Featured Quote: Jack London on the East End



"Late last night I walked along Commercial Street from Spitalfields to Whitechapel, and still continuing south, down Leman Street to the docks. And as I walked I smiled at the East End papers, which, filled with civic pride, boastfully proclaim that there is nothing the matter with the East End as a living place for men and women. It is rather hard to tell a tithe of what I saw. Much of it is untellable. But in a general way I may say that I saw a nightmare, a fearful slime that quickened the pavement with life, a mess of unmentionable obscenity that put into eclipse the 'nightly horror' of Piccadilly and the Strand. It was a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts, and to complete the picture, brass-buttoned keepers kept order among them when they snarled too fiercely."

Jack London, from "People of the Abyss," 1903. 

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others. 

Credits: Photo of White Chapel High Street, 1905, from Wikimedia Commons.

+ share

The Water's Pretty to Me



In late April and early May of this year, Memphis briefly joined the fraternity of cities affected by natural disasters attributed to "global weirding." Thanks to snowmelt from the north and heavy rains, the Mississippi River stopped just short of beating its record flood level set in 1927. The musical "Show Boat" also opened that year, bringing the metaphor of an uncaring flow into a new context through the song "Ol' Man River." By the time the musical and movie came out, the steamboat era had drawn to a close. Without the need to worry about a dam, pumping station or flood impeding a river journey, massive hydrological engineering projects have now become the norm on the Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in treating the ebb and flow of water as a circle to be squared, has wrought a river that seems to exist only in designated municipal contexts. There is not one Mississippi River; there are as many rivers as the number of towns that line its banks. It is no longer a natural force that knits the North with the South, but convenient background noise. This story is echoed in waterways the world over: They either become zones for sluicing precious water, territory dividers or backdrops to tout in advertisements for new downtown co-ops.

Steamboats once acted as a connecting thread, drawing disparate port cities into a larger, shared narrative. Now the Mighty Mississippi of song and folklore is mostly traversed by anonymous, grain-hauling barges or the odd recreational kayaker.

As far as natural disasters go, the Memphis version of the Great Flood of 2011 was fairly benign. Homes were abandoned in the hundreds, not thousands, and over-flowing sewage was more of a hazard than the flow of the river itself. The slow rise of the waters was also timed perfectly for Memphis's annual Beale Street Music Fest, which typically signals the beginning of summer and good times to come.

With the passing of time, the swelling Memphis river bank became a locus of both silent curiosity and gaggles of festivity. People on a lunch break, tourists strolling downtown and visitors from nearby states came to gawk at the river and upload pictures on their cellphones. Natural disasters are our new World's Fairs — we all witness a moment stemming from globally connected phenomena.



I made this short video, in the atmosphere of bated breath and surreal festivity, in an attempt to examine how the seemingly disparate political grids of local decision-making are actually connected and felt on a national level. The two main, anonymous narrators view the river from their own vantage points and try to come to terms with what it means when an ignored element becomes "out of control."

James Corner once wrote that the idea of a landscape is a combination of both "recollection" and "invention." Rivers inhabit both of these worlds, not only because human societies have come to rely on forceful hydrological manipulations to control a river's flow, but also because rivers are abrupt reminders of an edge, a mercurial change from solid land to swirling molecules. When the flood waters began to creep up, the denizens of Memphis were confronted with an edge that not only had moved, but was blurred.

Land is plotted as annexed dots on a map, and our collective understanding of a crisis is blocked out and truncated. We can never be totally saved by the scale measurements of the engineer's ruler. According to Charles Waldheim, "the idea of landscape has shifted from the scenic and pictorial imagery to a highly managed surface best viewed, arranged, and coordinated from above." But, in the end, it is those on the ground that interpret the flood's flow.

Prudence Katze was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She has been enjoying New York City's version of cicadas for the past seven years.

Credits: Image of the confluence of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers from a detail of a Harold N. Fisk/US Army Corps of Engineers 1944 report on the "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River."

