A few years ago I proposed that London’s postcodes were arbitrary and fundamentally devoid of meaning. One of London’s joys is the symbiosis of humans that coexist within it, that you can pay £20 million for a townhouse and still live less than 20 minutes-walk from someone wondering how to spend their last £20 before payday. This economic diversity is now under threat from spiraling rents that may eventually drive most working people, predominately renters and first time buyers, out into the city’s orbiting suburbs. Now we walk a fine line between geographic cultural identity and postcode tribalism.
To fully understand the arbitrary nature of the London postcode, you must look at its raison d’être. By the 1850s, rapid growth in London’s metropolitan area meant the city could no longer function as a single post town without a differentiating system for distribution. By the middle of the century, one fifth of all post sent in the UK was destined for London, and over half of these items originated within the city itself. To solve this problem, the Post Office produced an almost perfectly circular diagram of 12 miles radius from the central post office at St. Martin’s Le Grand, an area taking in six English counties. By subdividing into two central areas and eight compass points, London’s postcodes were set. Later on, the NE and S postcodes were abolished, with S being split in SE and SW to cope with further urban expansion. The E20 postcode was added to cover the Olympic Park in 2012. Little has changed in the past 160 years.
I’m sure you’ll agree, that paragraph was not at all interesting, but believe me when I say there really is nothing more to say on the methodology behind postcodes. Whether you are in SW1 or SE1, N20 or E5 has nothing more to do with civic reality than the postal subdivision by which your mail is delivered, and by which postman happens to be on shift that particular morning. This hasn’t stopped residents, some of them in my neighbourhood, getting bees in their bonnet about which particular numbers happen to sit at the tail end of their address, citing insurance or council tax reasons behind their gripes. I can just about understand that paying extra for car insurance would be irritating, but the rational among us would suggest this is a matter for the insurance companies, not the humble Post Office. I also fail to see the substance behind claiming that one local authority are vastly better than another, as if they don’t largely do the same job with the same budget. Tampering with postcodes for your own ends removes the point of having a universal system in the first place.
Owning a property in the central ventricles of the city has become one of the most objectively ‘secure’ investments you can make in the varying economic climate of the past forty years, but it does not come cheap. Postcodes can act like badges of honor, certifying the recipient with a lifetime of topographical boasting. This, in turn, fuels the sense that an area is ‘affluent’, ‘upcoming’ or everyone’s favorite estate-agent buzzword, ‘vibrant’. For my part, I live in a ‘vibrant’ area, in a postcode that has little to do with where my house is located. It’s as far away from the attached loci as it is from every other neighboring postcode, some of which command much higher regard from the type of people who reduce their city to a veritable Argos catalog of urban geography. My area, however, is now ‘upcoming’, in the sense that coffee shops are appearing where corner shops used to be, and we now have artisan bread stalls in our market. Hundreds of debates on so called ‘gentrification’ have revealed little in the way of solid conclusions, except that there are benefits and drawbacks both ways, depending on who you ask.
The other kind of postcode war, the kind which results in the wasteful death of young people as a result of simmering social and economic tensions, is equally arbitrary and serves to reinforce again the obvious problem with imposing objective bureaucracy onto our wholly subjective landscape. City Hall recently commissioned a ‘most stylish postcode’ competition (W9 and W1 won, although the author expressed surprise that E1 ‘hipster central’ or SW3/SW10 as ‘the birthplace of punk’ hadn’t won), as though the apparel choices of millions of Londoners can be summarized by the location of the wardrobe they are housed. Other London publications have also offered insight into ‘how people perceive you and your postcode’.
I relish the prospect of living in a city where the only boundaries are environmental, fences and railway lines, locked doors, rather than those we impose on ourselves. Hyping arbitrary postcodes for reasons other than the fact the mail delivery is particularly efficient places an invisible cage around our streets which has no grounding in reality. It is heterogeneity, not homogeny, that we should strive for in a city of infinite voices. A good place to start would be to stop dictating our impression of cities by how the Post Office delivers your mail, but how it informs and shapes your own imagination.