Learn more about Central London
- For more coverage on London, visit the London Portal.
Central London is a much-used but unofficial and vaguely defined term for the most inner part of London, the capital of England. There are many definitions and each has its own notional boundary. Some are defined by clear boundaries, others less so. All definitions have in common the notion that central London is smaller than, and a subset of, Inner London.
 Pattern of settlement
As a starting point in considering what "central London" means, it is important to recognise that London does not consist of a small high rise core surrounded by a belt of very low density districts. The situation is more complex. The section of London which is of an urban as opposed to a suburban character is very extensive, encompassing most of the districts built before 1914. Up to this point most London housing, including most of that in the most expensive districts, was terraced. Low density suburbs were first built in the early 19th century, but did not become prevalent for another hundred years after that.
In the 20th century, and especially in the decades after the Second World War, the size of the fashionable central area of London shrank considerably as the old aristocratic London elite faded away and many members of the middle classes decided that life close to the city centre was no longer appealing. At that time government planners often had a negative view of urban life as well, and a large amount of housing in central London was destroyed in the Second World War. Thus many members of the working class were encouraged to move out of the city centre as well, either to suburban developments around London or to new towns further afield. However, since the 1980's many of these areas have been gentrified and are regarded as desirable areas of central London once again.
 Changing definition
 Introduction of postal districts
In 1858 London was divided into postal districts in order to aid the forwarding of mail items. The two most central districts were "EC" - East Central which broadly covered the City of London and "WC" - West Central which coved the area immediately west of there as far as Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road.
 Coming of the railways
When the railways were first constructed in London during the latter 1800s an area of central London was defined by government and railway lines were not permitted to pass beyond it, at least not above ground. The restrictions were relaxed a little and the new, more central, terminals were constructed at Waterloo (replacing Nine Elms), Fenchurch Street (Minories) and Liverpool Street (Bishopsgate). This created the ring of terminal stations which still exists today. The railways were thus instrumental in both enabling the rapid expansion of London and also helped to reinforce the boundary of the central area.
 Modern times
In the late 1970s the population of Greater London was at its lowest level since the 1920s, and "central London" might have included:
- City of London
- Most of the City of Westminster
- Most of Kensington and Chelsea
- The section of Camden south of the Euston Road
- The section of Islington south of Pentonville Road and the City Road
These five districts all contain dense concentrations of characteristically metropolitan activities: major corporate offices; buildings housing the functions of the state; universities; professional institutions; large scale retailing, including department stores; museums, libraries, theatres, concert halls and other important entertainment facilities. They also have a large amount of housing, some of that in the private sector being among the most expensive in the world.
Since 1970s there has been a long term trend for the number of districts in London which can credibly be considered part of "central London" to increase. Some non-residential land uses in London, such as offices and hotels, have become more widely distributed, but these new candidate districts for "central London" status tend to be more residential than the core districts listed above.
The Central London Partnership covers seven London boroughs: Camden, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Southwark, Wandsworth and Westminster. In December 2005 the London Development Agency published a draft 'Central London Tourism Strategy' covering the Central London Partnership area. It excluded the City of London but said that its 'central importance' would be taken into account as part of the strategy.
The expansion of "central London" is strongly associated with gentrification as swathes of Victorian London which became shabby in the post-war decades are revived by well-to-do buyers. Thus there are a great many districts which are considered central by some, especially by their own middle class residents, but not necessarily accepted as such by everyone else. Areas which have passed through this "centralisation" include Fulham in the 1980s and Camden Town in the 1990s more recently, and many others.
 South Bank and its environs
London began on the north bank of the Thames, and its centre of gravity is still strongly on that side of the river, but a wide range of major buildings and facilities have been built south of the river in recent decades. The South Bank and Bankside areas are now accepted as being part of "central London", and some people would include other districts on this side of the river as well.
 The East End
Although much of the East End of London is completely urban in character, compared to the West End of London it has historically been the poorer side of the city with the focus of the metropolis more westward, thus it was not considered part of central London. With extensive redevelopment, social change and rising land values this contrast has been reduced.
 Inner suburbs
To the west and north west of the core districts listed above there is a ring of fashionable mainly Victorian and primarily residential districts around all four sides of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, such as Holland Park and Notting Hill. Some people consider all of these districts to be part of "central London". Similar claims would also be made by many for the fashionable north western districts as far out as Hampstead.
