Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Government is detrimental to good development

Software companies tend to release regular updates which add just a few features yet still cost an arm and a leg. With most software, though, there comes a time when the code becomes bloated and messy, to the point where iterative updates are no longer efficient and it's better to start from scratch. Government laws and regulations are much the same, and it's pretty plain to see that in most countries they've become so bloated that we're long past the due date for a reset. 

How is this related to cities and architecture? When we consider the efforts of urbanists and planners to turn our cities around and reclaim them from the automobile's dominance, it's very relevant. A myriad of ballooning laws and regulations are making it all but impossible to build the fine-grained mixed-use city districts which are paramount for high quality urbanism and walkability. Regulations are making it more and more difficult for small developers who actually care to compete with large developers (you know, the guys who lobbied for added complexity in the system in the first place). It's quite ironic that the government is always talking about boosting the economy, but when it comes down to it, their involvement is, more than anything else, a hindrance. 

To build anything now, you need an army of consultants to get though the permitting process. You need environmental reports, sustainability reports, traffic studies, etc etc. And has this resulted in higher quality cities? No! On the contrary, it's resulting in the further erosion of neighborhoods, the destruction of historical properties, and increasingly oversized new buildings. 

The building process is becoming so complex and expensive that no small developer can afford it, which means more and more of all building is done by large developers, who in turn build grossly oversized buildings to recoup the expenses of the ridiculously over complex bureaucratic process. You see it throughout cities in North America: giant buildings encroaching on neighborhoods where they're entirely inappropriate, yet there's a complete lack of the kind of mid-rise buildings which would fit into and contribute to the existing context. Worse, the kind of historic neighborhoods most beloved by residents would be largely illegal to build today due to restrictive codes. 

King Street, Charleston, around 1915. Beautiful and beloved, it would be all but impossible to build today, as it would not meet building codes. Among its illegal qualities are no setbacks, no parking, elements protruding over the sidewalk, apartments over shops, and the road itself is too narrow for fire departments' liking. 

With so many regulations restricting what you can't build, everything ends up looking the same while also being far more expensive. Cookie-cutter developments have become the norm, severely limiting choice. 

Whereas in the not too distant past our villages and towns grew organically, planned and built locally with knowledge that had been accumulated over thousands of years, today the most simple of tasks, even a new sidewalk, requires an expensive and extremely time-consuming process of permits, studies, and the involvement of dozens of consultants and government departments. The result is that the regular citizen is hardly involved, and the final product insanely expensive and vastly inferior in both logic and beauty to what laypeople once built. 

In fact, the most beloved neighborhoods of the 19th century were largely built with very little government involvement. Not only very little government, but very little so-called experts in general. In the 19th century, you didn't have specialists separated into architects, planners, builders, surveyors, and dozens of consultants. How do I know? One of the greatest resources available to anyone interested in London development is the archive of the Survey of London. It's an invaluable asset, with detailed information about the history of major developments such as the Grosvenor Estate, Ladbroke Estate, Portman Estate, and a host of other developments (called estates because they used to be, and some still are, private land owned by the landed gentry). Besides a huge amount of text, there are plans and sketches of the developments, and drawings of the buildings. 

What stands out reading the histories is that apart from needing permission to build sewers (likely because it was part of a larger system), developers were largely free to do as they pleased. Surveyors designed the street pattern along aesthetic desires, and architects and builders started work as soon as money was available. Often a surveyor was also an architect and/or a builder, or all three combined. None of them would be considered an "expert" by today's standards, as they rarely had formal training and the professions were not legally protected the way they are now. You were an architect because you designed buildings and called yourself one, not because you went through seven years of training and passed any sort of exam. 

And yet, the neighborhoods these non-experts designed were beautiful, superior to anything built since. Their work is proof of the power of common sense and talent. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because of a lack of formal training that these men were as good as they were. Unencumbered by ingrained methods, they could follow their intuition. There was no one to tell them what was right or wrong, no "best practices" or government bureaucrats demanding that this or that code be adhered to. 

The simplicity of the process meant that anyone could be a developer, and in fact with the Ladbroke Estate (today known as Notting Hill), among the developers were carpenters, a doctor, a clergyman, and even a cheesemonger. The neighborhood they built is a marvel and the homes beautiful. Standing for over 160 years, they are now among the most expensive in the world.

Kensington Park Gardens, Notting Hill, around 1900. Again, much of what makes this street special is no longer legal.

