London’s Lived-In Look

It’s summertime, and that means another installment of lessons from great cities. Last summer, I shared some images and impressions from Montreal, Mont-Tremblant, and Ottawa. Over the next few weeks, look for updates from Berlin, Paris, and this week, it’s London calling.

Before, I focused on elements in those great Canadian cities that have been made illegal in the suburbs, under contemporary land use practices. What’s on my mind this week are the benefits of great transit and civic space, as well as how to codify some of London’s highly functioning non-tourist neighbourhoods using the form-based codes we often discuss here on PlaceShakers.

ROI of Movement

Last month, I was on the jury for a Peery Project debate of whether a city could be successful without transit. Regardless of the outcome of that amusing evening, London makes it clear that it’s logistically impossible to achieve a compact city without exceptional, multi-layered transit service. Subway, rail and bus provide a semblance of calm to the constantly busy streets, although last week’s London Times points out that the city could save £1.6 billion per year from its health budget if it invests in cycling facilities at levels of the Dutch, £24 per person annually.

The Get Britain Cycling parliamentary inquiry suggests a 3x ROI annually for savings in health services alone as a result of cycling investment. Never has any other civic amenity — once basic services are installed — had that sort of ROI projections, thanks in large part to the ill effects of our otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

Marylebone Station in our Soho neighbourhood provides easy access to the subway and trains, with a bike share waiting outside.

Marylebone Station provides easy access to the subway and trains, with a bike share waiting outside.

While London currently has some rather ambitious plans in place for cycling infrastructure, I’m unlikely to rent a bike here in the mean time. Although a bike is my primary means of transportation back home, there’s just a little too much “door-zone” here for my comfort level. The car is still king, and transit queen.

ROI of Civic Space

We almost always enable tourism as a major component in local public policy aimed at generating economic development. Tourism is travel for recreational, leisure, or business purposes — whether ecotourism or biotourism showcasing the natural amenities, or cultural tourism highlighting how cities come together with arts, food and retail microcosms.

In a city like London, I’m always blown away by how packed the public spaces are, with people lingering, photographing, eating, resting, and listening to music. As we joined the throngs in Trafalgar Square last week, at the doorstep of the National Gallery, it was clear that civic space is the center of public life here, with St. Martin in the Fields, Canada House, and South Africa House rounding out the civic structures. Retail streets are secondary, and thrive off the constant traffic in the square.

National Gallery enjoys over 5 million visitors annually.

National Gallery enjoys over 5 million visitors annually.

Robert Venturi’s addition to the National Gallery pays satisfying homage to massing and setbacks, in keeping with local character.

Robert Venturi’s addition to the National Gallery pays satisfying homage to massing and setbacks, in keeping with local character.

Canada House and South Africa House round out the civic offerings on Trafalgar Square.

Canada House and South Africa House round out the civic offerings on Trafalgar Square.

The view to St. Martin in the Fields from the National Gallery is always a sought-after perspective.

The view to St. Martin in the Fields from the National Gallery is always a sought-after perspective.

Always a crowd at the British Museum, even before opening hours. And it’s for much more than a glimpse of the original Rosetta Stone.

Always a crowd at the British Museum, even before opening hours. And it’s for much more than a glimpse of the original Rosetta Stone.

In North America, we’ve seen auto-centric development patterns replacing civic with retail at the center of neighborhoods. However, the effectiveness of this strategy is questionable at best. Urban designers seek to reverse that trend with a more resilient ordering of place.

Great North American museums have been decanted into more suburban locations, like the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Many of the museums built adjacent to great parks during the America Beautiful Movement are accessible only by car today, such as the Nelson-Atkins, Cincinnati, and Toledo. Despite the beautiful old suburb of the Nelson-Atkins, the majority of visitors enter through the parking garage.

Others located in the same era, but with walkable urbanism growing up around them, have fared much better, such as the Met, Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.

I’m not suggesting that if these museums were located in their city centers that they’d enjoy the sorts of traffic of the most globally competitive cities, but they would certainly perform better. The Louvre is the world’s most visited museum, at almost 9 million visitors per year. Four of London’s museums enjoy more than 5 million visitors per year: British Museum (5.5M), Tate Modern (5.3M), National Gallery (5.1M), and Natural History Museum (5M).

If I Were Coding London

If you’ve been reading PlaceShakers for awhile, you’ve probably listened to Susan Henderson or Geoff Dyer talk about the various types of form-based codes to extract local character and enable it by right instead of auto centric land-use laws. Most of what we encourage here are holistic form-based codes that govern down to the level of the lot and block based on the rural-to-urban Transect.

