London, United Kingdom
This is the first entry in a series of blog posts based on our musings from our travels.
Winter in Buffalo gets old right around the beginning of March. The excitement that comes with seeing a new snowstorm is long gone, and the clean white snow that once painted the landscape is rapidly being replaced with brown tones and potholes. Any excuse to get away for a spring break is much appreciated this time of year.
Fortunately for me, I had a pretty good excuse. My brother surprised us all at Christmas by telling us that something he designed was going to be included in an exhibition at the London Museum of Design. The museum was opening a gallery titled “Hope to Nope”, and his graphic was representative of the subject of the gallery – graphic design in modern politics. All politics aside, we’re all proud of him, and going to London for the galley opening gave us a great opportunity to go experience a new city.
We booked a trip to spend a week in the London area. Armed with no less than five umbrellas between us, we jumped across the pond.
London is an ancient city, with history dating back to the Roman empire. While it isn’t difficult to find parts of the built environment that date back to the days of William the Conqueror, (Approximately 1000 CE), most of what we see as London today was built in the last couple hundred years. This is the result of several rounds of involuntary urban renewal, i.e. fires and wars. Evidence of this was right outside our door. We stayed in an Airbnb that was a row house built across the street from the Chelsea football club stadium. The Stadium was built on a site that was hit by two bombs during the London blitz. This stadium is a modern stadium, accommodating over 40,000 visitors, and likely wouldn’t be sited there had whatever was located there previously been spared from the ravages of war. Germany never broke the moral of Englishmen in the London blitz, and that resilience among Londoners that was exhibited then still exists today.
It was easy for us to navigate the city from day 1. This is thanks to the convenient Oyster Card system. Using these cards, we were able to use multi-modal public transportation services including London Underground and the red double decker buses.
While I did not find a lot of unique planning for the City of London, I found that the City had adopted planning methods and philosophy from all over the world that worked for it. For example, Le Corbusier has a major influence on modern interior design in London. Modern, efficient architecture is necessary with a city as dense as London. I also saw elements of the City Beautiful Movement in some of the older row houses, and numerous public squares including Trafalgar square and Piccadilly Circus. This mix-match of urban design concepts is likely due to the long-history of the city, and the fact that England has been influenced by the places that it has interacted with on the world-stage for so many years.
What surprised me
Two things: History and tradition. We visited the British Museum, and the amount of irreplaceable and priceless artifacts that this empire that stretched across the globe for several hundred years collected is unbelievable. For a few hundred years, if your country was in the British Empire’s way, it would conquer you, and take your stuff, if you’re lucky. In recent years, progress has been made in returning artifacts to their rightful owners, but nonetheless, there remains a strong sense of pride in the collection that exists in Britain.
Regarding tradition, we went on this trip expecting to live amongst tourists, and do things that perhaps only tourists would consider doing. i.e. sipping afternoon tea, visiting a pub to have fish and chips, taking walks in Hyde park. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Locals do drink afternoon tea. They do eat fish and chips, and use pubs as community gathering spaces. They do walk their exceptionally well-behaved dogs in Hyde park.
Of particular interest was the culture of public markets that has been present in London for over one thousand years. There are several styles of these markets, that again, are frequented by both locals and tourists – those open every day except Sunday (ex: Borough Market), and those open only on Sundays (ex: Covent Garden Market). These ancient markets are as lively as ever, and seem to be places where time stands still.
What I took home
Before I visited London, I had never been to a living monarchy. Having been to the Paço Imperial in Rio de Janerio and the Forbidden City in Beijing, I’d experienced my fair share of “palace museums”. While the British monarchy certainly isn’t the global symbol of power that it once was, it is a living thing, and what makes it unique, is that people seem to love it the same way we love mascots. England has incorporated the monarchy into its brand, and it has become a powerful tool for tourism-related economic development. This is evidenced by the fact that, in 2017, it cost £292 million to maintain the monarchy, and the monarchy added £1.766 billion to the economy. It is estimated that the monarchy will bring approximately £42 billion pounds to the UK over the next few years.
Few places seem to be as self-aware as London is of the assets it has. This capital city of a former empire has successfully struck a balance between history and modernity, and done so in a way that is appealing to visitors and community members alike. If it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere.
About the author
Travis Gordon is an urban planner based in Buffalo, New York. He enjoys biking to Niagara Falls in the summer, skiing in the winter, and solving community and economic development problems year-round. He believes that multiculturalism and post-industrial economic drivers are often underappreciated tools for community revitalization.