+ share

Featured Artist: Kevin Reynolds and the Detroit Sound





Kevin Reynolds entered the Detroit techno scene as an audio engineer for Derrick May's label Transmat. His live performances were showcased at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2001 and 2004. More recently, his live sets where noted in Resident Advisor as highlights of the 2009 Movement Electronic Music Festival. Dubbed by BBC Radio One "the new sound of Detroit," Kevin Reynolds is a producer and live performer deeply influenced by the city where he lives.

Credits: "You Search for a Means" by Kevin Reynolds. Photo from mntothat.com.

+ share

When Transportation Becomes a Tourist Attraction

When a country spends 10 billion yuan ($1.33 billion) on a new train line, one would expect people to use it. That is not the case with China’s Shanghai Maglev Train, which is still mostly a tourist attraction after being in service for seven years. It is less a transportation system than a way to boost China’s international image.


The rail network between China and Taiwan, with high speed rail lines colored according to speed.

Currently, China is home to the longest high-speed rail line network in the world: a staggering 9,676 kilometers of track. To understand why the Maglev train system has become a tourist attraction rather than a useful mode of transportation, a little background on the Chinese train system is required. There are three main types of train in China: the regular train (火車), high-speed rail (高速铁路/高速鐵路) and the Shanghai Maglev Train (上海磁浮示范运营线/上海磁浮示範運營線).

According to my uncle, regular trains are “very cheap," but they are "slow" and for "poor working people." The high-speed rail, which goes about 200-350 kph, is the next step up. Most white-collar, working-class people, including him, use this as their main form of transportation, and it is the most popular mode of transport in China. The Maglev train, which operates at a top speed of 431 kph, is the fastest commercial train in the world but is also the least popular among regular commuters in China.

The first reason for its lack of use is coverage. Take for instance the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, which has 24 stations on its line and covers 1,318 kilometers between Beijing and Shanghai. Most importantly, it connects two major economic zones in China: The Bohai Economic Rim (环渤海经济圈) and the Yangtze River Delta (长江三角洲). Compare that to the Maglev train system, which has only two stations on its line and covers only 30.5 kilometers between Longyang Road (龙阳路) and Pudong International Airport (浦东国际机场) in Pudong, Shanghai. Worse yet, the terminus at Longyang Road is 20 minutes by subway from the city center. One could compare it to taking a bus and being forced off two stops too early.


Shanghai Maglev Route.

Featured Quote: Edgar Pieterse on Radical Incrementalism


"The existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change to bring all the good implied in the original utopian association of the 'the city.' This radical impulse stands in contrast to the necessary prudence and constraints of incremental change, which is the only way of intervening in conditions of profound complexity and entrenched power dynamics embedded in capitalist modernities.”

Edgar Pieterse, from "City Futures," 2008

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others. 

Credits: Image from Underground (1983) by David Macaulay. 

+ share

Featured Place: A Continuous Exhibit on Urban Development



As part of a growing collection of features (from quotes to artists to styles) contributed by Polis readers and writers, today we introduce one on places. This can include any location that makes you want to share the experience of being there with others. Simply upload a photo, multiple photos or video to the group pool on Flickr. Relevant submissions are then geotagged, briefly described and published on Polis. We hope this collection will be useful for designers, residents, planners and travelers in search of extraordinary places.

Today's feature is the "Permanent Exhibition on City Planning in Moscow" by the Moscow Government Committee on Architecture and Planning. It is located in the "Building on Brestskaya" at 6 Vtoraya Brestskaya Street, a few blocks from the stunning Mayakovskaya Metro Station.



The exhibit fills a gigantic room, and its centerpiece is a continuously updated wooden model of the city (above). It can be viewed at floor level or from a mezzanine. The quality is remarkable, and it shows that beautiful models and plans don't necessarily correspond with experience on the ground.



