My favourite travel destinations are foreign cities. And my favourite parts of the cities are the residential sections. I like to get away from the tourist sections and spend time in the markets, cafes, and residential streets of the common folk. What kind of housing do they have? How do they travel around the town? Where do they shop? What does it feel like to be in the places where they work, live, and meet with one another?
My son and I recently spent a week in London England. We stayed in a short-term vacation rental in East London, near the Bethnal Green tube station. We rented bicycles, and spent a good portion of each day riding through the many different neighbourhoods in the eastern side of Greater London.
It really is a fascinating city. Over the last few centuries the city has swallowed up innumerable small towns and villages. So today, all residential sections have a vestigial main street “downtown”, or local high street. The housing styles and high street architecture varies considerably between the various urban regions.
Most of the housing in this area was originally for working class people. But today, more and more of these neighbourhoods are filled with professional people who are paying a very good price for their homes.
What I found most fascinating on this trip was comparing the middle class family home that we built with a typical row house that a middle class family would inhabit in and around Bethnal Green.
The first and most obvious difference is, of course, the sizes of the homes. I would guess that, on average, we live with at least twice as much square footage per person as your average Londoner. Perhaps three times as much. Now I know there are all kinds of reasons why we Canadians need more interior area, primarily our long cold winters. But it is surprising to see how the Londoners live quite happily with much smaller homes.
The second difference is how the land is used to create housing, private gardens, and green space. In Ottawa we have required setbacks that create fairly generous front, side, and rear yards. In London there are no front yards and all. People step from their front door directly onto the sidewalk, or “pavement” in local parlance. In most cases there is no side yard, as the housing is built in long rows. Each home has a rather long and narrow rear yard. Sometimes people park in garages off rear lanes, but more often than not they don’t own cars at all, or they park in the street. So not only are the homes correspondingly smaller, each home might only use a quarter of the land that our middle class family homes use up.
It is easy to observe how the different housing styles shape the way people live. Because people’s homes and gardens are so small, parks and community gardens become extensions of their own backyards. Similarly, pubs and cafes become the preferred place to meet with friends, family, and neighbours, rather than their own small living rooms. People in East London live their lives in a public manner far more so than we do here in Ottawa.
My recent trip to London caused me to wonder again about Ottawa’s low urban population density. What would our social, cultural, and political life be like if the communities that we build use way less land, while still providing for stylish and attractive housing? I wonder why we need front yards at all. Why do suburban streets need to be so wide? Can there not be a better integration of the commercial and residential sections of our new communities? The simple answer is that there are existing city ordinances that dictate these dimensions, and questions like mine therefore seem somewhat dreamy. But ordinances and By-Laws are informed by culture. And we seem to live in a culture that values privacy over incidental social contact.
The study of how humans live in cities is at once very current and very broad, touching on virtually all areas of economics and the social sciences. For me, trying to keep it simple, my brief trip to London re-confirmed my own notion that greater urban density leads to a richer and more nuanced social and cultural life.
Check out this East London area here: http://bit.ly/gylL5d