Today, with laws dictating so much of what you can and can't build, suggesting that our housing development is "market-driven" is a complete sham. On the other hand, those 19th century developments we love so much were truly market driven. Developers built what they believed customers wanted, and everything was paid for by the developers, and in turn by customers. Unlike today, the streets, streetlights, sewers, and plumbing were not subsidized by the government. There were no tax abatements, no zoning telling them where they were allowed to build what, no minimum set back requirements, no parking requirements, and no standards of minimum or maximum units per acre. There was none of that. They simply built what they thought would sell, and the majority of the costs were covered by private investors, so neither were there banks demanding that the development conform to standard forms they could bundle into mortgage backed securities.
This just barely scratches the surface. The simple fact is this: if we want our future towns and cities to be as beautiful and walkable as in the past, we must design neighborhoods that don't prioritize the automobile, and the government needs to get out of the way. We need to start trusting ourselves a little more. We know intuitively what's good and what isn't. You don't need a PhD to know a great neighborhood when you see it, and armies of consultants, big money, and government are all a hindrance to creating beautiful, local places. Especially the government and local and national codes, and the Department of Transportation, who are all only too happy to tell you what you can't do (for a fee, of course). 

I would highly recommend watching any of urbanist Andres Duany's speeches on lean urbanism for a dose of reality on these topics, what he calls "the hurdle of bureaucracy". Here's a good intro. Duany speaks with the kind of common sense sorely lacking these days, and he's also one of the greatest orators around. As one of the most prominent New Urbanist planners, he knows better than most the tremendous amount of effort required to get non-standard developments approved. 

City building is a task for generalists, for a jack of all trades, someone unbiased who can weigh everyone's needs equally, not letting any one group or entranced interest dictate the process. Beautiful developments require the triumph of common sense, something in short supply nowadays. And though it may be controversial to admit, and difficult to see happen, bureaucracy must be swept aside. Of course that's not an easy thing to do as governments never voluntarily relinquish their powers, but we are long overdue for a reset if we truly care about improving our built environment.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A sense of the temporary

There is a troubling, permanent sense of the temporary in London, something you can feel in neighborhoods across the social strata, from Hackney to Kensington. This is unhealthy both for the city and its individuals because it prevents residents from putting down roots, and feeling at "home" in their city. Regular readers know that I love London more than any other city, but this fault threatens the long term vitality and character of this amazing metropolis. 

As beautiful as Knightsbridge is, a sense of the temporary is not dependent on how wealthy an area is. Even in the exclusive borough of Kensington & Chelsea, over half of residents rent, and those that are owned are not necessarily lived in, with many homes owned by wealthy foreigners who are rarely in town, with no interest in the community.

This stems, of course, from extremely high housing costs, far above what students and workers can afford, putting pressure even on high-wage earning workers such as doctors and lawyers. Of course this is something London shares with most other large cities, and this post could probably apply to them as well, but more specifically this is based on my personal experiences in London. 

High housing costs make life in a city more difficult, or even impossible for those earning a minimum wage. In London this is especially acute as there is no specific minimum wage, a strategy often used in large American cities such as New York and San Francisco. A bartender in London makes the same wage as a bartender in the countryside, with obvious consequences for their quality of life. Everyone knows that high housing costs lead to uncomfortable compromises, but they also lead to less obvious problems.

Walking around most of London, you seldom have a sense that you're in a true neighborhood, that residents care about the long term future of their immediate area and are part of a community. Barely able to afford the rent for their apartment, let alone buy their own home, most residents are simply passing through, waiting for their opportunity to move somewhere slightly better or maybe further out to get more space. It's a double edged sword: with housing prices going up faster than wages, many find themselves trapped between wanting to move somewhere better but not being able to afford it. They end up in a limbo, in a constant waiting game, with the end result being that they feel no ownership or connection with their existing community.

When locals can't afford to buy their own homes, the majority of ownership rests in the hands of landlords, large and small. What both have in common is indifference. Except at the extreme luxury end, buildings owned by landlords are rarely as well looked after as owner-occupied homes. They're less likely to be renovated, and far less likely to have gardens out front. All of which further contributes to a sense of the temporary, walking along streets in far worse condition than they could be.

