Urban Design Library

Centre for Urban Studies: London Aspects of Change

Urban Design Library #15
Ruth Glass

London Aspects of Change is a book which appears in the bibliographies of numerous urban studies books and papers through its association with the first coining of the term ‘gentrification’ in the introduction by the sociologist Ruth Glass. However, this singular reputation is a substantial misrepresentation of an important book, which has been out of print for too long. Not only is Ruth Glass’ introductory contribution an intense and brilliant portrait of London, which presents a series of observations that remain relevant to the contemporary scene, but the chapters that make up the remainder of the book are packed with fascinating empirical research and prescient comment on London. London Aspects of Change is a book that is relevant for those interested in the history of London and the development of urban studies, but also one which contains information which should resound with those concerned about London today.

The volume originates from the Centre for Urban Studies which was founded at University College London in 1958. This cross-disciplinary group was responsible for a number of academic papers and policy reports seeking ‘to contribute to the systematic knowledge of towns, and in particular of British towns’. In 1963 a symposium was organised to discuss the state of London at the time, bringing together a wide range of presentations that form the basis for this volume. Whilst the book may hardly be considered a complete survey of London in the 1950s and early 1960s, it provides a series of different analytical slants and specific case studies to explore the city. Ten chapters range from a historical account of the Nineteenth Century London Labour Market, as discussed by Eric Hobsbawm to a more contemporary account of Polish London by Sheila Patterson. In between, descriptions can be found of Tall Flats in Pimlico, a collaborative piece by the Centre for Urban Studies, Margot Jefferys’ Londoners in Hertfordshire, and The Structure of Greater London by John Westergaard – a piece that reflects advice given by the Centre for Urban Studies in advance of a reassessment of local government, which would lead to the creation of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965.

Each of these chapters is an invaluable historical document and ought to be revisited at least on that basis alone. Polish London for instance provides a detailed description of the post-war Polish community’s position in London, providing a longer historical perspective on this group’s role in the city, prior to recent patterns of migration. Hobsbawm’s careful survey of London’s labour market, and the role of various labour organisations in shaping the city during the 19th century, reveals a fascinating analysis of the role of labour relations in London’s development today. As a document of a certain point of time in London, the book as a whole provides a key record of a city that is emerging from rationing and entering a new era of economic liberalisation and consumerism. The mixture of generous depictions of 1950s social housing provision, yet gloom at the prospect of continued progress is powerful and painfully prescient.

One of the central themes in London Aspects of Change is the paradoxical nature of the city. Glass’ introduction opens with the lines ‘London can never be taken for granted. The city is too vast, too complex, too contrary and too moody to become entirely familiar’. In William Holford’s chapter The Changing Face of London he reflects on the density of housing provision in London thus: ‘As the quality of housing is improved its quantity is diminished’.

This book not only provides a view of the challenges and issues occupying the minds of urban studies scholars in this period, but it also seems to make the suggestion that London is by its nature contradictory. This book is full with intriguing details, and observations that continue to resonate. In the chapter on Tall Flats in Pimlico, the Centre for Urban Studies, which authored the report, notes various policy buzzwords that resemble some of the notions associated with the Blair-era Urban Task Force report. The scepticism surrounding notions such as ‘mixed living’ and ’community planning’ chime with the critique of the urban renaissance literature presented by Loretta Lees among others (2003). The book must also be recognised for its emphasis on the importance of migration, and that such issues cannot ‘be confined within the department of ‘minorities’ or ‘race relations’, but must be regarded as an integral part of the comprehensive, comparative study of social stratification’. This demand that questions of race, racism and migration must be fully integrated into the way we consider social difference in the city and not relegated to distant niches, remains relevant to contemporary research and planning.

London Aspects of Change belongs on the shelves of the modern urbanist in London and beyond, not just because of its association with gentrification but because the research remains pertinent, the thinking insightful, and the text lucid and vibrant.

URBAN DESIGN 134 Spring 2015 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 134 Spring 2015

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Read On

Campkin, Ben (2013) | Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture | I B Tauris
Glass, Ruth (1989) | Clichés of Urban Doom: And Other Essays | Basil Blackwell
Glass, Ruth (1960) | Newcomers: The West Indians in London | Centre for Urban Studies
Imrie, Rob, Loretta Lees, and Mike Raco (2009) | Regenerating London: Governance, Sustainability and Community in a Global City | Routledge
Gibson, S and Kerr, J eds. (2003) | London from Punk to Blair | Reaktion
Hebbert, M (1998) | London: More by Fortune than Design | John Wiley
Lees, L (2003) | Visions of ‘Urban Renaissance’: the Urban Task Force Report and the Urban White Paper, in Imrie,R. and Raco,M. (eds) Urban Renaissance? New Labour, community and urban policy | Policy Press: Bristol, pp.61-82

Centre for Urban Studies: London Aspects of Change Publication Urban Design Group
Macgibbon & Kee
Reviewed By
Sam Barton, PhD student in the Geography Department at UCL