London's Calling

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.

Cities 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, Georgia.

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. 

Many 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 this reliance.

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 livable city.

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.

These 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.

Finally, I 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.


Albert Hall

Hyde Park Lake

City Hall

Gallery near Llyod's

All Photographs Copyright Francis X. Arvan

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