Category Archives: History

Designing Cities for People

St Paul's at Sunset - April 2016

St Paul’s at Sunset

In older standards of measurement, the imperial mile (1.609 km) was not the longest measurement of distance available; the league filled that role instead. As I have understood it, one league is equal to the distance a person can walk in one hour. For me, that is around three miles, thus making 1 league equal to a decent distance for a nice morning stroll. In 2016 when I was undertaking my first Master’s degree, this one in International Relations and Democratic Politics, at the University of Westminster, I would occasionally decide to walk the league from the university on Regent Street back to my flat in the shadow of Fenchurch Street station on the eastern edge of the old Roman city.

The walk was quite pleasant, a stroll first down from the university to Oxford Circus, then eastwards along Oxford Street to Holborn, and then down High Holborn across the Holborn Viaduct and past the Old Bailey at Newgate, past St Paul’s and onto Cheapside, crossing in front of the Royal Exchange and Bank of England before continuing down Lombard Street and onto Fenchurch Street. At Fenchurch Street station, I would descend a short flight of steps leading towards St Olave’s Hart Street and under the station viaduct itself past the city walls and into my building on Minories.

What made this a nice walk was that I was able to see so much of the capital, everything from the imperial Edwardian grandeur of Regent Street to the new skyscrapers that are being built across the Square Mile to the east. It was an opportunity to experience London as so many had done so before, to get to know the metropolis by foot. In London this is something that can fairly easily be done, one can walk around the capital if one wants to. Sure, most of the suburbs are out of reach for the pedestrian, but with the well established system of underground and suburban railways, as well with the very thorough bus network, London is a city that a person can easily live in without owning a car, let alone riding in one on a daily basis.

When I moved back to Kansas City at the end of August 2016, I thought I would try at keeping up my walking, to walk the same ten miles each day. Yet that didn’t happen. Far from it, I found Kansas City to a.) be built largely for cars, and b.) with a climate far more harsh than the one I had known in London. As a result, not only did I not walk nearly as much as I had wanted, but I found myself hardly walking at all beyond going out of my parents’ house to get into the car and drive somewhere.

While my own lack of fortitude certainly is to blame in part for this sudden drop in my exercise, I also have to lay blame on the city planners here in Kansas City. This city, like so many others in the United States and Canada were designed, or re-designed, for motorists. In fact, it is illegal for a human being to walk in the street in Kansas City, Missouri; if you’re human, you have to stay to the sidewalks (pavements). The rest of the street is reserved for cars, buses, bicycles, vans, and trucks. We have built this city and so many others like it without the human touch that has made cities so universally human in nature.

For thousands of years, our ancestors have lived in cities that were not unlike the Central London; they were just big enough that an able-bodied person could walk from one end to another in about an hour. Cities were built with walking in mind, with the understanding that all of the basic necessities that a city offers should be within walking distance of each citizen’s home. Smaller medieval cities like Besançon in France, Canterbury in England, or Galway in Ireland are prime examples of this sort of pedestrian-focused urban planning.

“In fact, it is illegal for a human being to walk in the street in Kansas City, Missouri”

Here in the United States too there are some attempts at returning to this older model of having residential and commercial establishments within the same general area. Here in Greater Kansas City there are some newer developments that aspire to this goal. Two in particular that I visited this last Friday stand out to me as examples of how to undertake this task, and how not to do so. The latest pieces in the Town Center shopping complex, Park Place is an excellent example of such a development.

A set of winding, narrower streets lined by three and four story buildings, its street level fronts are filled with shops, restaurants, and some offices, while the upper levels are largely residential. In this way, one can live in a compact community, within which one does not necessarily need a car to get around. I first was able to experience Park Place two years ago when walking a 5K through the Town Center area. At that time Park Place was still under construction, yet even as a construction site it seemed vastly out of place when compared to its neighbours in the most arch-suburban of American counties, Johnson County, Kansas. What particularly makes Park Place odd, and in the end stunted in its growth and feasibility is that one has to have a car to access it. Sure, one could live within Park Place as a pedestrian, but going beyond its towering confines on foot can be a perilous exercise with traffic on the surrounding avenues averaging a speed of around 45 mph (72 km/h).

What Park Place does well is its compactness, including both commercial and residential in the same area. Another, equally new development a few miles south of Park Place ignores this principle of traditional urban planning, setting the residential aside from the commercial. This particular development is the fascinatingly misplaced Prairiefire complex on 135th Street in Leawood, Kansas. Another physically enormous complex, Prairiefire’s crown jewel is the Museum at Prairiefire, billed as Kansas City’s Natural History Museum, and an affiliate with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. While the Prairiefire Museum’s architecture is aesthetically beautiful, its size is much like the rest of the Prairiefire development: lacking long-term thinking.

My biggest problem with Prairiefire is the way in which its residential development is divided from its commercial sector by a massive concrete parking garage. Prairiefire was designed by a suburbanite intending to create their image of a compact urban community, albeit without ever having stepped foot inside of a traditional compact city. By splitting the residential from the commercial, they make it far less amenable to residents to take advantage of the shops, restaurants, and entertainment in the commercial side of the property. What’s more, the Museum at Prairiefire itself is deeply flawed in that it is not built with the ability to expand in mind. The current structure is small, built more like a community arts centre and less like a great temple dedicated to nature.

