Retrospectives on London

My wife and I spent a week in London in May. Of all the international destinations we could’ve picked for a weeklong vacation, it’s not the most exotic or adventurous—transatlantic flights are as comfortable as they’ve ever been, and few cities are better at accommodating American tourists. But still, having traveled little since 2020, it was exciting to be somewhere other than the US.

I think traveling abroad is a redpill experience for many young American urbanists. The vibrancy of foreign cities provides a powerful contrast to the car-dependent sterility of our urban spaces. I’ve had the good fortune to travel internationally throughout my life, but this recent trip to London—my first time in the city as an adult—was a good refresher on the factors that keep American cities from matching the vibrancy of their global peers.

On immersion

Central London is an urbanist’s playground—a wonderfully cohesive landscape of dense blocks, organized around narrow, winding streets, punctuated by grandiose monuments, plazas, and parks. Without a consistent street grid, it’s impossible to not feel immersed in the city, to feel it hug you on all sides. Every block contains multitudes, every unexplored side street represents an opportunity to uncover an architectural marvel, a historic artifact, a verdant oasis, a charming shop or restaurant.

The breadth and density of London’s core is so extensive that I found myself overwhelmed by the diversity of things to do and see. A week is just not enough time to process London—it’s not even enough time to go to all the museums. At the end of the trip, I departed knowing that I had only had a sampling of what the city could offer, that I had not conceptualized London beyond the handful of neighborhoods I’d visited.

With a metropolitan population of 9 million, London is a big city—but it’s not that much larger than Houston or Dallas, and it’s about the same size as Chicagoland. So why is the sense of ‘immersion’ so much more powerful there? The reasons are fairly obvious to anyone with even a cursory interest in urbanism. I won’t rehash the typical observations on cars or walkability, but it is interesting to think about the physical mechanism at play.

Central London is denser than almost every American downtown, and that density manifests in each and every block. When “every block contains multitudes,” the urban environment you encounter as a pedestrian is never monocultural. You can stand on a random sidewalk and be mere steps from a large number of places—restaurants, apartments, offices, theaters, museums, shops, or whatever else. This cacophony of uses, each receiving and contributing to the activity of the street, is endlessly exciting. For the pedestrian, it ensures that there’s always something just up the street, just around the corner—and no destination is ever that far away.

Having peaked before the car’s predominance, many areas of St. Louis replicate this sense of immersion. You can easily trace a walking route from The Hill through Southwest Garden, Tower Grove South, Shaw, Tower Grove East, Fox Park, Benton Park, and Soulard that’s continuously walkable and interesting. While not remotely as dense as London, these neighborhoods still contain a diverse mix of buildings slotted into narrow lots—fourplexes next to single-family homes next to churches next to corner stores, each building distinct in appearance and form.

In American cities, everything breaks down once one reaches the brutish arterial roads, the no-man’s-lands between our neighborhoods where urbanity dies. Suddenly everything is single-use, self-contained, insular and disconnected. You might walk a few hundred feet past a gas station, followed by a thousand feet of grocery store parking lot—well, really, everything you walk past is a parking lot, and the buildings themselves are distant facades on the horizon. The city no longer hugs you; it repels you. And the city no longer contains multitudes; it’s hollow and predictable.

I don’t think cities have to try particularly hard to avoid this fate. You don’t need the density of a historic European capital to achieve urban immersion. We can apply a simple formula: maximize the number of destinations a pedestrian passes per unit distance walked. This can be as simple as enabling and encouraging narrower, smaller lots, or allowing larger buildings with a mix of uses within them. Despite being hollowed out for the better part of a century, St. Louis still replicates the magic of immersion by maintaining and building on this formula in many neighborhoods.

On proximity

Our hotel in London, St. Ermin’s, is located directly on top of the St. James’s Park Tube station, served every few minutes by a Circle or District Line train. Getting anywhere in the city was trivially easy, typically faster than driving. We spent a good chunk of our time underground, zipping from place to place.

After we saw ABBA Voyage at Olympic Park—the furthest from St. James’s Park we traveled by Tube—I realized that over multiple days of adventuring, we’d never traveled very far from the hotel by American standards. Getting to Olympic Park felt like covering the distance from Downtown St. Louis to I-270, but it was really only the distance from Downtown to Skinker Boulevard (about 6 miles as the crow flies). And in that distance, we’d traversed the entirety of London’s historic core, home to hundreds of thousands of people and some of the world’s most prominent business and cultural districts.

It was disorienting to adapt my perception of proximity to the radically denser environment. Anything within 20 minutes by Tube + walking was “nearby,” and this encompassed an insurmountable number of potential destinations. For example, within a mile and a half of the hotel, I could access probably a dozen shopping centers, including Harrod’s and large districts like Covent Garden and Bond Street. There are no malls within the same distance from my house in St. Louis, and I don’t think there’s a location in the metro area where there are two shopping centers within 3 miles of each other. The same observation could be made about ice cream shops, Thai restaurants, markets, office buildings, or any other urban land use.

What we have is suboptimal

If we simplify St. Louis and London down to two models of development—low density / high speed and high density / low speed—then I think the latter has a number of significant advantages:

Flexibility in transit. It’s difficult and expensive to drive in London, but it’s much easier to get around by any other mode. One can easily and safely traverse the city by foot, bike, bus, Tube, or taxi (conventional or water).

I think the true characteristic of a good urban transportation system is optionality—the ability to get from point A to point B by multiple means. By having multiple solutions, each optimizing for a different set of variables (e.g., cost, travel time, comfort, accessibility), you can build a system that provides good transportation solutions across the wide variety of situations that people find themselves in when in a city.

