Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Could DC Learn From London?

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. 

Encourage Density

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.


Karl said...

Regarding littering: I went to school in London not that long ago and I actually thought it was a fairly disgusting city to live in. I once walked from the Royal Courts of Justice across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern without coming across a single public trash can. Just take a walk down Houghton Street on a Saturday morning during term. It's a wasteland.

pat1425 said...

Dear Mr. 14th and You: take a closer look at your filthy neighborhood. U Street is still a litter-infested disgusting eyesore. You condescending Mid-City urban pigs consider the sidewalk your ashtray and your refuse dump. I've seen your disgusting neighbors empty their trash on the curbside along U Street. And the store owners along both sides of U Street, from 9th to 16th Street NW (including the upscale restaurant owners), are pigs. Have a closer look outside the Seven Eleven at 12th and U, the Subway sandwich pig sty, and all of the filthy stores near the U Street metro station. Shame on You for attempting to compare your U Street slum to London!

Blake the Megalomaniac said...

Pat, I appreciate your vigor but am I missing something? I failed to read where the author compared London's cleanliness to the U-street corridor's cleanliness. The piece was to put forth lessons the District could learn from London . . . I could be wrong though.

In addition, the name calling is a off-putting and sophomoric to be sure.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...


Go back and read the post. S l o w l y this time.

Anonymous said...

the other great thing about london is they charge the suburbanites a fee to enter the city. I think we should follow their lead and start charging virginians and marylanders for coming in and clogging our streets and metros. Just a thought.

Alex said...

Nice post. I'd really only quibbble with one thing, which is that having once lived near a bar, it is not correct that it's not to a neighborhood's detriment. There is no shortage of douches who think it's OK to yell or talk in loud voices after a couple of drinks (and the same goes for London too). That might be OK with a pub closing time at 11... not so great to get woken at 1am every night as the drunks go home.

Oh yes, and congestion pricing is a great idea (but will never happen)

Former London Resident said...

I'm wondering if you left the Center part of the city? i.e., outside the Circle Line? That's where most people that aren't millionnaires live, and while it has beautiful parts (particularly the parks) there is plenty of trash, the tube is less reliable and frequent, and the traffic is horrendous. Also, as such a large city which has restrictive building height laws, it takes forever to get anywhere in London, particularly to visit friends in other parts of the city. DC has London on walkability and, for me, quality of life, anyday.

Ashley said...

Some really great ideas, particularly regarding development of transportation infrastructure and metro areas. However, like Alex pointed out, pubs in London close at 11 PM throughout the week. DC bars and clubs operate much later during the week and on the weekends, and ABRA enforcement is lacking. Let's wait until we see existing bars treat neighbors with respect until we invite even more into residential areas.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. I don't know DC very well at all (I visited once while I was touring colleges my senior year, and once for a protest in 2002). I currently live in London.

While London on the whole does a decent job with cleanliness, I wouldn't say that it is a clean city. I've lived in Paris-- that's clean. London has street sweepers, but unfortunately it's not joined with the fresh and well maintained infrastructure (new paving stones when old ones crack, repainting of peeling railings, etc) of Paris.

I live in Camden (a 15-20 minute commute by bike from central London) and the area is pretty filthy. It's fine-- that's Camden, it's been that way for hundreds of years-- but it's not clean. You are right though-- much of London is very well kept up. I eat lunch in a park near my office, and I've never had any qualms about sitting on the grass and eating in a city centre park-- that's not something that I could have said when I lived in St Louis...

Obviously, any city is the same way and has its cleaner and dirtier sides-- somebody who knows Paris better than I do can reply to me and say 'Non-- Paris n'est pas propre!'

Additionally, while I've never been on them, there is (apparently) a pretty decent system of 24 hour buses that substitutes for a late-night underground system.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in both cities, I am inclined to agree with "Former London Resident" and "Karl;" outside of a few particular areas, the London streets are generally far more littered than DC's and the tube is an ill-kept, unreliable, and unreasonably expensive public transport system. Albeit a "suburban city" with several significant problems, the district is reasonably clean and convenient to travel.

Rob said...

Can you clariy your comment about the early closing tme? From the little bit of poking around I've done on th website, it seemsthe tube operatespast midnight even on weenights. Is this not the case

NovaHomeGuy said...

DC's Embassy Row/Kalorama neighborhood compare favorably with Mayfair in London. So does Logan Circle with Chelsea.

No Cornwall Pasty tho in DC...

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

FYI, the "first and last" Tube rides can be found here:

On most lines, the last train leaves shortly after midnight, even on weekends...although as iokiyar mentioned there is a system of "night buses" that continue running throughout the night.

Re: Logan Circle = Chelsea, I'm afraid not. Our hotel was just north of Chelsea, and we spent quite a bit of time in the neighborhood, and it is far better maintained than Logan. The housing stock wasn't dissimilar (although Chelsea's homes were larger), but that's about where the similarities end.

Unknown said...

Great Post! I generally agree with the spirit of your comments, particularly when you discussed DC's insane zoning laws, but it sounds like you did not leave London's inner ring/western neighborhoods. Assuming you did not leave that area (which is very hard to do as a tourist), I think it helps to imagine your vacation as a trip to a giant Dupont Circle/Logan Circle/Adams Morgan because London is SO much larger than DC. Like DC, London also has a a Northeast and Southeast that has an (undeserved) reputation for high crime, is grossly underserved by transit, is ignored by the city in favor of wealthier boroughs, and sports a high minority population with access to inadequate public services and terrible educational institutions. Like the tourists that come to DC and revel in our monuments and then have dinner in georgetown, NE/SE is a side of both cities that most visitors don't see.

