Blog Post

Beyond the neighbourhood: London’s complex geography

By Darryl Chen, Partner, Urban Design Sector Lead, Hawkins\Brown

Everybody needs good neighbours. So went the eponymous title song to the popular Australian soap opera. With a little understanding, we can find the perfect blend…. What we love about neighbourhoods is having good people close at hand, conveniences within a short walk, and the familiarity of an area in all of its detail – in a nutshell… their neighbourliness. This is something long cherished by families, understood by those with a secure foothold in the area, and appreciated by those moving through temporarily.

And then with the onset of the pandemic, we were suddenly confined to our homes, and the neighbourhood transformed overnight into an essential service provider. Coming out of lockdown, one might be forgiven for thinking that under the right conditions, with the right tweaks and improvements, village life could offer everything we need to conduct our lives, so long as there was enough access to amenities for everyone, an idea that has been popularised by concepts like the 15-minute city. But by concentrating our energies on making neighbourhoods better, are we leaving behind our metropolitan ambitions?

The true attractive power of London as a global city transcends the mere distribution of daily needs. We tell ourselves a half-truth when we say that London is a city of villages. We retreat into a myth of the pastoral, a sense that traversing the city is like hopping from common green to common green, farmers’ market to farmers’ market. Rather it is actually when these local centres mix, morph and meld together, when through some act of urban chemistry, they create new connections and patterns, that we realise that London’s ability to attract people, accommodate different cultures and adapt to change is underpinned by complex geography. Here are some geographical attributes — all transcending the neighbourhood — that need continued recognition in policymaking for London to thrive.

The centre will hold

We should expect that central London as a leading player on the global stage will reinvent itself as powerfully as it ever has through any of its historic crises. Parts of it will need to die off, before new entrepreneurialism, capital and creativity breathe new life in forms we never expected. The role of policymakers is to ensure a stable transition, one where new development builds on the successful ‘bone structure’ or street pattern, fine urban grain and architectural landmarks. The Oxford Street District Framework is a leading example of how to promote and accommodate incremental change which responds to new retail and leisure trends.

Oxford Street by Krists Luhaers Krists Luhaers

Strong armatures

There are many streets that offer a scale of association beyond the neighbourhood.
The old Roman roads now called Old Kent Road, Edgware Road and Clapham Road are great examples. They are the lifeblood of multiple neighbourhoods, as well as having a life of their own. They are both borders and attractors. Policy initiatives on the Kingsland Road and Lewisham’s A21 seek to intensify development and increase their sense of place through greening and sustainable transport.

Fringe benefits

The City Fringe was a phenomenon long before it was given a name. An area comprising Aldgate, Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Barbican, its character was originally formed through its relationship to the City of London, housing its imported goods, its craftspeople, and support functions as an integral apparatus of the City’s economic juggernaut. The term ‘City Fringe’ has become irrelevant now as new identities form in their own right – from Tech City to Brick Lane. Fringes are the petri dish of new neighbourhoods, where the unplanned, underrepresented and counter-cultural typically thrive. Arguably these should be left as areas of ‘non-plan’, where any policy would kill off the spontaneity of emergent economic, social and cultural forces.


Some urban developments form relationships between entities across the city that transcend the simple structure of neighbourhoods. They include development brands that spurn successful offshoots far from their originator, like Westfield Stratford City or Boxpark Croydon. Likewise urban developments like Battersea Power Station and the much-anticipated redevelopment at Earls Court aim to bring a sense of centrality to locations just outside central London. These developments transcend the neighbourhood, bringing transformation to an area much wider than their immediate surroundings. Such growth is the product of deliberate regeneration effort. We need the imagination to accommodate private sector driven initiatives that multiply successful innovations from elsewhere and take hold of latent opportunities while ensuring planning governance structures are overcome where projects do span borough boundaries.

London has grown and developed in myriad ways through advancements in infrastructure, the development of the economy, changing lifestyles, population shifts, war, pandemics. Its resilience and continued success on the world stage depends on the dense and rich spatial framework that forms a setting for the lives of Londoners. The emphasis on neighbourhoods may be a corrective to ensure a basic quality of life for Londoners, but we mustn’t lose sight of the complex pan-neighbourhood structures that have allowed London to evolve to respond to its challenges and opportunities. The 15-minute city is a failure of the imagination. London is not the sum of its neighbourhoods. Whether we are planners or politicians, designers or developers, let’s think beyond the simplistic city of villages and ensure London’s rich spatial structures continue to offer us all the global city we want.


Darryl is an urban designer with more than 15 years’ demonstrated expertise designing masterplans and promoting good design. He is a Partner at leading UK architecture practice Hawkins\Brown where he leads the urban design and research studio, delivering masterplans for brownfield sites, housing estates, campuses, science parks, districts and public spaces. He champions innovation within the practice under the auspices of the &\also thinktank, a research vehicle that informs project briefs, explores new markets and speculates on future directions for architecture and urbanism.