More-detailed models of buildings and neighborhoods surround the central display, along with high-resolution photos, maps and diagrams. The exhibit is a "meta" place, in that it comprises depictions of every place in the city. The experience is fascinating and highly informative.



A hand-drawn map of Moscow (above) greets visitors at the entrance. It has a key that identifies different forms of land use, including green space, industry and housing. I'd like to find out more about the production of this map. Could it possibly be updated consistently like the model? If not, I wonder how it differs from current maps, especially in light of the plan to vastly expand Moscow's borders.

Establishing Helsinki as a Design Capital



A previous post on Polis questioned the worth of city rankings, noting increased social polarization in global cities while uncovering some of the consequences of inclusion in, or exclusion from, the rankings. While Monocle heaped praise on Helsinki by awarding it the top spot in its Livable Cities Index, the Finnish capital is set to be bolstered by the additional accolade of becoming the World Design Capital next year. There is now even a formal exploration of expanding the Guggenheim Museum network to Helsinki.

While Helsinki is and has been host to innovative furniture, product and household designs, what will be the effect of such self-consciousness on the future of Finnish design thinking? Luckily much of the current design innovation in this city still lies under the radar, emerging in less-recognized urban interventions and live art installations that seem to spontaneously engage public space. From converting containers on a concrete harbor to cafes, to encouraging citizens to open up their own barbecue restaurants for a day, design thinking is thriving as much in the appropriation of space as in the production of industrial products. The value of Finnish design seems to be most strongly embedded in the city's ability to adapt its spaces to promote civic life. 


Public art in central Helsinki.


Ihana Kahvila in Kalasatama, Helsinki.


Cafe in a shipping container.


An impromptu event for pop-up restaurant day.


Serving Thai soup in the park.

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade.

+ share

Polis 2.0: Your Ideas



Summer in the Northern Hemisphere has us thinking of ways to improve Polis. Guest posts from interesting writers and a bevy of talented interns have helped spur a bout of self-reflection, and we wanted to ask the opinion of our readers:
  • How should Polis evolve?
  • What topics or places should we be covering more?
  • How can we improve the website?
  • What other changes would you like to see?
  • How can we better contribute to the growing discussion about the metropolis? 
  • How can we help support the work of people around the world to improve the quality of life in cities?
  • How can we include more voices and contributors?
  • Would you like to be involved?
Use the comment feature or email info@thepolisblog.org to contribute.

Credits: Photo by Alex Schafran.

+ share

Interlude: Weather in the City on the Web

This week, the Web offered up exquisite visualizations of weather and climate in cities, for those of us snooping from afar in our "technoverses." Two gems that came my way, thanks to a few friends, were:

Edlundart's Weather Wheel



A few words from the visual artist:
"Some interesting things you might notice: Chicago is indeed a "Windy City," but not to any extraordinary degree. In fact, Boston is windier. San Francisco is all the way towards the right, because on average it never reaches higher temperatures than the Scandinavian cities at their hottest. London is not very rainy, while Tokyo gets more than a fair share. Nowhere gets rainier than Lagos. 
The Weather Wheel is based on widely available weather data, but does not display the actual numbers. Things like millimeter precipitation readings are not very meaningful to most people, so thinking of and showing these metrics in a relative way instead seemed like a clean and elegant approach."
Mike Bodge's NSKYC, visualizing the average color of the sky in New York:



A peek at "weather" on Google Insights for Search today revealed that the top regional searches for weather in the last seven days included the U.K., New Zealand, Canada and Ireland.

Credits: Screenshots from Edluandart and NSKYC.

+ share

Beyond Consumption: Enabling Participation for Livable Cities


In Public Space We Trust Public Design Festival, 2009

I wrote The Enabling City, a toolkit on social innovation for urban sustainability and participatory governance, in the early days of green consumerism's ascendance to popularity. It was an interesting, if deeply troubling, time. Limited-edition designer tote bags were waging war on plastic bags, the Internet was obsessing over green gossip websites, and everywhere I looked a growing number of eco-gadgets were promising freedom from guilt with a kind of fervent urgency that can only be described as hopefully naive. I followed the spread of "participation through consumption" with growing concern.

