Urban oncology

Seen from the air, any sufficiently large city bears a startling resemblance to a great tumour, inexorably spreading through its host tissues.

London is no exception. In fact, London is almost preternaturally cancer-like, even as large cities go. No other settlement of comparable size or age has grown quite so ‘organically’ as London has, which is a polite way of saying ‘with virtually no evidence of central planning whatsoever’. The result is that the city has thrown out great sinuous limbs, snaking blindly through the green matrix of the Thames valley like the questing tendrils of white hyphae that make up a mat of fungal mycelium, probing here and there for moisture or nutrients to exploit and enveloping or digesting any pre-existing structure that stands in its path.

This is not to say that attempts to regulate the city’s layout haven’t been made. Reconstruction after the Great Fire, the huge westwards push in the late 18th century that created Fitzrovia, Marylebone and Mayfair, another great spurt a century later when the railways enabled commuting for the first time, suburban development between the Wars and the rise of high-density inner-city housing and satellite towns during the post-war building boom; all these were undertaken in a spirit of municipal orderliness, of urban symmetry, utility and rationalism. Yet the atavistic tendency of London towards chaos and cheerful disorder inevitably infected these designs, subverting and perverting them through infinitesimal degrees – an unforeseen budget cap here, an indispensable green space or historic building there, the competing ideals and egos of architects, planners and politicians – until, inevitably, compromise reigned supreme and streets and squares were laid out almost as if placed there at random. The entropophilic tendencies of the laws of thermodynamics apply equally well to urban systems as to physical ones, and nowhere do these laws apply more stringently than in London.

This should not be seen as a failing, of course. It is through the chaotic mish-mash of streets, parks, waterways – and ages, styles, purposes – that London draws its characteristic resilience and sometimes paradoxical charm. Not for this town the wide boulevards and orderly circuses of Haussmann’s Paris, or the regular grid structure of New York, Chicago or almost any other American city; the small patches of London where some sense of order prevails seem all the more out of place by juxtaposition with the chaos around them. Some sections of the city’s antique core are so convoluted that they defy Euclidean geometry altogether; one can walk in as straight a line as the narrow lanes and winding passages will allow, only to find one has described almost a full circuit. Similar principles apparently apply to the major thoroughfares and both surface and sub-surface train lines alike; in London, one can commute in the everyday sense of the word while one’s routes refuse adamantly to commute geometrically.

This bizarre property is no doubt linked to the status of London as a sort of financial black hole; the M25 demarcates the event horizon, through which money only ever pours inwards, reaching a point of seemingly infinite density at the singularity represented by the Square Mile. Cockney cosmologists have intuitively understood the warping effect of dense concentrations of money on space and time centuries before Einstein formulated an equivalent hypothesis concerning mass. This can be seen today in the magnified scale of Zone 1 compared to the outer suburbs on the Tube map; half a mile sets you back a thumb’s width in Knightsbridge or Farringdon, but costs just a few millimetres out in Croydon or Barking.

Of course, money comes out of London too: perhaps a better analogy would be a quasar, spewing forth great jets of rarefied virtual cash from its super-dense core. The Home Counties as an accretion disc? Metaphor fails me, more from the subtleties of the capital’s functions as an economic hub than from the outlandish physics of active galaxies. Astrophysical objects are, to an extent, predictable – the ebb and flow of global credit and debt evidently is not. In fact the latter resembes more the erratic and inscrutable progress of a malignant biological process or autogenic disease – a fact surely not unrelated to the long-standing kingpin position in global finance capitalism of London itself.

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