All images by Mr. 14thandyou
Happy Memorial Day everyone! Here's a post we've been working on for some time, and the three day weekend provided us with enough time to get it finished...
Here at 14thandyou, we don't exactly take great pains to disguise the fact that we think DC is a pretty fabulous place to be. Our city is beautiful, the cultural opportunities are immense, the outdoor activities plentiful, the green spaces lovely, the educational institutions outstanding, and--perhaps most importantly-- the dining superb. In short, DC and its environs offers an opportunity for a pretty fantastic quality of life.
However, you can't address all of the "good" of the city without also discussing the "bad". You may find DC a great place to be, but it doesn't mean that you can't also remain on a constant vigil for ways in which the city could improve. It wasn't all that long ago, of course, that DC was viewed largely as a cultural backwater, a sleepy southern town more infamous for political follies than for anything the city itself might offer. (The District did not have a world-class performing arts venue until the Kennedy Center was erected in the early 70s, for instance.) It has come a long way in a short period of time.
Not long ago, the 14thandyous returned from a trip to London. Mrs. 14thandyou had spent some time in Britain's capital city during her college years, whereas it was Mr. 14thandyou's first visit. Central London is unquestionably one of the most beautiful, exciting and vibrant cities that the world has to offer. Visitors are welcomed to block after block of Victorian-era homes and gardens, not to mention some of the finest shopping and dining options anywhere. It is truly a magnificent city. It is with this in mind that the 14thandyous returned from our trip with an eye towards some things that DC could adopt from its British counterpart.
On its face, it may seem a bit unfair to compare one of the largest and most culturally sophisticated cities in the world with Washington, DC. To be sure, no one who has ever tired of our traffic, sweltering summers and sometimes-inept local government could ever be said to have "tired of life." And with that position of global prominence comes an equal supply of resources, both financially and otherwise. But that doesn't mean that there aren't lessons that DC could take away from London that would aid in its continued growth and development--lessons that could be implemented here, if so desired.
Relax the Residential/Commercial Zoning Laws
Imagine strolling through the leafy streets of Georgetown, Shaw, Capitol Hill or other DC neighborhoods. Rather than having commercial corridors expressly laid out along only a handful of specific streets and blocks, picture those shops, restaurants and other businesses interspersed within residential areas. Impossible to imagine in DC? Most likely, but it's something that you encounter frequently within even the toniest areas of London. In the middle of Chelsea, which contains some of the most expensive real estate in the world, you'll find commercial strips lined with pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, bookstores, homewares and more. It's not considered scandalous to locate a pub at the corner of an otherwise residential street. It creates a far more vibrant neighborhood, and not to the detriment of the people living there.
In DC, zoning laws make that idea prohibitive, and what the zoning laws don't cover ANC and neighborhood groups do in their zealousness to protect residents from interspersing residences with commercial activity. This isn't a call for unfettered development everywhere in the District mind you, but rather a call for a more sensible adoption of DC zoning laws--as well as local neighborhood opinion--that would ease the nearly complete prohibition of commercial development in otherwise residential sectors. This type of zoning leads to vast swaths of blighted commercial corridors (found in certain central DC neighborhoods) and contributes towards more residential neighborhoods being underserved by commercial activity. Finally, such development also encourages cohesiveness and a greater sense of community within neighborhoods, where the corner cafe or market down the street becomes an additional focal point to residents of the neighborhood.
This is certainly a highly charged topic and one that could be debated ad nauseum, so I'll try to keep this particular point focused on one particular issue: encouraging development around Metro stations, both within the District and in the surrounding areas as well. Within London, clustered development around Tube stations is found all around the central city, meaning that where one finds a subway station in London, one will also likely find all manner of shops, retailers, restaurants, etc. This not only encourages smart growth land use patterns, it also leads to more walkable, cohesive neighborhoods.
DC has started to make real inroads with this type of development. Around certain parts of downtown (Penn Quarter, Farragut Square) as well as the Orange Line corridor and certain parts of Montgomery County, dense commercial and retail development is centered around Metro stations. Still, a number of stations are underdeveloped and lacking appropriate levels of density. A good example of this is the U Street station, where plans are in the works to transform two underutilized corners near the station entrance into significantly denser developments more befitting of their location. This type of development is a boon for the city, as well as for residents and visitors alike, and should continue to be encouraged.
