After years in the dark, the London Society is relaunching in the hope of galvanising a coalition of Londoners able to intervene in the city’s worryingly uncivic trajectory
‘Cities are people.’ It’s the contemporary urban planners’ credo du jour, at least publicly, and strange to think that they ever thought (or spoke) differently. People are at the core of how and why cities are built. Architecture and services must react to us, rather than to some grand vision – however pleasant the renderings.
As London builds its future, why are its residents so cynical about what and whom all of these cranes represent? There is now a surfeit of institutions, think-tanks, consultancies, conferences, festivals and publications dedicated to the advocacy and exploration of the ‘human city’ – but the concept is not new.
Quality of life and a sense of humanism has been at the heart of work by many great planners and architects, long before Jan Gehl staked his claim to it (though we should all be thankful for his determination). Leading up to the 20th century, cities were increasingly awakening to the fact that they’d become quite unpleasant places, places where the requirements of industry had taken precedence over those of an enjoyable life for urban residents. The concept of the public park was born in the 1860s, and around 30 years after came that of the Garden City. But these are only two of the important legacies of the time: professionals and citizens began to organise themselves with the purpose of defining ‘good’ development.
In 1893, the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) was founded. Originally dedicated to beautification, it is now a powerful advocate in that city across many topics in urban development and planning. Throughout their history, the objective has always been to improve New York for the sake of every New Yorker. In London, London Society was established in 1912. Its aims (much aligned with those of its transatlantic cousin) were to stimulate concern about the beauty of the city, to ‘jealously’ preserve its charms, and to consider its future development.
The London of the early 20th century was ruled borough-by-borough, with nobody looking at the whole picture, its planning was decentralised. Though today the administration of this megacity is far less mish-mash, strangely most of the Society’s original concerns persist: how might London be made to feel more welcoming to newcomers? What is to be done with its suburbs? And, quite interestingly: where should we put a new London airport? (At the time intended for dirigibles, rather than aeroplanes.) Responses to these, clearly, have not been easy to find.
The leaders of the London Society, the hero architects and planners of the day, including Aston Webb, Raymond Unwin, Edwin Lutyens, et al, were certainly not leading the battle cry with commercial interests at heart. These were professionals who knew that what London could master, and to some extent has mastered, is the marriage of old and new: the confident march into the future, while hanging tight to its sense of place. All the while, inimitably, the intention was that no Londoner would be left out: the London of the Future was to be for all its residents, current and future.
Yet, even though the London Society has, in its 102 years of work, always been connected to these visceral issues of urban planning, which still dominate the agenda today, late last year it nearly hung up its hat. In recent decades, there’d been a distinct decline in energy. Thankfully, the London Society was saved. As MAS continues to become an ever-stronger voice for the people of New York, bringing them into a productive conversation about the future of City Hall’s policies and plans (as well as its own projects), the London Society’s steady retraction as a public voice has left a gap, as yet unfilled. Londoners are missing an advocate.
New people, new homes, new towers: these all exist somewhere between necessity and inevitability. And, they are not bad things. The city must expand, it must build – but what it also must do is remind itself that ‘cities are people’. Not simply according to the planning argot of the moment, but because of over a century’s worth of debate – long before the ‘human city’ won its figurative Upper Case.
The London Society played a key role in decades past (for example, in the formation of the city’s Green Belt), and is poised now to rebuild its chorus of planners, architects and citizens to advocate for a future city what makes sense, improves quality of life, and is – above all else – equitable. Now, this kind of work is more important than ever. Investment and people are flowing into this city, and London is in many ways overwhelmed. Worryingly, those picking up the slack are profiteers, not citizens. The result is a palpable cynicism about the city’s future. There is huge question mark hanging over whether London will remain a good place to live (at least for those without impossibly deep pockets). What the city needs (and what the London Society must offer) is a chance to galvanise professional city-makers and those for whom the city is made, uniting experts and everyday city residents: remember the city is its people. And to do so that brings a reason for an optimistic response to seeing the hoardings and cranes, where today there is the steady creep of scepticism.
The London Society
David Michon is Honorary Editor of The Journal of The London Society.
The London Society, an organisation of citizens committed to providing a public platform for the discussion of London’s future, is delighted to announce its relaunch in autumn 2014. This exciting new chapter in the organisation is marked by a dedicated membership drive and a completely new-look publication aimed at getting all Londoners to join the debate about how the city should be planned in this period of unprecedented growth and expansion.