London Urbanisation

London was first built by the Romans around 50 AD. Of course, then it wasn’t the major metropolitan city it is now -- that took time! London has gone through many changes, depending on the social, political, and economic systems in place throughout its long history. Much of the Roman infrastructure is, unfortunately, gone now, with only underground archaeological sites as proof of its roots. However, London is now a major city and deserves a closer look at its urban history and the kinds of challenges it faces. 

London Urbanisation London Urbanisation

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Table of contents

    London Urbanisation Case Study and City Profile

    London is the wealthiest and largest city in the UK. London's city profile, an overall picture of what's going on in a city, is best described as the economic, education, and media centre of not only the UK but the world. London now has over 9.5 million residents, with predictions to keep growing. It could soon become a megacity (a city with a population of 10 million)! Let's take a deeper dive into London's urbanisation as a case study.

    See the explanation on Megacities to learn more!

    London is recognised as a world city. It is considered one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world! There are also many opportunities London has to offer in terms of social, economic, and environmental. London has some of the world's top universities and over half of Londoners have a university degree. London is also a world financial centre, hosting many financial headquarters'. It has many recreational and cultural opportunities, with numerous museums, cinemas, and restaurants.

    A world city is usually a large and important economic city. It is strategic in creating and dispersing ideas and major processes around the world.

    All of these amenities have also led to more urban space, (e.g. building roads, buildings). We will discuss how London became so urbanised and the kinds of issues and challenges it's facing as a result.

    London Urbanisation London River Thames at sunset StudySmarterFig. 1 - River Thames in London, UK

    London Urbanisation History and Statistics

    In this section, we’ll take a look at London’s urbanisation history and demographics. Much of London’s urban history is directly linked with social, political, and economic changes which occurred. It may seem complex but we’ll keep it simple!

    History of London

    London was not always called London. The first recorded name under the Romans as Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain. With just a few structures along the River Thames, it was already the beginning of a hub for trade and commerce (buying and selling). Although the Romans later abandoned it, there were many historical invasions and population changes. Most notably, the Viking invasions in late 800 AD brought a major round of repopulation to London.

    London Urbanisation London Roman Building Remains StudySmarterFig. 2 - Roman Building Remains in London

    London experienced many changes in infrastructure and population. This was due to fires, plagues, and famines. Plagues and famines controlled population growth, never exceeding more than half a million inhabitants. Until better building material and medicine was introduced, London maintained a steady size and population.

    Two major disasters occurred in 1665 and 1666. The Great Plague of London in 1665 was a result of an epidemic of the Bubonic plague which killed 70,000 residents, with some estimates much higher. At the time, this was at least 20% of the population.

    The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the majority of buildings in London at the time. Most buildings at the time were built closely together and made of timber, which is highly flammable. Although there were very few deaths, the entire city of London had to be reconstructed.

    London Urbanisation Painting of the Great Fire of London 1666 StudySmarterFig. 3 - Great Fire of London 1666

    That was until the 1800s when rapid migration into London and rising fertility brought the population count to one million. By the 1900s, just a century later, the population had reached 8 million. This was mainly due to London’s strategic location and industrialisation which attracted young people from all over the world. This pattern remains true to this day.

    Industrialisation is the change in the economy from agriculture to producing goods (e.g. clothing, technology).

    London Urbanisation Statistics

    London is still rapidly growing, both in terms of size and population. There are a few important London urbanisation statistics that explain why. There are three main influences for the population changes in London. First, internal migration within the UK has trended lower for years. Some people move out of London but remain in the UK. This can be due to many reasons, including lower living costs in other regions.

    Second, international migration has remained very high. The historical trend of attracting young foreign immigrants is still true to this day. And third, natural increase has been positive, meaning there are more births than deaths, causing the population to continue naturally growing.

    Natural increase is the positive difference in the number of births and deaths in a given period.

    Internal migration, international migration, and natural increase are the main influences on London's population.

    London Urbanisation rate

    An important urbanisation statistic for London is its urbanisation rate. London's urbanisation rate is quite low (around 1% a year) but that's because most of the urbanisation occurred between 1800 and the 1940s. Much of the urban population was established during this time as industrialisation attracted many migrants into the city. Since then, the urbanisation rate has tapered off primarily due to World War 2, which decreased most European urban populations. London is still growing, however, with projections to become a megacity by 2050.

