On Foot Abroad, I: London

When it comes to smart environmental policy, we often look to Europe for leadership. They drive small cars over there, live in wee houses. Even their shoes fit narrower. Their ratio of wants to needs just seems more sensible. I myself have long put this subcontinent on a sustainability pedestal. These old societies watched their natural spaces shredded in the jaws of industrialism long before the New World was open for business. Logically, they had to address sustainability much earlier, before every last tree was gone. Having already been to the brink, they know better, in the way a parent knows what the child has yet to learn.

Well, that was my theory. Recently, I decided to test it with a visit to England and Scotland. The trip was what you might call practice research for a book I might like to write. Like Lakeland, it would explore the ways we use the land for pleasure and profit. What I found was more complex and surprising than my hypothesis, and the trip to the Old World reaffirmed my faith in the new one.

Splitting my time between city and country, I started in London, getting my first glimpses of its brown suburban row houses from the windows of the speeding Heathrow Express train from the airport. I had not been to Europe in many years, and never to England. Coming into Paddington Station, sensing the buzzing labyrinth of the mammoth city waking up just overhead, I was resigned to being disoriented and sweaty before reaching my hotel. Instead, the timeless atmostphere of a real European station platform brought back a flood of pleasant and familiar memories from my youthful backpacking days. The oily smell, the echoing smack of pigeon wings, the soft blue illumination under platform skylights, the smell of foreign cigarette smoke and strong coffee on the ramp up to the street . . . . I felt somehow at home.

Certainly Europe’s great gift to the world are its fabled, inviting and ultimately human-scale cities. Whereas typical North American streets invite the automobile, European ones invite the person. They are somehow both living museums and models of modern efficiency and sensible resource use. The narrow streets built of old, the attached town houses with main-floor shops, the dominance of public transit, bicycles and pedestrians over cars — all of this is the antithesis of the sprawl that so demoralizes the New World and burdens its resources.

Moreover, it delights the senses. I was staying at the Quaker-run Penn Club in the London neighbourhood of Bloomsbury, from which I explored the city almost exclusively on foot, walking about 40 hours all told over parts of five days. Going afoot in this multicultural place is to be fully alive as a citizen. “A man who is tired of London is tired of life,” said Doc Johnson. You sample passing conversations in many languages, and the smells of many cuisines, you read newspaper headlines and historical plaques, you partake in the art of statuary and wrought iron, you weigh Georgian against Victorian design vocabulary, you take the temperature of the current fashion season. You shop as you walk, whether for oranges and milk or cellos and oil paintings, your consumerism deeply tied to your pedestrianism. We North Americans are so starved for these pleasantries that a walk down a European street can be virtually intoxicating, especially when the spring sun is shining, the crocuses are stirring and beautiful bright people are on every corner. Not knowing when I might ever return, I attempted overdose. I did the same thing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where I also spent time.

From a land-use, resource-use perspective, urban efficiencies abound to delight the waste-weary North American. The demand for personal space and material wealth is less per-capita, a happy cultural norm which yields everything from small pubs to short commutes. The fabled double-decker buses are marvels of compaction and manouverability, and noise abatement laws have made the city significantly quieter than in Margaret Thatcher’s time. The Underground, the world’s oldest subway system, and the various other commuter rail networks, are utterly comprehensive. The wealthy still have taxis and private automobiles despite the heavy taxes against these modes, but one can take pleasure in overtaking them on foot. It is delightful that walking is still the fast option for most people, for most journeys. When you reckon the fitness this arrangement produces — which is readily measurable in the girth of the average citizen versus a North American one — then you can add healthcare savings to the list of efficiency benefits. It is hard to imagine cramming more functionality, living history, excitement, commerce and culture into a unit of real estate than they do in London.

It all feels so right, so sensible. Yet there are niggling doubts that this may not be a perfect world after all, omens small and large. Recycling bins, even regular trash bins, are largely non-existent, and seemingly respectable English men and women casually drop their unwanted Cafe Nero cups, orange peels and cigarette ends at their feet. Many bicycle riders wear masks to protect their active respiratory systems from the damaging particulates in the urban air. In the sky, the numerous contrails of commecial jet traffic in the world’s busiest airspace permanently occlude London’s few naturally clear days. Visitors, whether for business or pleasure, are the London economy. While the total UK carbon emsisions have gone down since 1990, air traffic has doubled, and will easily double again if the powers that be chose to build enough infrastructure of airport runways and gates.

Sensible and efficient as great cities like London are in so many details, you cannot assess them insolation, nor glorify them, without reference to the countryside that feeds them, gives them life support. After a dreamy weekend walking the old streets, I caught a train at King’s Cross, bound for “England’s green and pleasant land.”

3 Comments

  1. A nice starter for a bigger bite yet to come. Images aren’t always the realities of the scene as seen.The car may not seem as dominant as in North America but still has a major impact. Modern cyclists can be a terror squad when attacking a pavement full of pedestrians, not all highway codes seem to be followed by these invaders of the pavement. As a non car owner I love or am used to and appreciate the benefits in meeting,feeling the presence of other human beings in the slow way of public transport but it is difficult to wean someone off their addiction to cars. With the apparent slowness waiting time wasted when I could be being fast doing something that I might be missing if I’m not on time.Wow, slow down, I’m getting anxious !! Me the suburban anxious animal who knows not what he thinks but feels things he does not know. I babble. The streets are narrow and built upon the history of there past and when dug up reveal that history to the present, which makes them enjoyable to walk and indulge. Our green and pleasant land is there to touch still. Thank you for that. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your travels.

  2. I am delighted, Robert, that you have read and commented, a real Englishman who has actually grown up on these kinds of streets, who knows them more intimately than my fond naivetes, you who have ridden so many trains, dodged so many bicycles. I hope you will follow the arguments further, shed light or throw cold water as needed, from your side of the ocean.

  3. Fascinating and, as always, excellently written. I look forward to reading more!

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