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London’s Burning?


Moving to London can feel like a rite of passage. An inevitable migration of your twenties, chasing jobs that just don’t exist anywhere else. For young people, London is also prohibitively, cripplingly expensive. 

If you were to draw up a list, you’d have pro’s in one column: like friends, nightlife, culture. In the other, con’s: cost of living, cost of renting, lack of space. It’s inexplicably, perfectly even. For all the faults of living in a capital city, it was where you wanted to be. 

That is, until the pandemic obliterates the pro’s. Without the bars, clubs, restaurants and venues that give the city it’s beating heart, are the empty streets worth the price tag? At the same time, the average size of new build flats in the UK – already the lowest in Europe – is getting smaller and smaller. By 2014 the average had fallen to just 65 square metres. Meaning, a large number of homes don’t function as homes, let alone offices as well. 

Some were already on their way out. Research Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that the number of workers in their 20s leaving London since 2017 rose by 26%, with over 100,000 leaving in 2018 alone. 54% because they’d given up hope of ever owning a house in the capital and 30% cited the city’s high living costs as a factor. 

Of course, WFH doesn’t require H to be within the capital. Living in London may no longer be a prerequisite to success. Some say it had been stifling it. Young people have increasingly little chance of owning a home, and the lifestyle the city demands is often far bigger than what most of London’s young workforce currently earn. Ten weeks inside may just be the last straw.

The pandemic hit those in cities the hardest, quite literally because cities weren’t designed with pandemics in mind. But we aren’t drawn to cities for their urban planning. We’re not attracted to them just for their cultural accolades. We come to them for the communities that don’t stop existing when shop doors close.

You don’t stay in London for the infrastructure that has failed us, but the people that give it it’s beating heart. Cities have an objectively bad reputation. We’re breathing in bad air on the daily. In fact, 91% of us live in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO’s guidelines. But if the number of people socially distancing are any indication, it seems Londoners don’t give a f*** about their health. 

Since the first outbreaks of the plague, urban environments have been associated with sickness and the countryside with wellbeing. So much so, Glasgow is still known as the “sick man of Europe” on account of its higher mortality rates. And yet we’re inexplicably attracted to them. 

For the first time, more people globally now live in cities than outside of them. Young people’s draw to cities is so strong, one study identified “youthification” as a strand of gentrification. Young people need an environment that challenges them. They need their worldviews torn down, and their assumptions checked. 

According to a study by University College London (UCL), risk-taking behavior peaks during adolescence. As an adolescent’s social-emotional system matures, they crave stimulation and challenge. The safety and comfort of home, wherever that may be, stops us from evolving beyond the status quo. So it seems we have an instinctive need for the everyday drama of city life.

It’s a mindset that historically, wanes after we reach certain milestones, and we retreat from city life. Get a dog, have kids, buy a wax jacket. Drama is famously absent among Boomers, Gen X and now older Millennials, who favour the idyll of suburbia or rural living to fulfil their dreams of selling a kitchen table enterprise for a retirement worthy sum of money. 

But a new study has found not only have young people driven the urban resurgence of the past two decades, but now they favour living in central urban neighborhoods far more than past generations did at the same stage in life. So maybe the labradors of the home counties will become an endangered species if the current generation doesn’t follow the paths of the last?

The reason megacities are thriving is not their seamless infrastructure, or overflowing job opportunities, and it certainly isn’t the cost of living. It’s because in the SELFHOOD age, this generation realise they need diversity, in communities, amongst friendship groups and neighbours, within their dialogue, creativity and critical thinking. They need connected environments that foster ideas and creativity. Innovation needs an ecosystem. 

The reason London is thriving, is because young people are burning the narrow bridges of the generations before them. 

As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker: “Emptiness and absence contradict the very concept of the city.” And in the last week, London has been anything but empty. It has shown itself as an epicentre of diversity on the one hand and a place of uniformity and mono-brained bigotry on the other. The battle for the city is not over, but London isn’t burning yet.