 Central London and Inner London
Use of Inner London in some contexts can carry negative connotations and be used only to describe those inner-city areas affected by poverty, crime, and social problems while central London carries more prestigious connotations and is used in terms of business, entertainment, tourism and desirable housing. In this context it is suggested that central London is surrounded by inner London and not part of it.
It is important to note that unlike in some major cities in the United States and elsewhere, these two faces of urban life are intermingled. There is social housing in almost all of the prestigious central London districts, even Mayfair, and nowadays expensive private housing is often built in poor neighbourhoods where most of the existing occupants live in social housing without these poorer occupants being moved elsewhere. All sorts of people live cheek-by-jowl in London, though often without having much contact with people outside of their own group.
 Other definitions
The Geographer's A-Z Street Atlas and other map sources often include a section covering central London at an increased scale. The area chosen as central may vary.
- The area inside the Circle Line of the London Underground. This is a fairly wide definition in the western areas, but entirely ignores any districts south of the Thames and the recent expansion of central activities to part of the East End of London, with the development of Docklands. Thus it is probably not used as much as it was some years ago.
- Travelcard Zone 1 in the public transport system, which is a little more generous, taking in some areas to the south of the Thames
- Central London 'Journey Planner' maps in tube carriages show a varying area as central.
- The congestion charging zone.
 Postal districts
The East Central and West Central postal district created in 1858 which were further divided in 1917 into the modern EC1, EC2, EC3, EC4, WC1 and WC2 London postal districts. These do not reflect changes in perceptions which have occurred since then, and they were perhaps not intended to define "Central London" for general purposes even then. An area closer to a typical modern definition of Central London can be arrived at by combining the aforementioned districts with the head districts of the other sectors e.g. SE1, SW1 etc.
One way of identifying which areas are central is the language used to describe them by Londoners. When describing non-central areas the relevant place name is used. When the central area is being referred to it is most commonly called 'The City' for the City of London and 'Town', 'West End' or 'West' for the central shopping, entertainment and business districts outside the City. One might be 'going up to Town' if shopping on Oxford Street or Bond Street but not if shopping on the Kings Road.
 Phone codes
In passing, it should be noted that it is thought by some that, if a telephone number begins with 020 7, it may be assumed to be located in Central London. This, however, is wholly incorrect. The 020 7 prefix usually, though not invariably, denotes a location in Inner London, including Central London, the 020 8 in Outer London.
 Central activities zone
The Central Activities Zone (CAZ): This is a term used in the London Plan, which derives in its turn from definitions used in the local plans of the various boroughs whose areas form part of Central London. It covers only those areas with a very high concentration of metropolitan activities, generally those where 50 per cent or more of each street block is in commercial use. This results in a small and extremely irregularly shaped area.
 Charing Cross
In order to calculate distances from London the most central point is taken as Charing Cross and in this way can be taken as the most central location and all things in a given radius from there considered central. 
 London boroughs
With the exception of the "square mile" of the City of London, the London boroughs all include some districts which would not be considered to be part of "central London" at least by some of the stricter definitions. London boroughs can be defined in terms of 'inner' or 'outer' London, but cannot be defined as central or otherwise. However, the London Plan in 2004 defined the Central London sub-region as comprising the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Camden, Islington, Wandsworth, Lambeth, Southwark and the City of Westminster, omitting the City of London itself.
 Summary of districts
The City of London is taken as being entirely and undisputedly central. Here follows some districts which are also commonly thought of as central and some fringe cases that are sometimes considered so.
|London borough||Districts considered central||Fringes|
|London Borough of Tower Hamlets||Tower Hill||Wapping|
|London Borough of Hackney||Shoreditch, Old Street||North of Old Street|
|London Borough of Islington||Finsbury, Clerkenwell||Islington north of the Angel|
|London Borough of Camden||Holborn, Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia||North of Euston Road|
|City of Westminster||All except north west||Maida Vale|
|Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea||Sloane Square, Knightsbridge||Notting Hill, Earl's Court|
|London Borough of Lambeth||South Bank, Waterloo, North Lambeth||Vauxhall|
|London Borough of Southwark||The Borough||Elephant & Castle|
 External links
- A map of London - the scale has been selected for convenience only and the map edges do not correspond with any definition of central London. By some definitions central London extends beyond the edges of this map, especially to the east, where Canary Wharf is off the map. The black and white square just above centre is at Charing Cross.
- Central London Partnership
- Central London
|Informal divisions of London|