diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Where in the UK is the most densely-populated grid square?
That's the highest (resident) population in a single square kilometre.

Stats'n'maps expert Alasdair Rae has bashed the latest census data, because that's very much his thing, and confirmed that the most densely-populated grid square is in London. What's more, and what's amazing, is that he's pretty sure it's in Bow.

You can, and should, read his very long explanation of how he found this out because it's really very thorough.

In short he
• drew a 1km×1km grid across the UK
• extracted the population data for 18000 output areas from the 2021 census
• assigned population figures to each grid square
• looked for any grid square with a total population over 20000

When he looked for populations over 15000 this threw up 63 squares in London and one each in Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester and Brighton. But when it came to exceeding 20000 there were only three such squares, all of which were in the capital. One was around Lisson Grove (near Marylebone), one was in Upton Park (north of the station) and the third was in Bow (more specifically Bow Common close to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park). Even at this early stage Bow was winning.

To be more certain he started again with a different grid, then another and then another, because population doesn't necessarily respect randomly oriented grids. This threw up a slightly different set of winners but Bow Common was still on top, now with a population in excess of 24000. Jiggling the grid slightly to the east allowed him to find an almost-entirely-overlapping square topping 25000 and this appears to be the UK maximum. So I've been to have a look.

This isn't the well-known side of Bow, it's the southern edge nudging into Poplar - the E3/E14 borderlands. The grid square misses all the main roads hereabouts, instead slotted safely inside the triangle made by the A11, A12 and A13. It has very little industry and few significant shops. Amazingly it has no stations, only the Fenchurch Street line clipping one corner, and its chief bus routes are two intermittent single deckers. The most significant feature is probably the Limehouse Cut canal slicing diagonally across the centre. On the face of it there's nothing at all special about Bow Common, it's mostly postwar flats, and maybe that's the secret to its success.

First things first, it doesn't generally look like this.

There are hardly any terraced streets within the grid square, barely enough to count on one hand, because they've almost all been bombed or otherwise demolished. The area was known for its slums before the war and widespread bomb damage subsequently hastened their blanket replacement. Terraces are relatively compact but not as dense as flats so that's what the borough of Poplar chose to build instead. And what they didn't particularly do was build high, at least not round here, so Sleaford House in the photo is one of only two or three proper tower blocks in the square. Relentless low-rise flats, that's what's been built instead.

Many are postwar blocks in long rectangular style. My carousel of photos shows Mollis House (the jagged boundary abutting Furze Green), Gough Walk (connected by walkways, ramps and footbridges) and Augusta Street (a bland wall on the edge of the Lansbury Estate). Each cluster has a certain homogeneity but across the grid square there's considerable variety having been built at different times. A lot of these flats originally had accessible entrances that have since had to be gated and keypadded. The population of Tower Hamlets more than halved between 1945 and 1981 so this level of development was perfectly adequate to house those left behind.

As time went by the types of flats become more mixed. Squat blocks with a central atrium, stacks of hutches with corner balconies, postmodern confections with pastel stripes and peculiar lumps designed on an architect's whim - all were packed in together. Few of these resulted in sprawling nomanslands so there was rarely any need for mass regeneration, only piecemeal replacement in manageable chunks. Over the last 15 years much of the gridsquare has come under the umbrella of housing association Poplar HARCA, a powerful council spin off with over 9000 homes on its books. They've repaired and rejuvenated but also in many cases substantially rebuilt driven by a need for densification, and it may well be down to them that this grid square now packs so many people in.

Another reason is of course household size, because density comes down to not just the number of homes but also the size of the families living inside them. Over half the households in this part of Tower Hamlets contain dependent children which is comfortably above the borough average. My photos show very recent examples of houses attempting to cater for extended families - possibly multi-generational or with a lot of children. Technically they're terraced but also three or four storeys high to pack as many rooms as possible into what's still a narrow footprint. These examples are on Farrance Street and Masjid Lane and not yet commonplace, but they do demonstrate how you can increase density without always having to build flats.

Over the last decade bricky vernacular flats have started to take precedence, as they have elsewhere in inner London. These examples are from the (affordable) Leopold estate to the north of the square and the so-called New Festival Quarter to the south. This 'festival' branding was a shameless marketing wheeze to echo 1951's famous Lansbury Estate but in this case with no architectural flourish whatsoever. Here we find concierges and gyms encroaching on what's generally been a social housing neighbourhood, plus professionals buying apartments rather than families renting, but as yet this approach applies to a tiny fraction of the wider housing stock.

The Limehouse Cut has become a flashpoint for development as the warehouses that used to line the canal are sequentially replaced. Follow the towpath and a motley collection of balconied apartments look down on what was once grim and forgotten but is becoming prestige waterfront, with the height of the towers peaking around the bridge at Bow Common Lane. A few industrial units hold out along Thomas Road, should you need plumbing supplies or wonder where your Gorillaz home delivery bike originates from. But housing will always be the more valuable use of land, indeed the former jobcentre on Dod Street is currently in the process of being flattened to make way for 84 bland canalside flats.

You might expect the densest gridsquare in the UK to be light on open space but that's not the feeling you get if you walk around the area. Chief among the green offerings is Bartlett Park, a substantial recreational space that's been given a mighty spruce up recently and now even includes a coffee shop, a true local rarity. It's worth pointing out that before WW2 the park's footprint contained as many as ten squished terraced streets, so density hereabouts was once even higher. St Saviour's Church in the centre of the park was saved but that of course is now flats, while the loop of ordinary houses around it is merely a reminder that back in the 1980s nobody was trying to pack' em in.

It doesn't feel like the UK's most densely populated gridsquare, more like unfocused residential sprawl, but all those flats and families must add up. What's more there's plenty of scope for the population to rise even higher thanks to the regeneration of Bow Common gasworks on the northern edge of the square. This long vacant brownfield site has recently reached the 'flattening out and masterplan development' stage and is being lined up for another 1450 homes. Only 35% will be affordable, a fact which tends to bring in single professionals and keep families out, but this grid square could easily be knocking on a population of 27000 by the end of the decade.

Of course 25000 is nothing compared to some European cities, notably Paris and Barcelona, with at least one grid square in the latter exceeding 50000 residents. Britain doesn't really pack them in, the country isn't really full, especially if Bow Common is the worst it ever gets. My thanks to Alasdair for bashing the figures, and if you want more stuff like this you should be following him on Twitter or reading his blog.

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