Plus, although the Tube is comprehensive, it is extrodanarily expensive and dirty.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

To be clear (since this is coming up repeatedly): although we did spend a day kicking around Camden, the vast majority of our time was spent in the central part of London, in the way that most visitors to DC spend time in central/NW DC. When I wrote about things such as keeping the streets clean, upkeep of green spaces and reviewing zoning laws, it was done in the context of looking at the core of each city.

It also was not meant as a comparison of the two--a point I had hoped to make clear in the intro. They were just some observations we had during an admittedly brief time there (although Mrs. 14thandyou was a resident for a few months some years back...)

Anonymous said...

"it was done in the context of looking at the core of each city."

I take exception to the above quote. Why do you consider Northwest Washington the city's core? Or for that matter, Central London, that city's core? In both cases, you are associating "the city" with a particular socio-economic class and particular aesthetic, which is statistically in the minority. By which I mean to say, your slip is showing.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Anon - core, as in the center of the city (as I mentioned). Any projections of statements about people or socio-economic class are yours, not mine.

14th & You said...

Anon: as to the issue of "core," it can also mean where most economic activity takes place. The highest density of business, shopping, and dining districts are in central DC and throughout NW. This is not to say that there aren't other places worth living in or visiting, just in the "core" you have a greater number of commuters and tourists as well as residents conducting their personal and work-related business.

Public transportation systems often reflect the existence of such cores. In DC, look at where the "hub" of Metro's hub and spoke system is.In London, look at what is encircled by the Circle line.

Anonymous said...

As a DC native who's lived in and around London for the last decade, I have to agree with many of the comments posted here. To be honest, despite its vibrancy, London *is* filthy. A lot of money is spent on areas where international visitors congregate, and very little goes into either the commercial or residential areas in zones 2-6 of the capital. I can also show you some bits of the 'core' where the grime, poor upkeep and general untidiness would surprise you!

Your argument on planning and zoning is also a little off the mark. The British planning system is so bureaucratic and restrictive that even minor home extensions often require torturous applications and planning committee votes, and I'm talking about ugly 1930s construction rather than historical treasures. London has a massive housing shortage because creative development solutions are rejected by NIMBYs, and because planning officers are forced to apply labyrinthine and draconian rules. Yes, there are pubs in residential areas, but this is more a historical accident than a result of proactive planning!

Britain, as a whole, is much better at managing road space (i.e. by prioritising public transport, signposting, pedestrianising, etc) and at creating and maintaining user-friendly parks. So definitely agree with you there!!

Overall: beware of comparisons between cities, as you're likely to get tripped up!! Great blog though, thanks for writing.

xolondon said...

DC often does not take advantage of its green spaces. Meridian Hill is an example - not just the cascading waterfall part, but the greens up higher. Lovely, but could be so much better.

I live in E Market and am astounded by how makeshift Penn Ave is beyond, say, 7th St SE. That avenue needs beautiful trees and attention to public spaces. Such a waste. My perception is that there is no $ (not a priority) and there are often too many cooks in the kitchen.

In general, I think DC is getting better with all of this, but it's no Paris.

Anonymous said...

I feel bad because you said you spent so much time writing this - but you're just wrong.

I have also lived in both London (for three years) and D.C. (for seven years). And while I can find good traits in both cities - D.C. is immensely cleaner.

As other posters have said, it's also more walkable and better maintained in general.

Also did you know that many parks in London are private parks? Their public green spaces are - in most cases - less manicured and maintained than in D.C.

If you'd like a higher standard, look to the city on which D.C. was based - Paris. You won't find a more beautiful public space than the Jardin Luxembourg or their other beautiful parks.

Every city has its high and low-points - but London is hardly Brigadoon. Maybe you should see a bit more of the world. Or maybe just stay at home and appreciate the District.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...


No need to feel bad for me, it's clear that we see things differently. Keep in mind that this is an opinionated blog, so saying "but you're just wrong" is, well, just wrong.

As to the issue of parks, indeed a lot of the smaller parks in London are privately owned. In fact, we stayed directly across from one. But seeing as how they are private, I didn't get a chance to enjoy them, so my point about greenspace is clearly not aimed at them. But spending time in Hyde Park, Regent's Park, St. James and Green Park, it became pretty apparent that central London's public greenspaces were better maintained than those in the District. The subject of the needed rehabilitation of the Mall has been discussed around this city ad nauseum. But even looking past the Mall, stroll around places such as Franklin or McPherson Square on pretty much any day, and note that amount of trash and debris that accumulates there. The commenter above you was pretty accurate when he said that DC doesn't really take advantage of its greenspace. DC has, proportionately, the most amount of greenspace of any U.S. city. It's unfortunate that the NPS can't be bothered to better maintain much of it.

As to the rest of your's interesting how much you presume to know of what I have, or have not, seen of the world, but I certainly don't feel a need to recite my travel log here. I don't know where you got the idea that I was putting forth some argument of London being a panacea, but I do believe that there are aspects of that city from which DC could learn a thing or two.

One final point: DC was not modeled after Paris. Our wide avenues and, yes, greenspaces were meant to mimic wide Parisian boulevards and the grand vistas they provide. But DC's layout was also based on other European cities, including places such as London and Rome. L'Enfant examined literally dozens of European city plans while drawing up his plans for DC. Though L'Enfant grew up in Paris, his vision of DC was one inspired by the best features of many great European cities of the day--not simply the French capital.

Andy said...

As a Londoner (and now Shaw resident), I agree completely with your cleanliness sentiments. DC is a cesspit in comparison -- or maybe I've just spent too much time on the open sewer that is U St.

re: Zoning. What kills DC is the anarchic and ridiculous height restriction. London, up until a few years ago, used to have very strict height rules and regs, but now the shackles are off and the skyline is being transformed into something we can all be proud of in the 21st Century. Will DC do the same? I'm not holding my breath.