Keep the Streets Clean
London is a remarkably clean city, and I don't even need to add the caveat "for its size". It's just clean, period. Some of that is no doubt cultural. There seems to be a greater amount of respect given to public spaces in London, in that littering is greatly frowned upon (and thus largely not practiced.) But that's only part of the explanation for why London's streets are by and large free of refuse and other debris. The city employs individuals who patrol the streets on a regular basis and sweep up the trash that accumulates. These individuals don't merely patrol the most popular and visible thoroughfares, you'll see them throughout the city, sweeping up everything in their wake. If you spend any time in central DC, you've probably seen those downtown BID employees (the ones wearing red jackets) who are stationed near Metro stations and busy tourist areas to assist tourists with directions, transportation questions and other issues. They're a great idea, but why not expand their responsibilities to street sweeping? Additionally, the city could work through the ANCs and neighborhood associations to employ individuals in neighborhoods outside of the Mall and central business district to keep the streets swept and maintained. It's surprising how something so relatively minor can go a long way in improving the quality of life in a city.
Also, the District could look to end its practice of refusing to place trash cans along residential blocks that receive significant amounts of litter. One finds trash cans throughout London--including the residential areas--and the city's trash and litter problem seems none the worse for wear.
Maintain Your Green Spaces
My, but aren't London's parks gorgeous? The lawns are lush and green, the walkways well-maintained, the ponds and lakes clean and largely free of debris. Contrasted with DC's parks and green spaces--including the National Mall--London's are simply in better shape. Why the focus on parks, you may ask? Parks are among the most valuable assets that a community and a city has. They're beautiful places that all can enjoy, and provide much-needed solace from the urban roar surrounding them. As a Logan resident, I love having places like Logan, Thomas and Dupont circles nearby for strolling and relaxing. In addition, the amount of investment, financially and otherwise, that a city invests in its park system speaks to a city's character.
Now, I know that one of the biggest strikes against this idea, as far as DC is concerned, is that a number of our parks--including the Mall, Rock Creek, all traffic circles and the downtown squares--are maintained by the NPS. But there is nothing preventing the District from seeking a partnership with NPS that would allow the two to work together to keep our city's parks free of trash and other debris. In the long term, this also means lobbying strongly for the federal funds needed to rehabilitate the Mall and other downtown DC parks. Places such as Franklin Square and McPherson could be lovely oases of urban tranquility if spruced-up and properly maintained. The amount of greenspace that DC has trumps that of many other American cities; so the groundwork has already been laid.
Continue Investment in Public Transportation and Infrastructure
One of the positive aspects of DC that people remark upon visiting our city is the public transportation options available. The Metro does a reasonable job of covering the DC region, while the bus system, Circulator, forthcoming streetcar lines and programs such as SmartBike serve to fill in the gaps. This is unquestionably a very positive aspect of our city, but some perspective is in order. The Metro is a great system, but there are numerous people within the city and the area for whom commuting via Metro isn't an option. Even within the denser, more heavily served central part of the city, some areas are not as well-served by Metro as they should be, and getting from some destinations to others is unnecessarily burdensome.
Contrast Metro with London's tube, and you'll gain an understanding of how a truly extensive public transit system functions. Throughout central London, one is rarely more than a couple of blocks from a station entrance. The sheer volume of lines, coupled with line duplicity along high-volume corridors, means that no two destinations are more than a few minutes' ride away. Additionally, the existence of a central "loop" line means that the disparate lines coming into the central city all converge--in a manner of speaking--onto one centralized line (not unlike Chicago's loop).
What can DC do to continue moving in this direction? To begin, I would suggest a renewed focus on "building out" the core of the Metro system--that is, the section of the system that serves central DC and the close-in Maryland and Virginia communities. Focus on the ongoing development of new intercity lines--particularly a second east-west line that relieves the burden currently handled by the Orange/Blue lines--as well as the creation of in-fill stations along existing lines in underserved areas. The construction of the Purple Line in Montgomery County is another good step forward, but should be developed in concert with a long-term plan to ultimately develop a "loop" line that encircles the core of the region. The creation of additional Circulator lines should be another component to the city's ongoing transportation plans. Using the recently created McPherson Square - Woodley Park line as a model, the Circulator offers the ability to connect neighborhoods in the city that are not served (or poorly served) by Metro. Finally, an increased focus on other transit options, such as the pioneering SmartBike program, should be considered as well.
Lest one think that London has nothing to learn from DC's transit service however, I will posit this: the Tube stops running at a ridiculously early hour. That Metro runs until 3 AM on weekends, and until midnight throughout the remainder of the week, is a tremendous asset to the region--and one that shouldn't be taken lightly.
As I mentioned above, the point of this discussion was not to attempt to compare the two cities, as they exist on completely different levels. Rather, it is meant simply to provoke a discussion on some things--some relatively significant, others quite simple--that the District might do order to continue its ascension to the ranks of truly global--and exceptional--cities. By applying some of the methods and strategies employed by a city regarded as among the finest in the world, the District could continue to make improvements towards becoming a better place for the millions of us who live and work here.