Ben Cowell at the NT blog reminds us that the term ‘Green Belt’ was first coined by Octavia Hill in 1875 as part of her unsuccessful campaign to purchase Swiss Cottage Fields to save it from development (though only having £25 pounds certainly didn’t help).
It certainly is not inconceivable that London could have had a Green Belt in 1875 and it is useful to speculate what would have been the effect if one had then been declared.
After all laws controlled urban expansion were nothing new dating back to Queen Elizebth the first.
1875 was also something of a propitious year. It was the year that the first modern town planning legislation in the World was passed, the Prussian Planning Law of 1875, it was also the second year of Disrealis reforming term and 1875 saw some pioneering social reforms including the banning of child chimney streets and the Artisans Dwellings Act, the first proper slum clearance and social housing act. This though in line with Disreali’s philosophy was entirely permissive local boards could exercise it but did not have to. So it is possible to envisage legislation along the lines of the 1938 Green Belt Act empowering local bodies.
In other ways though it was unlikley. The agricultural depression of the 1870s had begun and the long slow decline of the great estates, which you certainly dont see on Downton Abbey, had begun, with cheap wheat from abroad agricultural land no longer paid and many estate owners around London were eager to sell. As the party representing the landed interests, and with the franchise still so narrow, it would have been unlikely that the Tories would have been eager at the time.
In 1875 we also saw a detailed parish map of London by Stanfords (published in 1877).
This shows Hampstead still a village, London not extending South East beyond Clapham Common, to the West not beyond Hammersmith, Greenwich still surrounded by fields, and to the East only having reached the River Lea in parts. It certainly then was conceivable to have a Green Belt retaining the separate identity of towns such as Richmond, Greenwich and Barnet.
What then if there was a Green Belt ‘several miles wide’ as the famous circular of 1875 said.
London would have been contained about the size of Vienna, or the Paris Arrondissimonds, so certainly it still could have maintained the character of a great city.
Where we now see Willesden, or Clapton, Nunhead, Eltham or West Ham would just be fields and Stratford would be a small freestanding town, as would Crystal Palace and Sydenham. The Southern Part of Fulham was still rural. You would be able to walk east from Hampstead Heath through continuous contryside and swing south along the rural river Lea to Leamouth. You would also be able to circle London to the South from Clapham Common to Deptford.
Housing conatining population approaching 2 million or so would not exist, but would Greater London be any smaller in population? Probably not as within London there would have been much more pressure to develop at continental style apartment densities inside the ‘Green Belt’ and cities such as Berlin have far higher densities. It would not necessarily be the London of villa housing so beloved of writers such as Rassmussen.
There would also be much more pressure to develop at higher densities in the Railway suburbs beyond the ‘inner’ Green Belt’ around town like Hounslow, Wembley, Barnet, and Bromley. They would be far less likely to be leafy metrolands, and also may well have extended much further before the ‘outer’ Green Belt, though it is likely they would be less car dependent. The structure may well have been similar to that of Moscow beyond the Garden Ring, dependent on a vast network of buses, trains and trollybuses to get commuters into the small dense central area.
Im some ways this drawing of the Green Belt would have been too tight removing some dense, sustainable late Victorian communities, such as Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Battersea, Putney and Kensal Rise, Pooter’s London. In the 1930s London found its natural limits to expansion when London Transport found it operationally difficult and uneconomic to extend the Northern Line to Elstree.
What this exercise shows is that there is absolutely nothing inevitable about urban forms. London in this scenario would have been a much greener city with a beautiful ring of countryside within walking distance of Westminster. If you go to the Fryent Way Country Park in Wembley where a section of ‘encapsulated countryside’ was save from the expansion of London you can get an idea of what it might have been like.