Monday 12 July 2010, 17:14
Editor's note: Tony Travers is Director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics and a contributor to Radio 4's London: Another Country. Here, he responds to this morning's #GreatestCity debate with a short essay about London's status as a 'world city' - SB
London can be a difficult place - the scale of vast cities can challenge human comprehension. It is also incredibly spread out, with its eight million people covering about 700 square miles of land. But what makes it so rewarding is its extraordinary mixture of people and history, combined with a relentless capacity to rejuvenate and re-create itself.
Between two and three million of today's Londoners were born overseas - the number is inevitably imprecise. There are dozens of national and/or ethnic groups from each continent. Having so many people from different countries makes the city almost unique. Given the short period over which many of them have arrived and their epic diversity, London remains tolerant and, overwhelmingly, peaceful.
Such numbers of people from so many different starting-points inevitably creates opportunities for an endless series of experiences and experiments for anyone who lives in or visits the city. London is also a big Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English town, creating powerful (if complex) links to the rest of the UK.
The city's history is etched in its buildings and streets. Dozens of beautiful books are published each year about London, making it possible to access more and more detail about what happened in the past in these same buildings and streets. Films are also an easily-accessed way of reliving modern history: for anyone who wants to be reminded what 'docklands' looked like before Canary Wharf and about the way in which developers can change the face of the city The Long Good Friday is an entertaining way to do so.
In recent years, the creation of a directly-elected mayor for London has further enhanced the city's image and importance. Given this power and epic size, it is hardly surprising people elsewhere in the UK often see London as too dominant and too powerful. However, once London had been allowed - during the 1920s and 1930s - to become a city of eight million people within a super-region of almost 20 million, there was no way back. The economic benefits of being so populous and with such a large entrepreneurial economy within a relatively small geographical area have given London massive economic importance both within Britain and overseas.
In recent years, an academic literature has emerged about 'world' or 'global' cities. London has always featured as one of the top two or three locations within any list of such places. In terms of its economic importance, its links to the rest of the world, its political/social tolerance and the extraordinary 'world within a city' make-up of its population, it can rationally be compared with Paris, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai or Shanghai.
Other British urban centres have significantly redeveloped in the past 20 years, narrowing the gap between them and London. The UK has a large number of major cities, creating an 'urban system' where each can benefit from the other. Complementary development rather than negative competition is undoubtedly the best way for all to succeed. City life is not for everyone, but for those who do like it the rewards can be enjoyed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. London is, and has always been, a place of opportunity.
Tony Travers is an academic specialising in London and a contributor to Kwame Kwei-Armah's The London Story
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