London has a powerful sense of history. Around each corner lies
something special, sometimes ancient and sometimes modern. London is an
architectural palimpsest for all to enjoy (go ahead, look it up).
People have been there for over 2,000 years, working hard to build a
city. Despite invasions, fires, epidemics and depressions, it now
prospers. It is a dynamic and vital place. This is its first lesson: It takes a long time and constant effort to build a great city.
evolve and devolve. They are up and then they struggle. Great cities
are not built instantly. Americans are an impatient lot. We have
difficulty accepting life’s roller coaster. We want it all to be good,
and we want it now. But even in America, wealthy and dynamic as it is,
the evolution of a city is slow and messy.
London’s second lesson: a city does not get better if it destroys its great buildings.
Keep and preserve great architecture. There are buildings from the
second century in London, beautiful ancient works. They may not
perfectly suit our modern needs, but they provide an enriching
spiritual connection with the past. They are critical to the character
and life of the city. They tell us about human history. It’s
because of this history that millions of people visit London each
year. Great old buildings are assets, just as great new buildings
are assets. The past is the counterpoint to the future and
historical buildings form the base for modern architecture. Every time
we lose a significant work of historical architecture we lose a piece
of our memory. Our foundation becomes shaky. We lose a piece of our
cultural soul. Cities are history, recorded in stone and steel. Great
cities are best made by accretion; that is, they should evolve,
building by building, a little at a time. This process creates visual
diversity and a human scale never found in overly master-planned,
large-scale urban development.
The counterpoint to lesson No. 2 is lesson No. 3: Even
though private enterprise should be free to build on private land,
public space, both green and hard, streets, parks and squares should be
carefully and beautifully planned. Kensington, Hyde, James and
Regents Parks are calm islands in an often frantic city. They are
beautifully landscaped with fountains, monuments and lakes. Piccadilly
Circus is a vibrant collector, filled with people and traffic.
Detroit’s new piazza, Campus Martius is like Piccadilly. It is a great
addition. Grand Circus Park is a bit different, quieter yet still a
wonderful place. Belle Isle is also a great park, but because it’s an
island, it is not as accessible as the city parks of London. The
proposed Detroit RiverWalk system will be an accessible park. It should
be beautiful if it is designed as a park, continuous and green, wide
enough to remain a park and not interrupted by private intrusions to
the waterfront. It should be planned as a great park with private
development built around it, not the other way around. More can be
done. With all of the vacant land in Detroit, there can be many more
parks. There is a great opportunity to rethink Detroit’s basic
grid. Consider parks every six blocks, like historic Savannah,
London’s fourth lesson is very obvious and very important: London would not be the city it is without its concentration of wealth and power.
businesses are headquartered there and many wealthy people live
there. The Prime Minister governs from there and the Queen rules
over the Royal Court there. When the early Romans invaded the British
Isles they discovered London was ideally located to be a center for
commerce and government. This status has continued unabated for 2,000
years. Commerce, creativity, wealth and political power underlie
the vitality of all great cities.
We know this lesson in
Detroit. Detroit has a near history of economic and creative greatness.
With the Model T and the assembly line, Detroit had a profound impact
on the world. This gave Detroit great wealth. But at this point, it’s
common knowledge that the global economy is forcing reductions in
Detroit’s historically high pay for low skill jobs. U.S. auto companies
are more than challenged from abroad. It is clear that our auto
expertise needs to be reinvigorated and possibly redirected. But we
also need something else, and this leads to the next point.
London’s fifth lesson: a city will be more stable and vital with a diverse economic, socio/cultural and built environment.
We know this all too well in Detroit. Our culture and economy have
relied on the auto industry and we have suffered the ups and downs of
London does not rely on just one industry. It
is economically diverse. It is also ethnically diverse. One in
three residents of the its 6.7 million belong to an ethnic minority
group. (Click here
for more information). This means London is an amalgam. It
is not white or black or yellow or brown. It is a colorful mix. Its use
patterns are diverse and mixed as well. Residents live close to
services. Restaurants and shops share streets with town homes and car
parks, churches nestle up to pubs, and office buildings abut parks and
palaces. Diversity creates energy, interest and ultimately a more
London’s sixth lesson explains how all of the diverse interests can live together: Some issues affect the entire region and the region should determine how to handle those issues.
If you have visited London you probably saw Big Ben, the Tower,
Westminster Abbey, all that, but the city of London is actually an
amalgam of 33 separate boroughs in an area that stretches over 1,200
square miles. Many boroughs are small, what we might call suburbs
here in the States. Each of these boroughs was at one time a
politically independent “town”. Londoners recognize that some issues
are too large for a small city to handle. Over the years there have
been various efforts to coordinate the area on a regional level. The
most recent effort came in 2000 when the London Assembly, comprising 25
members, and a single Mayor were elected to oversee regional issues
such as land development, economic development, transportation, fire
and police services, air quality, biodiversity, energy, noise, waste
and culture. To herald and house this new governing structure, London
built a new government center with a spectacular city hall, shaped like
a glass egg, on the banks of the Thames.
In Detroit our recent
scrapes over the zoo and the water supply are only a few regional
concerns that need to be addressed. The survival of these
important assets and our over-all economic and cultural vitality are
regional interests and should be influenced by a body that has
representation from each city. A regional government could help us
reconcile the tension between Detroit and surrounding cities. A
regional government could help integrate our economy and bring more
diverse and better jobs to every city. A regional government could
oversee a new regional public transportation plan. A regional
government could help relieve the economic pressure on Detroit’s
depleted tax base. A regional government could pool assets to improve
roads, improve refuse disposal and many other services now done
piecemeal by the many small cities in the region. To get a better sense
of how this can work, visit the London City Government web site. It is truly amazing. See how they are working, as a region, to create a better life for all.
lessons present a serious challenge to each of us, a challenge to learn
from history and to learn from others. Detroit has a history of
economic success and creative cultural energy. Detroit has a history of
good people making good decisions. It also, like all places, has the
opposite. It has a history of division and currently Detroit, the city
and the region, have economic troubles.
The lessons from London
can illuminate our own flaws, reinforce our good efforts and move us in
the right direction. But the lessons are only useful if they are
learned and used. Closed minds ignore the teacher. It’s time to
put power struggles aside in order to bring creative and diverse
people, new jobs and economic wealth to our region. Let’s learn to make
public land beautiful and plentiful, bring enlightened development to
private land and save our great historic buildings.
shouldn’t leave you with the impression that all is perfect in London
town. There is serious racial tension in some areas, and there are
great income inequities. Forty-three percent of London’s children live below the poverty line.
These sobering facts take us to where we started, back to the first
lesson. Even a city as old as London has work to do. You see,
London, like Detroit, is still a city in progress, building and
learning, yearning to be better.
Francis X. Arvan is a native metro Detroiter and a graduate of
Lawrence Technological University and Columbia's Graduate School of
Architecture. He's practiced architecture in New York City and
Westchester County, and taught architecture at New Jersey Institute of
Technology in Newark. Arvan moved back to Michigan in 1997, and
established his own firm, Royal Oak-based FX Architecture, in 2000. He
is also the chair of the Royal Oak Main Street Design Committee.
Hyde Park Lake
Gallery near Llyod's
All Photographs Copyright Francis X. Arvan