Monday, December 20, 2010

London Fawning

Just some thoughts I've made about Shawn Micallef's excellent Back to the Mothership article in this week's EYE Weekly...


Whenever a Torontonian goes to London for the first time, I find they often come back saying something along these lines… "Oh my God, it's the greatest place ever! Did you see their subway map? Like holy shit! And those palaces! Picadilly & Oxford Circuses all the shopping, museums…lager, lager, lager! It leaves Toronto in the dust!” Not that I thought you’d write a piece like that, but I really did enjoy the timely honesty and the fact that you’ve experienced London and Toronto both deeply (which is key in writing such a piece). In many ways they two cities are incomparable as London is a genuine “centre of the universe” alpha city whereas Toronto is an emerging upper-beta city (arguably going through a mid-life crisis). Still, I think it’s fair to find and draw similarities in their existences, urban forms and even cultures. I’ve made the same sorts of comments with friends that Toronto and London sometimes remind me of each other and I’m usually laughed at or met with a strange silence. Why? Because most people experience London as a “west end tourist” which is very different from any “living in Toronto” experience. However, if you get into the messy urbanism of some of the neighbourhoods, where real Londoners live, I think your comparisons are pretty apt.

Not necessarily disagreements, but a few things that stuck out for me…

•London, like New York, offers a heck of a lot of economic and cultural freedom and this is probably the #1 reason for its continued draw, despite the British economy and the crap weather. London, unlike the rest of Europe, heck the world, is a place where nobody really cares what you do as long as you do something. Berlin has a bit of that too, but London has the economy to push those ideas forward perhaps better. Also, somewhat like Toronto, there’s no real requirement to “fit in” or to become “Canadian/British” (whatever that means). Indeed, London is thoroughly British in some ways, but is also an island unto itself at least figuratively (and NYC being both literal and figurative vis-à-vis the US). I feel Toronto plays a similar role in English Canada.

•Outside of London’s “west-end” the messy urbanism of London and Toronto are similar in their spirit, although not always architecturally. There’s no rigid design plan, but generally somewhat sensible urban policies are followed in both cities. They allow and welcome various styles and heights and both Greater London and the GTA are poly-nucleated with virtually dozens of sub-centres relieving somewhat their respective cores. London’s density is pretty-much always miles-ahead of T.O.’s though and is quite a bit better at cenetring that density around transit (our Yonge line being an obvious exception). Moreover, something like Liberty Village or the current Don Lands/Portlands developments would never be allowed in London without a Tube/DLR extension, yet we allow it here with the faint hope that one day we’ll get a dedicated tram line or maybe, just maybe, a Downtown Relief Line. Basically, we let development drive development. For example, their gentrifying neighbourhoods (i.e. Shoreditch, Dalston, etc.) are now served by the brand new 86 km Overground system that is longer and more extensive than the entire TTC subway. Yet our Junctions, Leslievilles, and Parkdales have virtually no hope of transit improvement this generation.

•Toronto’s subway is indeed more reliable and more comfortable that just about any TFL line. However, its skimpiness does impede transit around the city arguably greater than London’s notorious Tube delays (which are getting better in general). If there are no Tube delays, you can be anywhere within Zone 1 or 2 in London within 20 minutes which is an incredible feat if you really think about it. However, if one tries to get from Parkdale to the Don Valley in Toronto they have zero options, save two antiquated streetcar lines the have no priority over single-vehicle traffic that can often take 45 minutes or more. I guess what I’m saying is that despite the smaller trains, the deep stations and the cumbersome delays, I feel much more stranded in parts of the old city of Toronto than I ever do in London. The night busses running on a spoke-like system also make things quite easy. Moreover, London’s system is built around the network principle and integrated with national and regional carriers and therefore there’s always other options even when a delay occurs. The other Toronto option is pretty much always "let's just take the cab." It is very fair to say though that both Toronto and London suffer from decades of underfunding and non-investment in infrastructure. I'd give the edge though to London here in doing the better job of reinvestment (especially in light of the "cancellation" of Transit City). It's definitely not run like the Swiss or Germans in London, but I'm quite comfortable in saying that it is better than in Toronto.

•Toronto and London both currently have what could be thought of as “bad mayors.” However, as ill-informed and downright cringe-worthy as some of things that come out of Boris Johnson’s mouth are, they are never anti-urban. In fact, they are thoroughly the opposite. He rides his Barclay’s bike to work, he talks about investing in all forms of transit where they make sense, improving the public realm, not pitting one part of the city against another (at least anymore). Yes, Toronto has survived bad mayors before, and we will likely survive this one, but I’d put Ford in a very different category than Boris. We are dealing with ill-informed, knee-jerk anti-urbanism. London is just dealing with a guy who says silly things, but completely understands that investments, transit and public realm issues aren’t gravy, but central to competitiveness.

•Toronto clearly wins in the affordability category (even compared to other Canadian cities like Vancouver). Even if you were sharing a flat with three or four people in London, you certainly wouldn’t be living in Soho, but possibly somewhere out in Hackney (or beyond). In Toronto, you can live next to our west-end theatres on a single middle-income wage. It may be tight, but doable. Still, I suppose the counter-argument is that you pay for the city and London clearly has more to offer (not to say that Toronto doesn’t punch above its’ weight). Basically, if you are middle-class and you value having "nice things" it is far easier in Toronto. No question. In London, you will have less personal stuff, but arguably more good public stuff. Also, London's famous unaffordability has dropped in recent years, but is admittedly still much more expensive on most fronts (i.e. real estate, petrol/gas, transit, etc.)

•Christmas decorations on Yonge Street versus any High Street in all of London is a stark contrast in getting the little things right (and yes, Yonge gets it very wrong). Moreover, it reveals lots about our different thinking about urban design and other public realm issues (like trees, garbage cans and paving stones). Britain’s High Street policies may have led to almost every High Street's retailers looking like the next one over (i.e. Boots, Ladbrokes, M&S, etc.) but at least it has kept people on the High Streets. Stores sizes are also strictly regulated in the UK and councils work to keep the shopping in the centre. Moreover, the public and retailers demand a street to match their vast assortment of goods to be consumed. A good example is Camden High Street which recently removed lanes of traffic and became a "woonerf" to slow and reduce vehicular traffic and to make it easier/safer for pedestrians. Moreover, the local retailers were begging for this to happen. In Toronto, these improvements are often fought by the very businesses they are intended to help or worse now called "gravy."

Like you Shawn, Toronto is my hometown and I love it dearly for many reasons that go beyond it being my hometown. And yes, I still like it better than London in many ways. However, at this juncture in our history I think we can learn a lot from the colonial mothership and I’m happy you’ve made the argument. At the end of the day, I could list 100 things wrong with both cities (and 100 things right), but I'm a fair bit more optimistic about London than Toronto these days.

Wow, and I just wrote all that withouth mentioning "multiculturalism" or referencing Brit Pop.