As I write in The Enabling City,
“all around me, I saw consumerism being confused with activism, carbon offsets with environmentalism, and growth with innovation. Nowhere in the mainstream did I see the principles of self-organization, mutual support, and interaction — the elements that kindled my commitment to sustainability — recognized as valid pathways to participation. Instead, concerned citizens like me were being encouraged to buy (RED), shop green, and donate to far-away causes from the comfort of their home.”
Ever the stubborn student, I refused to believe that the only outlet for citizens to make a difference was through consumerism, so I started collecting evidence that spoke to the potential of collaboration to move cities and communities toward a more sustainable future. In so doing, I uncovered a rich world of underground hope where creative citizens tackle increasingly interconnected social issues in thoroughly encouraging ways.

At a time of widespread economic crisis and growing concerns over the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, the impact of neo-liberal policies on the social sphere and the consequences of unmitigated growth have become the objects of serious public scrutiny. Through my research I came to understand the importance of city- and neighborhood-level narratives in forming a more nuanced understanding of sustainability and developed an appreciation for the role culture and creativity can play in the process.

The Enabling City details my vision for urban sustainability and participatory governance from a "place-based creative problem-solving" point of view, an approach that leverages the imagination and inventiveness of citizens, experts and activists in collaborative efforts that make cities more inclusive, innovative and interactive.

Embedded in the idea of enablement is a participatory process that changes the way we think about the commons. If until recently we tended to see cities as dirty and aggressive places, today they are hotbeds for community innovation, the starting point for shifting the emphasis away from profit and private property to an enhanced idea of well-being. This is a kind of well-being that goes beyond GDP outputs and material stability to take into account holistic indicators like the health of the planet and the quality of our daily lives – with a particular emphasis on the conditions that enable citizens and communities to thrive and be empowered.


Tim Devin has been putting up broadsides, or small posters, in the Boston area since last March.

In my Thesis Chronicles series on CoLab Radio, I explore practical applications of "place-based creative problem-solving" through a series of posts that introduce creative citizen initiatives across six categories: placemaking; eating and growing; resource sharing; learning and socializing; steering and organizing; and financing. The articles feature examples that can be found in the Enabling City toolkit, as well as initiatives that were launched following its publication. The aim of the series is to raise the profile of these inventive solutions and present them as alternatives to traditionally static forms of civic engagement. More importantly, I hope they serve as inspiration for individuals and communities to unlock their creative potential and embrace the contagious effects of collaboration.

Nine months into the release The Enabling City, my confidence in the power of the everyday has only increased, and I feel just as strongly about the capacity of communities to act as catalysts for positive change. As I write in one of my posts, “what happens in resilience circles, lending networks, co-working spaces, social enterprises, business alliances and public spaces can have surprisingly far-reaching social outcomes.” I find it reassuring to know there are countless "ordinary" people out there working hard to prove to us just how much these local efforts matter.

Chiara Camponeschi works at the intersection of interdisciplinary research, social innovation and urban sustainability. Her latest project, The Enabling City, is based on graduate research conducted at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies in Toronto, Canada. To learn more about the project, visit the website or follow The Enabling City on Twitter.

This post is part of CoLab/Polis Thesis Chronicles, a forum for sharing student research on cities. To share your thesis work, drop us a line at info@thepolisblog.org.

Credits: Photo of design festival from Esterni. Photo of broadside from Tim Devin.

+ share

Zero Tolerance for Street Art in Stockholm



Last weekend Art of the Streets, an international street art convention, took place in Stockholm. The convention, organized by touring national theatre company Riksteatern, was given the green light to advertise on more than 300 of Stockholm's so-called cultural billboards. The posters were designed by some of Sweden's foremost graffiti artists, but after they were printed in mid-July, officials at the Traffic Office suddenly announced that they would not put up the ads.

