Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Letter to London

With the Musing Urbanist soon to depart these shores for the glass towers of Vancouver, I felt now was a suitable time to reflect on the state of urbanism in London.  While the popularity of ranking cities according to liveability shows no signs of abating, my letter to London hopes to inform the debate from a specific planning and urbanist standpoint.

Dear London
I first got to know you on annual weekend visits as a child. Your famous monuments and overpriced hotels opened my eyes to a type of settlement a million miles away from the rural idyll of the Channel Islands. After I relocated to the city in 2006 I have got to know you on a more personal level and have seen you and at your best and worst.  So as I depart for a city often feted for its approach to urbanism and liveability (rightly or wrongly), I leave with you my thoughts on what makes you world class and not bottom of the class. 

London's parks come in all shapes and sizes, shabby or royal, overgrown or majestic.  Having lived in west London for the past two years I have been spoiled for choice with access to Hyde Park, Holland Park and Ravenscourt Park - not to forget the future plans for the redevelopment of Shepherds Bush Green.  London's parks often appear from nowhere, surrounded by terraced housing and suddenly providing open greenspace in the heart of the city.  Clearly we owe a great deal to the Royal Parks for establishing a blueprint of substantial open parkland which the city continues to benefit from.  

Public Transport
Mind the Gap
It is all to easy to mock the Tube for cramped carriages and weekend closures.  But the geographical coverage of the network is truly inspiring.  I often think that if the tube were being developed today it would consist of less than half the number of lines and stations.  Though some areas of the city are not well served by the tube (i.e. Hackney) the growing London Overground service is providing the necessary linkages to offer multiple options for your journey.  While Vancouver gets excited about one underground train line, London operates with 13 lines and significantly more buses.  As London grows eastwards the extension of public transport will be vital to support the new communities.  Just don't mention the strikes!

Old and New
After visiting Paris I was suddenly struck by how London brazenly mixes new and old architecture.  Central Paris is a museum city whereas London embraces contemporary development alongside its historical monuments. While one can endlessly debate the architectural and design quality of the new buildings, the sheer fact they are being built is testament to the city.  London has its fair share of architectural mistakes, but overall I think the city embraces change in its more central areas whilst not neglecting the Gherkin and the soon to be finished Shard add to the character of London and have quickly become part of the urban fabric.

Strategic Planning
The London Plan Key Diagram
The changes described above can be more recently attributed to the establishment of the Greater London Authority in 2000.  Though Mayor Livingstone's pandering to certain property developers was regretful, his time as Mayor saw the establishment of the London Plan and the strategic planning function.  Currently there is a national tension in planning between localism and the requirement to plan certain development at a regional or national level.  Only recently the Government were criticised for constraining wind farm development due to the absence of a strategic plan. The London Plan has set a framework which identifies the key issue to London's future - the growth of East London, the importance of climate change and the role of public transport.  It is an excellent template which other city-regions would benefit from. 

Musing Urbanist

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