The City as a System: Notes from London and San Francisco
by Rachel Bramwell, Strategist
At their essence, cities are dense agglomerations of diverse functions, systems, people, and activities. From public transportation and road networks, the exchanges of services and goods, and a mix of land uses, cities are dynamic places made up of complex interactions. Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City presents a semantic and visual context for thinking about and examining systems of all scales. Cross-sections and axonometrics illustrating everything from skyscrapers to park networks to subway tunnels to delivery trucks reveal the metaphoric bones, veins, and arteries driving, supporting, and connecting the various elements that comprise the modern city. Underlying what we see on the surface are hundreds of interactions, processes, and operations. What follows are some of my reflections of the urban landscape from living in both London and San Francisco.
It feels like you are never far from public space in London, which people take advantage of; eating lunch, reading, phone calls, sunbathing (rarely) all take place in these squares, gardens, promenades and churchyard parks. These spaces extensively dot almost every neighborhood of the city, with larger parks serving as anchors from west to east. London is one of the greenest cities in the world, with 88 square feet of green space per resident and 33% of the city made up of public green space (parks and gardens).
With its Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Golden Gate Park, Presidio, and neighborhood parks, San Francisco, in contrast, is 13.7% public green space. San Francisco will be increasing its current number, with less traditional, more innovative urban green spaces, such as a 5.4-acre park planned for the roof of the Transbay Terminal development in SoMa and Pavement to Park, a city planning initiative that is peppering green spaces throughout the city.
Transportation is nearly synonymous with technology in London. Buses no longer accept cash payments at all. The Oyster card, a Clipper card equivalent, provides discounted fares for people who use it in place of papertickets. Oyster readers on subway gates and on buses accept “contactless” debit and credit cards, allowing riders to scan their cards and pay fares directly from their bank accounts. This spur in technology has been brought on in part by the need to move a very high volume of people around the capacity-strapped system. In my experience, this seemed to help accommodate the sheer volume of people using public transportation very well and keep everything moving smoothly. While the system for payment and fare structure is incredibly complex, it seemed to create incentives to use different forms of technology in the right way, to ultimately benefit all users of the system.
Similarly, San Francisco has followed suit and introduced the Clipper card using the same technology to help to integrate its separate systems and payment systems, though has not had the same success in implementing the technology across all of its transportation agencies and systems.
Unlike in San Francisco, the United Kingdom has no zoning laws, instead leaving land use decisions to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This, combined with the historic development of the city from Roman times, creates land use patterns that are similar to most large cities with like land uses and activities grouped together, but with some small differences.
Pop-up uses are increasingly common, with disused railway vaults being used as anything from a storage space to theater venue to a site-specific art installation. A historic fish market sits within a business district. Breweries and bars co-locate with regional distribution centers and warehouses. Nightclubs, shopping malls, railway stations, universities, and small local businesses can (and do) occupy the same block. This system is not without issue, but results in a diverse and unique urban fabric.
So next time you go outside, look at the environment around you and consider the different layers that you’re seeing. What’s beneath the concrete you’re walking on? What was on the spot you’re standing on 50 or 100 years ago? How do roads, public transportation networks, bicycle infrastructure, and pedestrians intersect and interact in different spaces? Consider how and through what lenses you look at the environment around you, and how you are a part of this larger ecosystem.