Observations from London: Introduction part 2

I’m starting this blog about urban planning and design of public places in London with potential relevance to MSP with a few posts setting the stage – this is the second. For the first, which included the first hypothetical challenge to the premise, click here. So, what are other reasons why I shouldn’t be doing this?

Hypothetical challenge #2: London and MSP aren’t peer cities

If you track dialogue about regional economic development, you know that Mpls-StP are considered peer cities with others in the US that have similar populations and economies. This leads to a very avid interest in how we’re doing relative to a small subset of places – Denver, Austin, Seattle, etc. And that’s both perfectly appropriate for tracking how our regional economy is doing over time, and a fine reason to pay close attention to public space investments those cities make that could impact their quality of life.

In that sense, London and MSP aren’t peer cities at all. London has a literal order of magnitude on us by key metrics – not only is its population 8.8M people versus our 733k, but it has the cultural weight from being a major global city for most of its 2,000 years while our cities haven’t been around for 200. And the era of development is fundamental for a city’s built environment, so that means we’re different from London in important, lasting ways. Our prairie towns weren’t founded by Romans (Saint Paul’s Roman Catholics? Not the same thing, in my view), or walled. We’ve yet to have a massive fire or a plague. We haven’t been the seat of a monarchy, or produced a cultural figure on par with Shakespeare (can you imagine how insufferable we’d be?).

However! Population, GDP, density, and international cultural influence aren’t everything. On a smaller scale, there are resemblances. One big one is that most of Greater London wasn’t developed much earlier than most of Mpls and Saint Paul. Through the 17th century, London was roughly 1 sq. mile – now it’s over 600. This video illustrates the timescale of London’s development really well. Closer to (our literal) home, our neighborhood in a central borough of London was a dairy farm 140 years ago.

Looks like Gibbs Farm to me. [Photo from “Islington: A History and Guide” by Peter Zwart]
The place in this painting (about a mile south of us) was less than a half-hour stroll from the Roman city walls and undeveloped until late in the Victorian era, after MSP had streetcars. And that’s cherry-picking one spot, but the same pattern holds for most of the city’s geographic area. MSP and most of London developed following new transportation modes in the 19th and 20th centuries, so you get similar general development patterns. Residential areas, commercial nodes/corridors, transit stations, parks. As types of urban places go, more alike than different

In considerations of how public spaces are designed and managed, the relative size, history, and population of a city matters. Of course. But it’s been useful for me to see that large areas of both London and MSP are contemporaries.

More broadly, in pursuing successful urban places we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking about what’s happening in our peer cities because there are good places we should emulate nearly everywhere.

Hypothetical challenge #3: Public places in a much larger, denser, and globally significant city like London aren’t comparable with those in MSP

The list of destination public places in London to which there really isn’t a corollary in MSP is long. Whether it’s imbued with royal pixie dust (St James Park, Kensington Gardens), or on the short list of must-see destinations for the city’s 19M+ foreign visitors (Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the London Eye), or both, we can’t touch the level of activity or the economic challenges/opportunities those places offer. It’s a different game entirely to design and manage them.

However! Similar to the main point above, those focal places are a small fraction of London’s public realm, and I’ve found that most of the remainder is local in character. Not only are most places not tourism destinations, but I suspect that in a city this big most residents mainly traverse a small fraction of it.

When we were just arriving here I asked several lifelong Londoners if they ever visited such-and-such neighborhood or major park in another part of town, and the number of times I was told no really surprised me. And yet, in a big, busy place, you definitely need a good reason to venture further.

At the time, my kneejerk reaction to hearing about other people’s lack of urban exploration was to think that won’t be me. I’m going to see it all! But of course I won’t. And knowing that we’re just here for a year has freed me from thinking I’ll come close.

Alas, as it turns out, life in London is not like the sight-seeing montage from the 2018 motion picture Peter Rabbit (as a young parent, this is my cultural element and I just need to own that).

On his way to the hop on, hop off bus, no doubt

Do we spend a lot of time riding the London Eye, wandering the grounds of Buckingham Palace, window-shopping on Oxford Street? No. Is their proximity relevant to our quality of life? Sure. But fairly indirectly.

Once. One time.

8.8M people in other parts of London going about their days on streets I’ve never seen, and the scale and density of the city creates unique opportunities. But you could fool me sometimes, because my London is small and specific.

Is the “most places in a city are local in character” point true back home? Probably. People say Mpls and Saint Paul are cities of neighborhoods, and I can attest that’s especially true when you’re paying a babysitter. I can remember reading alt-weeklies when I was single or married without kids, and reading about a new restaurant or music venue in another part of town, and I’d think, “Let’s go”, and we often would. Nowadays, tell me about a cool new place more than 15 minutes away from my house and I’ll file it under trivia in my brain (an even better restaurant than the other ones opened in Kingfield? Terrific). With dozens of other options closer at hand, diminishing returns always sets in for venturing further.

People meeting their routine needs close to home make neighborhoods a relevant unit in cities large and small. What matters to me, and – in my view – most everyone else, is the quality of life we enjoy exactly where we are – that street, that park, that corner of that neighborhood. People might or might not care about overall citywide metrics for traffic congestion, or pedestrian safety, or tree canopy, or anything else, but they certainly care about where they are and the specific places they spend the most time.

Next week, the last post before I get into specific projects: an MSP-oriented introduction to the place I’ll be writing about the most: our home borough of Islington.