at King’s Cross, and “London’s Emerging Cultural District” is rising out of abandoned docklands on the Greenwich Peninsular. The artists’ impressions of what to expect describe clean and modern lines, green lozenges of lawn, glass balconies with a bicycle and a café table for two. The architecture cuts new lines through the Victorian-Georgian terraces of London, just as it is doing in Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Wendell Steavenson is a writer and journalist
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In Prospect’s May issue: Neal Ascherson, Simon Jenkins, John Curtice and Frances Cairncross examine the growing divide between England and Scotland. Ascherson argues that England has become Scotland’s “neurotic neighbour,” while Jenkins says we should learn from history and prepare for Scotland to leave the Union. Cairncross and Curtice debate whether Scotland could afford to break with England and whether a fresh referendum on independence is actually winnable. Also in this issue: Jason Burke questions whether the world will be a safer place after the downfall of Islamic State, Paul Hilder examines how politics got tangled in the web and Michael White reviews a new book charting the history of the Daily Mail