    The urbanisation rate is the change in urban population over some time.

    Urbanisation is the increasing proportion of people living in urban areas.

    London Urbanisation Problems

    Although London is a very culturally diverse and attractive city, it still faces many unique urbanisation problems due to historic and present-day urbanisation. Issues of urban inequality, affordable housing, urban sprawl, and urban pollution come up for many residents. See the explanation on Urban issues and challenges to learn more about these issues for other cities.

    London Urbanisation Illustration of two stick figures, one is holding 3 money bags while the other is only holding 1 StudySmarterFig. 4 - Economic inequality can lead to social conflicts such as segregation

    Urban Inequality and Affordable Housing

    London is highly unequal. While some of the wealthiest people in the world live in London, almost a third of Londoners live in poverty. This means there's unequal access to education, health, and housing. Schools in the poorest areas of London usually score much lower on their GCSEs compared to students in wealthier areas. Residents in wealthier regions also tend to live longer than residents in poorer areas.

    London's urban inequality can be seen based on different neighbourhoods. In East London, there are higher rates of poverty and unemployment than in the rest of London. This has to do historically with the placement of London's docks in the area and poor investment in transportation connections to prevent theft. However, as a result, many businesses chose not to build or develop there which worsens inequality in this area.

    Affordable housing is also another huge problem. Purchase and rental prices in London are some of the highest in the UK and the world, and they just keep rising! A lack of affordable housing means people must pay more of their income for housing. This means less money for other needs and services which contribute to further urban inequality.

    Urban Sprawl and Urban Pollution

    Due to a lack of affordable housing within central London, many residents move out to the suburbs where housing can be cheaper. This kind of housing is built on brownfield and greenfield sites. These sites are regular targets for development. Greenbelts, open land made of forest, farmland, or other recreationally green areas are protected by law and cannot be built on. However, the environmental effects of building on greenfield sites are also debated.

    This kind of development away from the urban core is considered urban sprawl. Urban sprawl can lead to more air pollution (e.g. particulate matter, CO₂) as more congestion and longer commutes occur. Urban sprawl can also lead to urban degeneration and dereliction. Urban degeneration is when a part of a city loses value and productivity, leading to dereliction, the abandonment and the decay of buildings. These are significant issues for cities as they also lead to greater waste and inequality for some districts over others.

    A brownfield site is an older urbanised area that's cleared for new development.

    A greenfield site is an open, undeveloped site, usually in the form of an area with grass and other vegetation.

    London Urbanisation Urban Sprawl in North London StudySmarterFig. 5 - Urban Sprawl in North London

    London's urbanisation problems also lead a lot of urban pollution, particularly air pollution. This is due to the high, historical urbanisation of the city. The city is large and has a dense road network and high-rise buildings creating many opportunities for the emission and trapping of harmful substances into the air. This lowers air quality leading to illness, disease, or death.

    London is also trying to mitigate the high amount of waste the city produces. The problems with high levels of waste have to do with the disposal and storage of waste, which can put a lot of pressure on sanitation systems. Recycling programs set in place aim to reduce the amount of rubbish that (unnecessarily) goes into landfills.

    London Urbanisation - Key takeaways

      • London experienced rapid urbanisation between 1800 and the 1940s.
      • The main causes for urbanisation then were rapid migration and high fertility due to London's location and industrialisation.
      • London has over 8 million residents and is set to become a megacity in 2050.
      • London's population is influenced by internal migration, international migration, and natural increase.
      • London has an urbanisation rate of around 1%.
      • Some urban problems London experiences are urban inequality, affordable housing, urban sprawl, and urban pollution.


    1. Fig. 2: Roman wall ( by Carole Raddato ( licensed by CC BY-sa 2.0 (
    2. Fig. 5: North London sprawl ( by Oxyman ( licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about London Urbanisation

    Is London urbanised?

    London is heavily urbanised. 

    What caused Urbanisation in London?

    Urbanisation was initially caused by rapid migration and high fertility. 

    What is the rate of Urbanisation in London?

    The rate of urbanisation is around 1%. 

    When did Urbanisation in London occur?

    Urbanisation initially occurred between the 1800s and the 1940s. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What influenced population in London after the 1800s?

    Why was London so attractive in the 1800s?

    How many people live in London now?

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