The street in Islington, North London that I lived on my last two months in London. The terrace buildings are decent Victorian stock, but are pretty much all renter-occupied, with landlords who invest little in their upkeep. Most residents, young people like myself, are simply passing through, and the street has no sense of community. Islington, coincidentally, has among the highest percent of renter-occupied homes in the UK at over 70% 

Something too rarely mentioned in articles about the housing affordability crisis is the effect it has on starting families. The decision on when to get married or have children should be a personal decision, but in large cities it has become held hostage by not being able to afford a decent place to live. Many who want to have children can't. Contrast this with my friends who still live in Indiana (like me, in their late 20's). They're not wealthy, just your usual college-educated middle-class working professionals, yet most have already bought 3+ bedroom homes in decent locations, and a few already have children. With my friends in London, however, none can afford to buy even a small apartment, even those in their mid 30's. Most still live with flatmates, something my Indiana friends haven't had to do since their college days. Just to be clear, these are people with good jobs. 

Ignoring cultural differences, my London friends for the most part can't have kids even if they wanted to. Their life circumstances just wouldn't allow it without serious financial consequences and it'd be a tight squeeze as 2+ bed apartments don't come cheap. They're being forced to delay important life milestones, unable to begin a truly "adult" life. The longer this situation stretches, the greater effect it will have on residents into old age as well. Don't take this as me advocating for large suburban homes. Far from it. I'm simply talking about decent 2-bed apartments in reasonably family-friendly locations. 

Waterlow Park, North London

You'd be hard pressed to find someone more enamored with London than me, but if the city continues on its current trajectory, pretty soon it'll be little more than a playground for young singles and the international elite. If home prices don't come down to levels a mid-30's working professional can afford, London will find itself bereft of the middle class which has always been every city's economic engine, which equally impacts local businesses like shops. That's not a sustainable trajectory for a "lived in" city and just further contributes to the city lacking a sense of permanence.  

There's no easy fix. Either homes prices have to fall, or wages go up... drastically. Neither of these is likely to happen anytime soon to the degree necessary for a true and long lasting shift. Eventually, though, I think it will, once society starts suffering from the effects and has had enough. A city like London is perfectly positioned for the shift, with a large stock of resilient historical buildings which have survived the test of time and are always ready to serve owners dependably with a little love and care. 

Housing statistics: Housing in London 2015 report

Monday, September 12, 2016

An alternative perception of cars

Kentlands, MD. Photo from flickr: kaibates/Creative Commons

So much of our reality is based on perception. Take cars. When I was a teenager, like most boys my age I was obsessed with cars. Owning a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche seemed like one of the greatest achievements one could reach in life. 

Today, nothing could be further from the truth for me. As much of a car guy as I used to be (and I still appreciate some cars as impressive mechanical achievements), when I see a $100k+ car, the first thing I think is "dang, you could go on a lot of nice vacations for that kind of money." Now I'm not saying anyone is wrong to buy an expensive car. I'm not one to tell others how to spend their money. It's just not something I understand anymore. 

That's a lot of nice vacations...

Most Americans live in a built environment where the daily use of a car is all but required, so it's unsurprising that the car has become an integral part of the culture. Actually, this is increasingly true in a lot of countries. I live in a middle-class kind of area in Switzerland, with an apartment building, rowhouses, and single family homes on my street. It's not suburban sprawl in the American sense, that doesn't really exist here, but it's suburban in the sense that it's removed from the city and a car is required for daily activities, with the nearest supermarket 2km away. A two car household is pretty standard. Just like in the US, with the car occupying such an important place in daily life, for many it naturally becomes a status symbol. Keeping up with the Joneses is almost a ritual for many car-owning suburbanites, something that signals how successful one is in life.

The lower portion of my street in Switzerland, with a four-story apartment building on one side, parking on the other
Further down the street are semi-detached/duplex houses (with a shared garage wall), with the front mainly given over to parking
Being removed from a car dependent existence for three years while living in London, I was able to experience the alternative: a life on two legs. Car owners love to play up the "freedom" they get from their car, but for me true freedom is not being dependent on a 2-ton machine, but rather the ability to walk when and where I please, not just where someone at some time decided to plunk down a strip of asphalt. I don't want to be worried about speed cameras, parking, traffic, and whether or not I've had a drink. To me, life has become about experiences, not things, and in that context the car is more of a burden than a treasure, another loan that keeps one tied to the system.

The car culture is deeply entrenched into modern life, and it will remain that way for decades to come, especially if we see EV's and autonomous cars as some kind of panacea. But I think it's paramount to acknowledge that not everyone agrees with or wants to be part of the car culture, and make sure that alternative, walkable communities are available. Of course, the problem with entrenched cultures is that people tend to reject what's different, and in most cities it's not even legal to build traditional walkable communities. That has to change. 