The incident triggered a debate that has been going on in the Swedish capital during the last month. Stockholm is the last capital in Europe to maintain a zero tolerance policy against graffiti and vandalism according to Riksteatern. The graffiti policy, which dates from 2007, states that Stockholm will not support activities or events that don't clearly renounce tagging, illegal graffiti, or similar acts of vandalism.

It includes provisions that the city should not participate in activities or events that may arouse interest in graffiti and illegal graffiti. This means, among other things, that the walls of legal graffiti paintings found in many other cities are not allowed. The policy also prohibits all municipal branches from having graffiti designs in exhibitions, on-demand art, or include the aesthetics of graffiti in their operations in any other way.


What Meets the Eye in Northeast Portland



Portland's northeast neighborhoods have become a new frontier for arts and culture in the city. Lower rents, generous bike lanes (even a highway), arts festivals like Last Thursday, and low-rise shopping streets like Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue have attracted Portlandians to live and play in the area.

Yet as these "historic districts" have gained momentum, they have introduced economic and social tension to historically black and Latino areas. Discriminatory "red lining" practices of banks in the 1940s led to concentrations of minorities in North and Northeast Portland, the only areas where they could buy from realtors, who risked losing their licenses if they sold to minorities elsewhere.

Despite the narratives of gentrification surrounding Northeast, the area is full of contradictions and places where the stereotypes break down. A leisurely stroll down Alberta Street during the recent annual street fair revealed a diverse cast of Portland characters stepping out in the neighborhood in their own ways and taking in the relaxed atmosphere of the street.

More information on Portland's northeast neighborhoods can be found at +_Positive Spaces.

Nick Kaufmann is a recent graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he majored in sociology and anthropology. He has since conducted research in Japan as a Fulbright student and volunteered for Heart of Biddeford, a dynamic urban development foundation in his hometown in Maine.

Credits: Video by Nick Kaufmann.

+ share

Spain’s 15-M Movement Three Months On

In mid-May, the outrage simmering below the surface of Spain’s economic and political situation came to a boil, as tens of thousands of people marched for "Real Democracy Now" and took over plazas in more than 60 cities across the country. A remarkable degree of organization was evident in these citizen-occupied squares, from small- to mid-sized cities like Palma de Mallorca to Madrid and Barcelona, where operations were effectively choreographed on a much larger scale.


Indignados in Madrid set up a highly organized takeover of Puerta del Sol.

The plaza takeover energy entered a temporary lull after a few weeks, but it snapped back to life when the police attempted a violent eviction of Plaça Cataluyna in Barcelona at the end of May. Scenes of people sitting peacefully, arms in the air, as the police dealt blows with batons right and left re-energized the outrage, and there were solidarity actions across the country to support the Barcelona camp-out and others against evictions.


Police evicting the indignados in Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona.

In late June and early July, popular assemblies in most cities across Spain agreed to disband their central plaza camp-outs and decentralize activities into neighborhoods across the city, focusing on building context-specific, local action plans. This happened more smoothly in some cities than others; in Palma de Mallorca, for example, many people with no place to live stayed camped out in Plaça d’Islandia, resulting in a police eviction and brutal repression during a protest the following day.

Featured Quote: Doina Petrescu on Participatory Design



"Driven by desire, participatory design is a 'collective bricolage' in which individuals (clients, users, designers) are able to interrogate the heterogeneity of a situation, to acknowledge their own position and then go beyond it, to open it up to new meanings, new possibilities, to 'collage their own collage onto other collages,' in order to discover a common project. As in bricolage, in participative projects, the process is somehow more important than the result, the assemblage more important than the object, the deterritorialisation more important than the construction of territories."

Doina Petrescu, from "Losing Control, Keeping Desire" in Architecture and Participation, 2005.