By opting for high speed and low density, American cities make the car the only effective means of transport, and this radically shrinks the number of transportation use cases that are well-served. You can get around an American city very quickly by car, provided you have access to one, you have the means to maintain and fuel it, you’re willing to put in the labor and time required to drive it, you’re tolerant of the elevated risk of an crash, and there is no congestion clogging the highway network. With a broader set of alternatives, you could better optimize your trip against these variables. You might take the train to avoid traffic or save money; you might walk to get some exercise—or you could still drive.

The compounding effects of agglomeration. While London is “only” 3–4x larger than St. Louis it certainly felt like there were disproportionately more things to do. The comparison is absurd; London is a global alpha city, one of the world’s preeminent financial and cultural centers. Perhaps a fairer comparison is Chicago, which also contains multitudes in a way that St. Louis does not. For example, I’ve been following a TikTok user who’s attempting to sample the cuisine of every country without leaving Chicago, and it’s obvious that such an ambition would be a nonstarter in St. Louis.

Urban economics research has developed the “15 percent rule”: an observation that for every doubling of a city’s population, a broad set of per capita metrics (e.g., wealth, crime, productivity, travel demand) increase by 15%, regardless of the initial size of the city. This indicates that the effects of agglomeration are nonlinear. It may be true, for example, that if a city of 100,000 can support one Thai restaurant, then a city of 5 million could support about 180.

The driver of this multiplier effect is a complex interplay of social and economic processes:

Big cities derive many advantages from larger populations such as more efficient economic specialization and division of labor, more efficient socioeconomic matching that facilitates social and economic markets, easier sharing of resources resulting in greater economies of scale and faster learning and innovation from the observation and recombination of a larger and more diverse set of technological and organizational processes.1

To return to the Thai restaurant motif (which I think is a crucial indicator of a city’s livability), a city of 100,000 may reach a threshold where there are enough skilled cooks and enough people who like Thai food to support the opening of a single restaurant. If the population doubles to 200,000, the city is both larger and disproportionately wealthier, increasing restaurant patronage. The labor market of restauranteurs and cooks has expanded and specialized, so each additional Thai restaurant is slightly easier to open than the first. (Some fun anecdata: Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a metropolitan population of ~650k, has about 14 Thai restaurants, while nearby South Bend, metro population ~320k, has about 6.)

It’s a good thing when we’re all able to access a greater variety and depth of products and services for a lower marginal price. The commonplace luxuries of modern life—from abundant delicious food to inexpensive, durable consumer products—are made possible by increasing urbanization.

A sense of worldliness. A key contributor to the sense of immersion you experience in a dense city is the fidelity of the environment—the nooks and crannies, the random historical monuments and markers, the grand facades of corporate and government buildings. In a dense city, you get a strong sense that a lot of important things are happening there. The city is a powerhouse in a broader national and global economy, a pillar of civilization itself.

The sprawled city deprives us of this feeling of connection to the broader world. The St. Louis of 1923 must have felt like the center of the world, with its massive factories, renowned train station, extensive streetcar network, and storied riverfront. In 2023, the emptied and eroded shell of St. Louis often feels parochial and stale, the intricacy of the historic city preserved in just a handful of neighborhoods. When parking lots and fast food joints take up full blocks in the center of the city, it’s immediately obvious there’s not much of value taking place nearby—otherwise, that land would be used more intensively.

Perhaps “worldliness” is a byproduct of growth rather than density. A drive around Houston will certainly give you the sense that a lot of things are happening there, between the endless construction and freeway-sized urban canyons. Most cities are not blessed with Houston’s rapid growth—in smaller, slower places like St. Louis, density can make it easier to replicate the vibrancy of a bigger place.

I’m not a traditionalist or a supporter of state-mandated historic preservation (if a building is worth preserving, the city should buy it), so this desire to recreate the grand urbanity of the past may seem off brand. I think the primary function of cities should be to house and provide opportunity to people, and that’s not best accomplished by encasing neighborhoods in amber because they have pretty brick buildings. “Worldliness” is not something we should create by fiat—it’s a natural byproduct of urbanization. People in cities will create bustling streetscapes, architectural marvels, and markers of history and culture if we let them. The concrete blocks of Athens and hypermodern districts of Tokyo demonstrate that historicity isn’t a prerequisite for vibrancy.

Whenever I visit large cities that have retained the stature they had a century ago, I think about how walking around St. Louis in 1910 probably felt the same. There’s plenty of evidence of this from historic photos and videos (including a fascinating book I recently bought, Streets & Streetcars of St. Louis: A Sentimental Journey). The lost cityscape of St. Louis looks a lot like what we now travel to New York, Europe, and Asia to experience—a landscape of dense blocks, each layered with businesses and residences, built on the framework of an intricate network of streets and rails.

It’s improbable that St. Louis or cities like it will return to resembling anything like London in our lifetimes, but the intricacy they retain from their golden ages suggests all hope is not lost. St. Louis can continue building on its brand of riverfront red-brick urbanism, cultivating a cityscape distinct from its peer cities. The principles of London’s cityscape—dense, mixed use blocks bounded by narrow streets—can be applied here, and we can capture some of the benefits of low speed and high density.

I believe every American should have the option to live in an intricate, immersive city. Vibrant, walkable neighborhoods shouldn’t be something we have to travel thousands of miles to experience—there should be a cluster of them at the center of every metropolitan area. To me, that’s the mission for urbanists in the 21st century: to return urban vibrancy to as many cities as possible. We may not abolish cars or the suburbs, but we can ensure that every American city has a bit of the magic of urban immersion—the feeling of being at the center of the world.

  1. Bettencourt LMA, Lobo J, Strumsky D, West GB (2010) Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities. PLoS ONE 5(11): e13541.