Our over-reliance on cars here in the United States is flawed at the utmost degree. Should there be a major energy crisis in the near future, the vast majority of our cities and states will find themselves paralysed, unable to function owing to the lack of oil to fuel our cars. Developments like Park Place and Prariefire might be able to last for longer, owing to their relative compactness compared to the more traditional suburban sprawl, yet their isolation amidst the sea of suburbia will soon find these two developments in the same situation as the traditional suburban developments.

Our cities must first and foremost be self-reliant; we must be able to grow our own food, and use our own renewable energy sources to power all aspects of our lives. Yet along side this if we are going to build smart, self-sufficient cities, we must build them more compactly, with ourselves in mind. Just consider, if you are suddenly without your car, and don’t have the option of taking public transport, how will you get around? You could certainly walk around your city, but that prospect is only truly viable if said city is designed for walking.

Today, I generally prefer using metric to the more traditional imperial standards of measurement, yet that most old-fashioned of imperial measures, the league, is one that should be maintained. It keeps us humans at the centre, and reminds us of our own physical limitations and abilities. When we consistently push ourselves far beyond those abilities, we endanger the stability of our societies, making any potential crisis even more disastrous.

The Constancy of the Modern

If we can learn anything from history, it is that our story has always been acted out and subsequently recorded by people, not unlike us. Each successive generation has done their part to immortalise their greatest tales through stories, both oral and written, into the collective memory of society. As time has passed, each generation of historians has endeavoured to best tell these stories of their predecessors in a way which their own generation can well understand. To the historians of the Renaissance, the millennium immediately proceeding their own time quickly gained the pejorative name the Dark Ages, while its architecture was equally appallingly disparaged as Gothic.

To the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment historians, the time to hearken back to with all glory was that of Classical Antiquity, of Greece and Rome. The intervening millennium in between the Fall of Rome in 476 CE and the rebirth of classical learning in the Italian city-states in the late fifteenth century was merely a setback in the onward march of human progress. It was a setback defined by religious fervour and superstition, when science was equated to wizardry and the light of literacy confined to only a select class of clerics and aristocrats.

Each generation of historians has strived to understand the past both in the light of their own times and in the understanding of how those in the past understood themselves. Yet for the analytical nature of the study of history in our present scientifically-centred age to be properly propped up, contemporary historians must continue to classify and divide history into particular periods, places, and categories. Political history must remain distinct from cultural history and social history, while the aforementioned Renaissance must somehow be understood as different from the Medieval period that came before it.

What is most striking is the division of the discipline into broad spans of time, particularly concerning European history. One has a choice of diving deep into the past with Ancient history, a concentration primarily focused upon the Mediterranean world from the earliest communities to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Or perhaps one would prefer to study Medieval History, focusing on Europe during the ten centuries between the aforementioned fall of the Western Roman Empire and the eventual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.

Or, if that does not suit one’s fancy, one could try one’s hand at Early Modern History, covering the period of time between the turn of the sixteenth century to the French Revolution. While modern, this period still has its fair share of the medieval about it to make it more remote. Then there are the modernists, those whose focus is squarely on recent European history, the stuff that has happened since the fall of the Ancien Régime in 1792 and the rise of modern European liberal democracy through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What this model of understanding European history is founded on is the old Renaissance understanding that Europe will always be dominated by the legacy of Rome; therefore all European history must be understood in relation to the glories of the Roman Empire. The medieval is a giant leap backwards in the ruins of the once great imperial edifice, while the rise of modernity marks the return of European society to its former Roman glory. The other thing that this model is focused on is we modern man. Since it was first devised in the seventeenth century, this understanding of history has always held modernity as the pinnacle of human achievement, at least to that point.

The term modern itself comes from the Late Latin modernus, an adjectival modification of the Classical Latin adverb modo, meaning “just now.” Modernus in turn developed into the Middle French moderne by the fourteenth century, indicating that something similar to our understanding of the present time as modern was in use as early as what we would now call the Late Middle Ages. True, to my generation devices like the digital tablet, electric car, or the ability to make videocalls are decidedly modern, our grandparents could equally have said the same fifty years ago for the television, jet airplane, and IBM 7080 computer were equally modern to their own time. Likewise for our great-grandparents the very idea of a subway, car, or airplane on its own was incredibly modern.

The way I see it, the term modern is the hour hand on the clock of time; it is the pointer that marks where we are on the cycle that is human history. Just as Edward III was a modern monarch for his own time so too Elizabeth II is for ours. Likewise, while Geoffrey Chaucer may well have been seen as a modern writer for his day and age, working into the late hours of the night in his rooms within the edifice of London’s Aldgate, so too someone like me is all too modern for my own time. Though I write so often about the past, and do my best to draw connections between what has been and what is present, I cannot help but understand the people, places, and things that have already come and gone through the lens of my own times, of my modernity.

Therefore to define ourselves as modern is not to make us anymore unique than our predecessors. Rather, to do so we not only continue on the legacies of their respective modernities, and write our own story, always utilising this most constant of chronological labels.