Greener on the Other Side?

It’s always greener on the other side. Or at least that’s how it seems. We in the U.S. are such laggards in sustainability, we moan. Why can’t we be more like the Germans or the Swiss and build elegant high performance buildings? Why can’t we build humane cities like the Danes? Why can’t we be more environmentally and urbanistically progressive, like the English?

Up close things are a lot more complex. The London bus system is indeed remarkable; it’s comfortable, fast and even fun. The buses I’ve been using regularly (205, 9, 38, 43) come as often as Metro trains in Washington and if it’s a double-decker, rather than a bendy, I run up the stairs—yeah, stairs, on a moving vehicle—to the front row for the big view of the city’s second floors. The Tube is like New York City’s, a patchwork of once competing private lines now cobbled together by a drunken bricoleur into a “system” of such complexity that it probably has a minotaur in the center.

Both modes plus an increasing legion of cyclists on folding bikes really do offer true mobility free of the automobile. Central London, however, is still not as pedestrian-friendly as it should be. Sidewalks can be narrow, and too many intersections funnel walkers through cattle chute-like fences to get them from median to median. Even with all of those choices and the congestion pricing, London traffic is still, well…still. Standing still. Dead stop still. At times it’s faster to get out and walk. It seems that the congestion fee has become simply a cost of doing business for those who do business, not too mention the fittest members of the urban ecosystem, the taxis.

Recession or not, the skyline bristles with cranes…and yes, they are moving. Piano, Rogers, Foster et alia tout their projects’ green features in panenvironmental friezes along construction fences. An architect visiting London can get whiplash looking at one double skin, exo-shaded, green roofed building after another. But will they all live up to the hype? Does anything ever live up to its hype? Foster’s jewel-like City Hall displays its green grade report in the lobby, issued every June. Sadly, it’s just below average for 2009. Somewhere between design and inhabitation the building has slipped. Is the flaw in the design? The construction? Or in the user? Perhaps the fault, dear Norman, lies not in our star-chitects, but in our selves…

Ourselves. For all the leadership shown by the local governments, the design professions and the client class, the average Londoner seems no more attuned to the environment than the average American…maybe less. The dark surprise of London is the litter. The detritus of prosperity and consumption—plastic bags, junk food wrappers, carryout containers, ubiquitous beer cans and bottles—is everywhere not directly under the royal broom. The canals, once industrial now being reclaimed into green and blue ribbons of calm are clogged with trash. Narrow boats share the locks with flotsam and ducks swim through bobbing bottles. Some do not fare well. Near Camden Lock we saw a duck struggle to free himself from a plastic 6-pack ring. First flapping his wings violently and then dropping his green iridescent head into the water in exhaustion, over and over again, he was out of reach of help.

Farther up Camden Canal the towpath was crammed with teens and 20’s eating, drinking, and smoking. In post-punk black and spikes, these faux-anarchists were merrily consuming and mindlessly trashing their environment. In the U.S., this is the generation who cares; who gather to clean up rivers, not trash them. It’s risky to make generalizations on such anecdotal evidence, but the contrast between the loud and proud green Britain and the loud and loutish behavior of some of its citizens takes a bit of the shine off the halo.

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