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo of community workshop in Pune from Urban Nouveau.

+ share

Street Photography and the Fear of Terrorism


Why does street photography make us paranoid? In "Stand Your Ground," a short film made for the London Street Photography Festival, six photographers were given an assignment to capture images of public space in different parts of London. All six were asked by security to stop, and three were confronted by the police. While no one was arrested and the exchanges were primarily civil, the scenarios were still unsettling. Boundaries between private and public space are at times ambiguous. How do we start defining these boundaries? And is it possible to protect the rights of all parties involved?

Credits: Video produced by the London Street Photography Festival.

+ share

Insecure Space and Precarious Geographies



Ever since I took Alan Ingram's inspirational course on geopolitics at the University College London in 2009, I have been intrigued by the idea of security urbanism — the growing tendency to plan and build cities with “security” as the guiding rationale — and its tendency to harm the lives of society’s most vulnerable groups. This interest has been widely shared in academia, with notable examples including Mike Davis’ seminal City of Quartz and Jon Coaffee’s work on cities in the U.K.

Much of this work has focused on spaces of security — airports, gated communities, shopping malls — how they are produced, and what their implications are, particularly for Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City. Much less discussed, I think, is the deliberate and calculated production of insecure spaces, precarious urban geographies where life is actively made vulnerable. How are they produced? What form do they take? And more importantly, what is their relationship with secured urban spaces?

It is this last question that interests me most. Does the practice of producing secure spaces simultaneously engender the production of insecure spaces? Is there a relationship there, whether causal, correlative, or conjunctive? My cautious answer is yes, with some important caveats.

The Strelka Institute and the Reconstruction of Gorky Park



Remarkable change has taken place in Moscow over the past year. While government (federal and municipal) is playing an important role in new initiatives to improve the quality of life in the city, these initiatives are increasingly influenced by the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. The process has been dynamic and in tune with the latest ideas in urban development. Strelka's involvement in the reconstruction of Gorky Park prompted me to continue the series on public parks in Moscow.


Strelka's rooftop bar and restaurant, which help offset the costs of operation.


Choice parking for bikes.

Strelka is located on the Moscow River in an adapted section of the former Red October Chocolate Factory. It was conceived during a conversation among friends at the Venice Biennale in 2009. They were motivated by concern over the trajectory of urban development under former mayor Yury Luzhkov. These design and media luminaries — including Alexander Mamut, once known as "the Yeltsin family banker" — inspired Rem Koolhaas and OMA/AMO to develop an educational program aimed at preparing designers to address societal problems in Russia and around the world. The institute was established in less than a year and the first group of students began in October.


Recruitment poster affixed with ubiquitous yellow logo tape (left). Reception office and ping-pong table (right).


Courtyard where public events take place over the summer.

Rapid development is a Strelka hallmark. Since October, the first group of students has graduated and the institute has become well known throughout the city. Strelka is perhaps excessively branded and hip (derivative by definition), but its human-scale, functional, ecologically concerned, preservation-sensitive, walker/biker/skater-friendly, and public-oriented values are a welcome departure from urban development trends of the past twenty years. Those trends have led to dystopian landscapes, choked with exhaust from traffic jams, where cultural heritage is routinely destroyed and replaced with architectural monstrosities or heavy bronze statues that look as if they might awake to wreak havoc on the city. Incidentally, Strelka has considered best ways of "sinking" the statues' admiral, unmistakably visible at the highest point in the opening photo.


Jiang Jung, chief editor of Urban China, presenting on comparative geopolitics and urbanization.

A Textured Critique: San Francisco's De Young Museum



How does one judge the value of a building and distinguish between good and bad architecture?

Critique involves the claim of authoritative knowledge. The language of the architectural plan, section, technical detail, and master plan are key guides. Yet they ultimately uphold the role of cognoscenti in framing the experience.

