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Recently I realized something about city/neighborhood design in America on a much more general level: We just don't care, or at the very least, it seems that way.

The contrast is striking every time I travel abroad. I go to London on an almost biyearly basis where this contrast is really pronounced. Things as trivial as the way bathroom stall doors are built, to much more important components of city life, like the airport/roadway/metro signage, reflect the weight that each city/state/country puts on the importance of design.

Comparing London to New York City, it feels as if I'm better taken care of design-wise when in London, like the people running the city actually give a damn about making it easier for me to find my way around the city, with color labeling, maps that are easy to understand, typefaces that are consistent, big and bold for anyone to see. The tube stations are all remarkably consistent in both easily guiding me to the correct subway line, and cleanliness -- two things you definitively cannot say about NYC. The same goes for their respective airports, Heathrow and LaGuardia/JFK.

And I pick these two cities because they're the two big metropolises I've spent considerable amounts of time in, but the contrast extends far beyond them. You can pick Berlin and Los Angeles, if you want!

I don't know why we as a country don't see just how critical good design is. It seems as if it'd be almost un-American to care.




I know the feeling - and I put it down to distrust of government or regulation.

London has fantastic park / green spaces. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras paternalistic legislation required access to parkland throughout London, and it is virulently defended even today.

In New Jersey/Newark, it feels that such legislation should be fought tooth and nail by every right thinking patriot. In New York, they agree except for the nice bits.

edit: not sure I hit the right note - the US approach to such govenrment "interference" can be beneficial, but its really just part of the DNA, not a easy to change choice. I cannot imagine it changing much.


> In the Victorian and Edwardian eras paternalistic legislation required access to parkland throughout London, and it is virulently defended even today.

Sort of ballpark but not quite exactly true, and a story that deserves telling.

In Victorian and pre Victorian times wealthy landholders had extensive private gardens and follies, the money spent on and by top landscape designers to simulate Arcadia (idealised pastorial setting mixed in with follies after classical antiquity) was substantial and the passive aggressive competition to outdo others ratcheted upwards.

In Victorian times a philanthropic movement started to "gift" the concept of private parks and gardens to the public and the unwashed masses (well, to the middle classes more than to the actual unwashed and more seriously socially challenged).

Rather than being government required parks these were more individual gifts and many were passed into local government management using "peppercorn leases" (some of which I've actually handled) which bestowed the land to the public use in return for a nominal "rent" (a peppercorn a year, or somesuch) and under the proviso that the the land use be retained as public parkland ... if it is not maintained as such then the control of the land reverts back to the original owners and their estates (which now, a few hundred years on would be a nightmare of dividing up prime central city real estate between potentially several hundred related claimants).

The parks are a result of paternalistic (and often maternalistic) gestures which used land transfer legislation to ensure continued public access in perpetuity.


Thank you - I have often wondered - do people actually pay real peppercorns or has there been some adjustment in contracts to the equivalent cash?


In the initial days of various parks there are stories of a jar or two of uncracked pepper being sent to the head of the family that granted the land, this was somewhat in light hearted humour and also more or less took care of the rent for a few hundred years into the future.

These days there may well be the odd case in which a centenary celebration for a park might well invite a descendent of the family that bestowed a park and "formally" give them a peppergrinder, I can't think of many off hand.

At some point it may be the case that (say) Hyde Park in Perth, Western Australia becomes delinquent in rent and the descendants of the <redacted> family step up and form a class action demanding the return of the Park to themselves by the City of Vincent (or whomever holds the deed at that point).

The City could settle by simply throwing them a sack of peppercorns to squabble over amongst themselves.

The spirit of the lease is a "forever rental" for a sum of something trivial of actual value ( tea, spice, pepper, etc. once were more valuable in English society ) to make it binding but trivial to pay.

The more interesting case would be if a council did something with the land or a portion of the land that was deemed outside the terms of usage ( a private residence for the mayor rather than a groundskeeper's flat, perhaps ) - if public access wasn't restored then there would be a case to claim back half a billion dollars worth of real estate.

That would be the makings of an epic legal shitstorm and drama.


Thanks - love the technical legal terms "epic shitstorm" and "throw them a sack of peppercorns"

:-)

cheers


I guess you can find pros and cons for every different design (or non-design). Example: if you know just a little bit about Manhattan's geography, you would have an idea where to find 30th street and how to get there from almost any point in Manhattan. So here's the challenge: without looking at a map, where is Percy St in London?


Many of these "other" places have just had far longer to work out the kinks.

Some parks have all sorts of trails worn bare through the grass so it looks like no one cares enough to use the sidewalks while others nearby have no trails. The others without the trails just wised up and paved where they had been.


Every place that you go away to seems magical. When you live there, the warts show themselves.




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