I've always believed the best way to convince a skeptic is to lead by example, so my sincere hope is that once the walkable alternative is easy for all to experience, even those who can't imagine a life without cars will lower their defenses, at the very least making it easier to build more such communities. Maybe some of them will even convert over once they see how gratifying it can be to have schools, shopping, work, and play all within walking distance. Or a bakery steps away so you can get fresh bread for breakfast: priceless. A healthy, holistic neighborhood is one that doesn't require residents to leave for daily needs. Cars have their place, but should not be required for basic daily needs.

Once people see how pleasant the alternative can be, my hope is they'd be less resistant to walkable communities being built in their own cities. Photo from flickr: ugardener/Creative Commons
Small parks like this one in Kentlands are used much more often than most front lawns and help build a sense of a shared community. Photo from flickr: Dan Reed/Creative Commons

Person by person, the change will come, and maybe one day soon an elegant pair of walking shoes will be just as much a status symbol as cars are today.

Monday, February 29, 2016

London walking guide Pt. 2: West

To me, West London is the most beautiful urban residential area in the world. Unlike most European cities, it is largely composed of houses rather than apartment blocks. Even though many have now been converted into apartments, that more human and domestic scale remains. West London is also the greenest part of Central London, with dozens of garden squares interspersed among the elegant terraces and Hyde and Holland Parks never far away. The level of greenery is evident just by looking at a satellite image. The difference with other large European cities is staggering. 

This is an area I have photographed more than any other, as this is where I spent most of my free time (when I could spare a break from studying architecture). There are few things I would rather do than take a walk through these neighborhoods. As charming as I find a North West area like Hampstead, West London stretches for miles, a huge cluster of unique streets. It's the closest thing to an amusement park I've ever found. It's the first place I go to every time I visit London, and I'll be going back regularly for as long as I live. 

To me these areas represent the true London, where London is at its best and most unique. You'll have noticed I specifically avoid featuring Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, the City, and other popular areas. They may be fine places to work and shop, but today are far too busy and modern. Especially for someone like me, in love with Georgian and Victorian architecture, there is no better place in the world than West London.

If you already read the first part, you'll know that red represents my favorite streets, blue my recommend walking route. I highly suggest clicking on the map for the full size, which you can then save on your phone for reference during your walk.

Click for full size
I recommend starting the walk at Royal Oak station, which is on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. That's what I have drawn on the map. It's also possible to start at Bayswater station (Circle and District lines) or Queensway station (Central line) but the route will not be perfectly in tune with my recommendation.

Westbourne, Bayswater, and Notting Hill

These three areas sort of blend together, especially in the border area where our walk starts. Neighborhood boundaries in London tend to be less defined than in many other cities
and here is no exception. The Westbourne name in particular is not too well known, and many residents identify themselves as living in Notting Hill, though to me Notting Hill proper will always be the group of crescents along Ladbroke Grove, which is my favorite area of this bunch (and perhaps my favorite area in London generally).

Only Belgravia (featured later in this guide) can rival Notting Hill for pure elegance. There's something about that stark whiteness that harmonizes the streetscape. It's hard to believe not too long ago it was regarded as a run-down area. Today it's one of the city's most expensive. Just goes to show that a true gem never truly loses its shine. It's always there, even if under a layer of grime. 

What really sets it apart are the large, private communal gardens to which many of the terraces back up onto, and the sweeping crescent road layout, unusually regular for London. This makes it very pleasant to walk, as your view is constantly changing.

After you've had your share of white and colorful houses, head south towards Holland Park.

Holland Park

Holland Park is both the name of a park and the surrounding neighborhoods. This part of the walk takes us down the most iconic streets, a group of elegant Victorian mansions not unlike those we saw earlier in Pembridge Square. Don't miss the dramatic Holland Park Mews, which runs between the two main roads.

Next in the walk is Campden Hill Square, which exemplifies a London trait I have always cherished, that of a peaceful oasis just off a busy street (in this case Holland Park Ave).

We now start entering Kensington, the namesake of the borough, and probably the most eclectic area of the walk, both economically and architecturally.

This next photo is again in the Holland Park area, more specifically Phillimore Estate, though again this is a name rarely used outside of property agents. The Phillimore Estate is characterized by well ordered streets and large detached homes, many of which back onto Holland Park. 


Crossing Kensington High Street, we are back in Kensington. Walk along Earls Terrace and then head inwards toward Edwardes Square, one of the largest garden squares in the city. Like most it's private, but the late-Georgian terraces surrounding it are modest and charming, and are Grade II listed.

