London prides itself on having many green spaces, and who doesn’t like an afternoon stroll under the trees or a morning activity away from polluted roads? Yet for some working-class Londoners in the 1930s, the perception of parks was not so positive. I discovered this from a fascinating document called The New Survey of London life and Labour, which was published in 1930 by the London School of Economics and Political Science.
I came across the New Survey while studying for a master’s degree in economic history at the same university that published it. My subsequent dissertation reveals part of the fascinating story behind the numbers it contains. By analysing the survey, we can learn a great deal about the life of those whose views on social and housing policies were rarely considered at the time.
The New Survey was a quantitative exercise in collecting information about rent prices and the physical features of homes, such as their number of bedrooms, shared or private bathrooms and so on. To understand the views of working-class Londoners using these data, I combined them with maps of London from roughly the same period. I then analysed the surroundings of each data point in the survey in tandem with the physical features of each house. By doing so, the relative value of individual housing features, physical or locational, can be deduced. This type of analysis is called hedonic price analysis and it is widely used in policy-making – the UK House Price Index to name one example.
My most striking finding was the impact of parks on house prices. Today’s Hackney homeowners might be surprised to learn that parks had a strong negative effect on prices, while in Greenwich, they had a strong positive impact. What explains this difference? One possibility is that, just as parks can be a great place for recreational activities and a refuge from the city, they can also be a source of social hazards and criminal activities.
To use the terminology of Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities, while streets are regulated and secured by “streets keepers” – shop owners and passers-by – empty parks can be unsafe places. Further examination of the impact of parks at the time of the survey shows a pattern that defies traditional classifications of East and West, rich and poor. Like Greenwich, parks in Wandsworth had a positive effect, while in Paddington and Westminster they had a negative one.
Street quality, as measured by the level of criminal activity, was an important determinant of house prices. How important? A house in the ninth decile of street quality (where ten is the highest quality), was on average 20 per cent more expensive than a house in the bottom decile. This is a remarkable difference, bearing in mind that other locational factors, such as proximity to public transport or the city centre, are controlled for.
Density, which might be seen as a bad by-product of a city, had a surprising positive impact on house prices. Or is it surprising? While density can mean crowdedness, it also means easy access to services, shops and markets. This access, it turns out, had a quantifiable monetary value.
The above findings are related to the surroundings of the house. However, its physical features had a more significant value. These varied in importance in significant ways. Nearly 20 per cent of the surveyed houses didn’t have a private kitchen and more than 60 per cent didn’t have a private bathroom. It is interesting to see that having a shared bathroom was thought just as valuable as having a private one (unimaginable today), but having a private kitchen was regarded as the most important physical feature of a house. As shown in historical oral sources, the kitchen was not only a place for cooking, but also an important social hub. This reinforces those oral accounts by showing that there was also a willingness to pay for them.
The study provides interesting insights into the London of that time, some of which hold true to this day. Proximity to the centre (as measured from Charing Cross) did not have a consistent impact on prices. While some cities have grown outwards from their centres, London has evolved from a collection of small, self-sustained communities. That means that being close to the centre is not necessarily thought a valuable trait of a house.
And yet, a closer look at individual boroughs shows that some were more self-sustained than others. In Hackney and St Marylebone, the relative value of distance to the nearest Underground station or a wide road, for instance, was insignificant compared to that in Greenwich and Battersea. This can probably be explained by the fact that Hackney and St. Marylebone had as many as five times more factories than Greenwich and Battersea.
Omer Bor is an Economic Advisor at the Department for Transport. Prior to that he graduated with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research master’s degree in Economic History at the London School of Economics. Follow him on Twitter.
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