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Liverpool: Shaping the City
a city on screen

The landscape and infrastructure of Liverpool

Main image of Shaping the City

Over the last three and a half centuries, Liverpool has undergone a tremendous transformation. Until the mid-17th century, Liverpool remained a small Medieval borough wedged between the River Mersey and a tidal creek called 'Pool'. The city's rapid growth relied on the development of the commercial port that, in addition to pre-existing routes to Ireland and Europe, operated trade lines to America, the West Indies and elsewhere. In 1715, Old Dock, the world's first commercial enclosed wet dock, was opened in the east of the historic centre. In the years that followed, a number of further commercial basins and warehouses were built along the waterfront, including Canning Dock (1753), George's Dock (1771), Queen's Dock (1796) and Albert Dock (1846), laying the foundation for tremendous changes to Liverpool's waterfront, and creating a backdrop for countless films.

The port's economic success meant that buildings had a short lifespan, quickly making way for new, more profitable developments. As a result, almost no building has survived from the 17th century and only a handful of architectural marvels from the 18th and 19th century, among them the Blue Coat School (1716-18), the Town Hall (1749-54) and St George's Hall (1854), still stand today. Apart from the 'Three Graces', the Royal Liver Building (1908-11), the Cunard Building (1914-16) and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (1903-07), some of the finest remaining 19th century architectural landmarks and important social gathering spaces were tragically destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941 - including the Customs House (1839) - or, like St John's Market (1822) and the Sailors' Home (1846), by planning authorities, particularly in the 1960s and '70s.

Liverpool's population swelled from 78,000 to 685,000 between 1801 and 1901. Victorian housing for the working classes fell short of basic space and hygiene requirements, and unsanitary housing, infectious diseases and high mortality rates led to 1846's Liverpool Sanitary Act, and subsequently to new housing developments, though to little benefit. It wasn't until the mid-1930s that Liverpool undertook drastic measures to demolish the slums and started large-scale construction of new housing for lower-income families.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a series of additions to the transportation network boosted Liverpool's infrastructure. In 1893, the world's first electrically-powered overhead railway was built to address the traffic demands along Dock Road. The elevated structure, a defining landmark of the city, was demolished in 1957, transforming The Strand into a large traffic avenue separating the docks from the inner city. In 1933, Liverpool Airport opened, offering regular services to Ireland. In July 1934, King George V and Queen Mary, before a crowd of 200,000, officially opened the Queensway tunnel, linking Birkenhead and the Wirral with Liverpool. In 1957, the 750th anniversary of the Charter, the city's electric tram service was terminated, bringing to an end another historic icon.

In a period of political and economic uncertainty, Liverpool's population declined sharply in the second half of the 20th century, from nearly 800,000 inhabitants to less than 440,000, leaving behind an urban fabric that has only now, after the award of UNESCO Heritage status to the docks and the city's nomination as European Capital of Culture 2008, begun to recover.

Richard Koeck

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