Trade agreements, divorce bills and Irish Border border issues aside, perhaps the most existential question of the Brexit era is what does it mean to be British? Specifically in relation to what being British means in the context of being European.
Even the most ardent remainer would have to concede that the cultural idiosyncrasies of this sceptred isle have never fully aligned with that of the continent. Such cultural divisions are evident in the peculiar relationship the British – especially the English – have with nature and the urban environment. Peculiar from the European perspective that is, whereby the ‘city’ and the ‘countryside’ are seen as quite distinct and non-overlapping magisteria.
To those on the continent, the countryside – while beautiful no doubt and a wonderful place to visit – is where animals (and those who tend to them) live. Cities on the other hand are where civilised humans reside and thrive. The English, however, have never shed the Blakeian suspicion – perhaps superstition – that cities are a sort of Mordor-themed disco, exciting perhaps, but fundamentally bad for one’s body, mind and soul. The English dream is to one day escape the dark satanic mills of the city for a grand residence nested deep within the green and pleasant countryside. For Europeans, a grand townhouse in the heart of the urban jungle is a more beguiling goal.
This perhaps explains the English fascination with private gardens – both a front and rear if possible – as if to envelope ourselves within a salubrious micro-countryside. To the continentals, parks and public gardens are more than adequate to provide respite from the stress of urban living.
This difference is evident when comparing London to other European capitals. While central Paris, Berlin and Madrid are replete with street upon street of seven-storey mansion blocks, central London is a patchwork quilt of garden-enveloped, two-storey detached, semi-detached and terraced houses, with a peppering of higher-density units scattered sporadically throughout.
As such, it is no surprise that Sadiq Khan has caused a stir with his plans to overthrow planning laws, so that 25,000 new homes a year can be built on existing garden land and small plots. Critics have branded the plan a land grab and a raid on every inch of garden in the capital.
However, as is always the case, London is at the boundary between Britain and the rest of the world. If London is to sustain its place as the de facto world capital, then it will have to resemble other global cities more and English cities less. Those living in London may scoff at the notion that London is not overcrowded. Indeed, during my morning commute my inner misanthrope emerges as I look aghast at the sheer bulk of the human mass that crams into every overfilled tube carriage.
However, according to the European Commission Global Human Settlement Dataset, in 2015 the peak density in London was 25,500 people per km2, just a tad over Brussels (which is stuffed full of European bureaucrats no doubt), and half of Paris, which peaks at 45,200 people per km2. New York – London’s only true rival for the crown of global city – is over twice as densely populated, with peak concentrations of 56,300 people per km2. Hong Kong naturally takes the top spot cramming in up to 108,000 residents into a square kilometre.
Is London an overcrowded, concrete jungle or is there a need for more high-density housing and fewer gratuitous gardens? Well, you might as well ask what’s better: a full English or continental breakfast?