London’s West End has long been the beating, human heart of the capital, drawing visitors – its lifeblood – from across London, the UK, and the globe. It is a unique collection of historic urban neighbourhoods, comprising houses, flats, cultural institutions, restaurants, shops, hotels, clubs, theatres, and other attractions. It is a major academic, health and business centre, and the core of London’s creative industries, as reflected by the outsized contribution that it makes to the national economy.
Since its emergence in the 17 and 18th centuries between the City of London, the centre of commerce, and the stately City of Westminster, the West End has proved remarkably resilient – perhaps in part because of the broad base of activities and businesses it has always housed. The narrow streets and historical architecture make it physically unlike the commercial and entertainment centres of other global capital cities. Compared to the glass and steel towers of Tokyo’s Shibuya or New York’s Midtown, or to the wide boulevards of the 8th arrondissement of Paris, the built form of the West End is of a small, intimate, more human scale. Its high streets and markets reflect the different characters and specialities (tailors and men’s fashion in Savile Row and Jermyn Street; restaurants, clubs and bars in Soho; theatres and boutiques around Covent Garden; art galleries in Cork Street), offering rich diversity in a relatively small geographic space.
But the coronavirus pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge for the social centre of the city. Physical distancing has suppressed the West End’s visitor economy for months, while accelerating the digitalisation of retail, the shift to remote work and the virtual delivery of high street services. Although it remains to be seen how long the changes to behaviour caused by lockdown will last, the impact has been dramatic. Prior to the pandemic, central London’s population would swell by as much as 80 per cent each day, as commuters and tourists flocked to the capital’s core. Without this influx of visitors, the ecosystem of the West End is under threat. The area is home to just 65,000 residents, too few to sustain local services and businesses while visitor numbers are down. 1
How is London’s centre recovering from the pandemic? What can be done in the short to medium term to re-animate London’s beating heart, and does recovery offer the opportunity to address some of the West End’s longstanding challenges of affordability, liveability and sustainability?