Next on the walk is Pembroke Square, a little less regular. Beyond walk east along Scarsdale Villas, where the homes are again firmly Victorian, built between 1850-1864.

Once you reach Lexham Gardens, be sure to take the secret passage called Cornwall Gardens Walk to pass through to Cornwall Gardens. Next on the walk is a very expensive group of streets, Eldon Road and Cottesmore Gardens. That's because they are not only handsome homes, but also have quite large back gardens by London standards.

You could take a shortcut here and go straight through Kynance Mews to Launceston Place, but then you'd be missing Kensington Court and Square.

If you took the longer loop, step out on Kensington High Street briefly until you once again reach Victoria Road, and walk all the way down to Kynance Mews. Beyond is Launceston Place and Victoria Grove, one of the most charming streets in Kensington, in my opinion. I'd love to own one of these little homes, completed around 1846.

Gunter Estate

This next neighborhood is sometimes included with Kensington, especially among property agents, but sometimes also as Earl's Court or even Chelsea (the southern bit). To me it's neither, as the character is quite different from any of those. The reason is because this area was developed together as part of the Gunter Estate. These terraces have a unique style, even by London standards, with red brick contrasting sharply with light stone. Built between the 1860s-1880's, so quite late compared to many other terraces in London.

It's difficult to recommend how best to go from here, as my favorite streets are all over and it would require a lot of zig-zagging to see them all. I tended to go through The Boltons, a large oval garden square surrounded by large semi-detached mansions. Though be warned, I cannot recall a single occasion I came through here without getting a Godfather vibe. There were always black Mercedes S-classes and security on at least one doorstep. Don't let that detract from the architecture, however.


While today Chelsea is a popular neighborhood, in the Victorian age it was not as upscale as it is today, and therefore somewhat retains more of a village feel than many of these other neighborhoods. It's what once drew artists and writers to the area. In general the buildings are much shorter, with far fewer terraces.

The next image shows Glebe Place, once the heart of artistic activity in Chelsea starting in the 19th century.

And now you reach the Thames. Cheyne Walk was once home to Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Ralph Vaughan Williams, J.M.W. Turner and many other notable artists and writers.

Generally the further east you walk, the more urban and formal Chelsea becomes. It's fun to seek out the exceptions, however.


Many avoid glitzy Knightsbridge because of the Harrods crowd (and who can blame them), but that's a shame, because away from the crowds, this area has some of the most beautiful architecture in London.

At this point is a long walk down Walton Street. 

South Kensington

We'll be back in Knightsbridge soon, but first a detour into South Kensington. Popular among tourists for the many museums along Exhibition Road, to me it will always hold a special place, because this was my first experience of West London during my first week in London all those years ago. Suffice to say, that first walk among the white stucco terraces and garden squares was one of constant amazement. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I didn't know an urban residential area could be so beautiful. The myth of suburbia that had been a cornerstone of my American upbringing came crashing down in an instant.

We cross busy Brompton Road now to see Brompton Square, and then take the pedestrian passageway called Cottage Place to visit one of my favorite mews: Ennismore Garden Mews.

Once you reach Rutland Mews, there's a hard to spot doorway through to Rutland Street, and now you'll be back briefly in Knightsbridge. Below, Montpelier Square.


Even by West London standards Belgravia can be quite shocking. With few exceptions, white stucco is the order of the day here, and the terraces are palatial in scale and style. Developed from the 1820's and largely still owned by the Grosvenor Estate, this has always been a very upscale neighborhood. It was once a popular second-home location for England's aristocratic families. It's an impressive area, no doubt, but more urban than the others you will have seen today. As imposing as it is, however, I've always felt it's a shame there isn't more greenery, with many of the squares divided from homes by traffic, and in general one has a sense they are little used by residents. 

Fans of mews are in for a treat. Belgravia is full of fine examples so be sure to keep your eyes out.

Well, that's it. If, as I suspect, you finish around Chester Square, the nearest tube station is Victoria, a few minutes walk east.

I certainly kept my promise to make photos more of a feature in this one. It has been a pleasure to show you my favorite streets in London, and if it goes a little way towards encouraging more people to see these areas of London in a different light, and appreciate the architecture as much as I do, I'll feel I have done my job. These are not just bedroom communities for the wealthy. They're beautiful homes and beautiful streets, each with a unique character.

Enjoy your walks.

All photos my own. See more here.