Exploring the World’s “Best” City

Blackbird2by James A. Bacon

Last year Price Waterhouse Cooper crowned London as the “best” city in the world based upon a range of factors encompassing technology, innovation, transportation, tourism, livability, corporate clout and sustainability, beating out such great metropolises as New York, Singapore, Toronto, San Francisco and Paris.

With a population of 8.6 million, London is a big city. The Bacon family is spending only one week here, we’ll experience only a tiny fraction of what the city has to offer, and we’ll do so as tourists skimming the surface. But there’s still a lot to be gleaned from a superficial scan. In between indulging in typical tourista fare such as the Tower of London, the British Museum and the Eye, I’ll report my observations about land use and transportation with the thought that Virginians might have something to useful learn.

We’re renting an apartment in the Earls’ Court ward, which originated in the mid-1800s as a railroad suburb west of the city. In the 20th century, the ward went into a period of decline, earning a seedy reputation. Thanks to large numbers of Polish immigrants following World War II, the area became known as the “Danzig Corridor.” Later, after an influx of Australians and Kiwis in the 1960s, it earned the moniker “Kangaroo Valley.” Since then, according to Wikipedia, Earl’s Court has gentrified. Indeed, a remarkable number of old buildings are adorned with construction scaffolding, suggesting that investment and revitalization remain strong.

harcourt_terrace2From what I can tell  from the architecture (and I speak with no authority), this part of London was built in the Golden Age of city planning — the late 19th century and early 20th century. Even though buildings rarely rise higher than five stories, density is high. Almost all residential buildings are attached, either in row houses or apartments. As seen above, the dwellings fronting on a single block tend to have identical patterns of design; they’re not as individuated as the buildings of similar era and density in Barcelona. While a certain sameness prevails on a single block, the blocks stand out distinctly from one another. That makes it much easier for wandering strangers to remember to find their way around.

The front door to Troubador

One of the great virtues of old development over new is that older buildings have had time to evolve distinctive personalities, as their occupiers work their creativity upon them over the ages, adding a porch stoop here, a balcony there or a garden in the back. One fun place we visited the first day was Troubador, an organic-food restaurant with a music club in the basement and a postage-stamp dining garden in the rear. Inside, there was an eclectic mix of decor, including three shelves of watering cans in the front window. Old watering cans as decorative art? Let’s just say that’s something I never would have come with.

new buildingsWhen new apartments have been constructed, as seen at left, builders have preserved the human scale of the original development pattern, no more than five floors. I suspect that’s enforced by strict zoning standards, although I don’t know for certain. Real estate has gotten so expensive in London, due in part to those very same zoning standards, that developers surely would build at greater heights and densities if allowed.

Redcliffe Mews, behind our apartment

From a livability perspective, five stories may be the optimal height for large-scale residential habitation adapted to the reality of the automobile. Even on a Sunday, the streets are crowded with cars. But parking is limited. I didn’t see any structured parking in Earl’s Court, as exists in older districts of New York, Barcelona and San Francisco. But that’s just one neighborhood. And many of the on-street parking spaces are permit-parking only. On Harcourt Terrace, where we are staying, it is possible to access garages behind the houses by means ofa “mews,” basically, an upgraded alleyway that would be impossible to build in the United States because it is too narrow to accommodate monster fire trucks so prevalent in fire departments today.

Offsetting the difficulty of owning cars, the streets are highly walkable. Earl’s Court, like most late-19th century neighborhoods, was built as “walkable urbanism” before walkable urbanism was cool. For instance, there are ample commercial establishments — restaurants and small stores, mostly — within a short distance of every residential street. Moreover, London has an extensive underground rail system, red double-decker buses are omnipresent, and bike-share stations have been installed near metro stops. While I wouldn’t call bicyclists particularly prevalent, they make their presence known. Apartment buildings in Earl’s Court are fronted by handsome ironwork fences, which cyclists use to lock down their vehicles. Many home owners have taken to posting signs on their fences threatening to have illegally parked bicycles towed away. Curiously, a number of young Londoners use three-wheeled skateboards to get around.

Photocredit: Demotix.com
World’s biggest pillow fight. Photocredit: Demotix.com

The Achilles heel of London, like every other super-successful metropolitan area, is the high cost of housing. When everyone from Russian oligarchs to Saudi princes wants to buy a piece of your city, property prices will rise. It is exceedingly difficult to redevelop property at higher densities rapidly enough for supply to keep pace with demand. Real estate brokers post photographs of properties for sale, along with their prices, in the windows of their establishments, and it astounds me how expensive housing is. How middle-class Londoners can afford to live in their own city is beyond me. The city has so much to offer in culture, livability and, increasingly, fun — Londoners hosted what is reputed to be the world’s largest pillow fight at Trafalgar Square over the weekend — that they are willing to shoehorn themselves into smaller apartments and own fewer cars than Americans would tolerate. And it works — for them, at least.

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3 responses to “Exploring the World’s “Best” City”

  1. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Have a great vacation.

  2. larryg Avatar

    ditto…. see if there is a cordon toll…

  3. newmann Avatar

    What a glorious city, it’s no wonder that everyone from oligarchs to princes want a piece of it! Dr. Johnson got it right some 250 years ago!

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