However, in London, instead of a usual SmartCode approach, I think I’d go with a thoroughfare-type code. That is, as the street types change, the local character changes with it. Usually urban intensities are what dictate these changes as we move along the Transect, but in this case T5 is often less intensive than T4. I’ll use my partner, Howard Blackson’s, old neighbourhood as an example here, from when he went to University of Westminster, on Marylebone Road.

Just because it’s 6 stories doesn’t mean it’s T6. This is Soho’s T4 General Urban Zone, here sporting attached multi-family housing.

Just because it’s 6 stories doesn’t mean it’s T6. This is Marylebone’s T4 General Urban Zone, here sporting attached multi-family housing.

When looking for high-performing precedents to emulate, T4 is generally the hardest one to find locally. However, London has it in spades. It’s what gives the city that lived-in look. The general character is multi-family housing, with the occasional corner store.

When looking for high-performing precedents to emulate, T4 is generally the hardest one to find locally. However, London has it in spades. It’s what gives the city that lived-in look. The general character is multi-family housing, with the occasional corner store.

Arguably T4O or T5, but with two very skinny travel lanes, T4O is an option. Notice densities are significantly higher than most places for this Transect Zone, and often dictated by the age of the buildings.

Arguably T4O or T5, but with two very skinny travel lanes, T4O is an option. Notice densities are significantly higher than most places for this Transect Zone, and often dictated by the age of the buildings. Highly recommend that acupuncture studio at the far left.

My favourite coffee house on this T5 Urban Center Zone block, which became a daily stop.

My favourite coffee house on this T5 Urban Center Zone block, which became a daily stop.

The competition across the T5 street.

The competition across the T5 street.

Definitely T5 with three travel lanes on Baker Street in Soho. Yes, there were a few riots this day, but the meaty urbanism absorbed the energy without much distress.

Definitely T5 with three travel lanes on Baker Street in Marylebone.

Even multinational retail is agreeable to behaving in an urban manner when the urbanism is this good. A bit of Soho T5.

Even multinational retail is agreeable to behaving in an urban manner when the urbanism is this good. A bit of Marylebone T5.

Six travel lanes with intermittent retail and constant office or civic is what I would call T6 Urban Core Zone, here on Euston Road near University of Westminster.

Six travel lanes with intermittent retail and constant office or civic is what I would call T6 Urban Core Zone, here on Euston Road near University of Westminster.

My biggest complaint with Dorset Square in Marylebone is that it is privatized, with keys available only to members of the trust. While our hotel was a keyholder, I wasn’t particularly hip to go blog alone in the park. Note to cities: don’t privatize your best public amenities! Figure out a way to fund maintenance, and unlock those gates.

My biggest complaint with Dorset Square in Marylebone is that it is privatized, with keys available only to members of the trust. While our hotel was a keyholder, I wasn’t particularly hip to go blog alone in the park. Note to cities: don’t privatize your best public amenities! Figure out a way to fund maintenance, and unlock those gates.

Dorset Square is very savvy with their “reverse angle parking,” or “head out parking,” as some like to call it. Surrounding uses are lodging and office on the first level, and residential above.

Dorset Square is very savvy with their “reverse angle parking,” or “head out parking,” as some
like to call it. Surrounding uses are lodging and office on the first level, and residential above.

Often on my summer city review blogs, I get complaints that I focus only on the walkable parts of the city – the A Grid – and pay no attention to the B Grid and rear lanes. Only complaint on London’s alleys: they’re too perfect. Should be more “male space,” from some people’s perspective. Or at least a place where our kids can splash in puddles.

Often on my summer city review blogs, I get complaints that I focus only on the walkable parts
of the city — the A Grid — and pay no attention to the B Grid and rear lanes. Only complaint on London’s alleys: they’re too perfect. Should be more “male space,” from some people’s perspective. Or at least a place where our kids can splash in puddles.

So whether you choose to create your own local form-based code for the entire lot, from sidewalk to back lane, or whether you go for a thoroughfare-type code, there’s still plenty of great old urbanism to use as a teacher. And a setter of precedent for what creates a delightfully livable neighbourhood. Coming soon, to a city near you?

Hazel Borys

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Comments

  1. Neither Marylebone nor Baker Street are anywhere near Soho! Soho is bounded by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and the theater district around Shaftsbury Avenue/Leicester Square to the south.

  2. PlaceMakers says:

    Thanks, Ann. We revised to get precise.

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