San Francisco’s De Young Museum offers an exception. The interplay between material, textures, and spaces transcends the boundaries dividing critics from the public. Beyond the architects' intention to provide a unique space to experience art, what remains in my memory are the details that define the building. Rock, dirt, grass, copper, and wood offer an inventory of textures. The encounter with surface outweighs the opinions of experts.

The possibility of a textured critique, one perhaps more democratic and public in scope, starts with the simple movement of the hand over the surface. It continues with a glance over two juxtaposed forms meeting in unexpected harmony on the same wall. It concludes with the surprise of cracks and grains running over objects later recognized as benches and doors.

Texture provides a text for everyday visitors at the De Young museum. Beyond the abstraction of architectural space and its representations, it opens an immediate sensory channel between the non-expert and the work of art.

Credits: Image of De Young Museum textures by Hector Fernando Burga.

+ share

London From the Outside In: Walking From Heathrow Airport

Whenever we fly into a new city, we usually follow a similar pattern of discovery: take some kind of transit into the center of town, find our home base — a hotel, a friend’s house — and start to explore the city from there. Well-known tourist destinations and neighborhoods familiar from movies and guidebooks are first. As we feel more comfortable in our surroundings, we look farther outside the popular and accessible areas for new experiences. We learn a city, essentially, from the inside out.

A recent trip had me in London for four days, and I thought, what if I reversed that paradigm? What if I started from the outside and worked my way in? Since Heathrow is right at the edge of Greater London, it made perfect sense just to land, clear customs, and start walking.


You can also view London Walk on Google Maps.

I also thought, what if I did the reverse: took a city I knew extremely well, New York, and went from the inside out? I resolved to do a warm-up walk from Times Square to the airport, where I would catch my flight to London. It started out well. I took a picture with the Naked Cowboy and made my way up to Columbus Circle, the “Mile Zero” of New York, from which distances to the city are measured. From there, I headed across the 59th Street Bridge into Queens.



Unfortunately, my flight ended up being cancelled three hours before its scheduled departure, and my new flight was out of John F. Kennedy Airport. Since there was no way I could get there in time on foot, I hopped the subway, defeated.


American Airlines owes me $7.25 for the Airtrain.

I landed in Heathrow the next morning. My initial fear that I wouldn’t be able to exit the airport on foot proved unfounded. I walked out the door of Terminal Four at about 9 a.m. and only had to navigate a few hundred feet along the sides of access roads before I found an actual bicycle and pedestrian path leading out of the airport grounds and onto the A30 dual carriageway to London. A biker whizzed by,  using not the bumpy path I was on, but zooming along in the middle of highway traffic.

After exiting, I saw that I was truly at the edge. Despite being within the borders of Greater London, there were actually small working farms — unlike the airports in Queens, New York, where the last working farm is now a museum.



Strolling along the outside of the airport, I was a bit nervous. London is perhaps the most security-obsessed city in the world, with CCTV cameras everywhere. I half expected MI5 to pull up and question me about taking pictures. Then, after about 10 minutes, I came upon the plane spotters. At least half a dozen people with binoculars and telephoto cameras getting right up to the security fence. I mean, look at this.



I was no longer nervous about pulling out my camera.

Finally, I made it past Heathrow and into the first real neighborhood — a middle-class, predominantly South Asian area that reminded me of some of the neighborhoods surrounding JFK. I also came across the first of many quintessentially British signs letting me know what all the CCTV cameras might be for.



After a few miles of walking along a vibrant commercial strip, which became a pedestrian mall at one point, I came to an establishment flying a rainbow flag — contradicting the popularly held notion that LGBT friendly neighborhoods and establishments are always in central or "yuppie" areas of town. The same is true in New York: Had I made it out to LaGuardia on foot, the last neighborhood I traversed would have been Jackson Heights, home of the annual Queens Pride parade.



Three hours after I started walking, I found the first place that might reasonably be called a “destination”: a Victorian-era water pumping station that has been turned into the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. I didn’t have time for a full visit, but it’s on my agenda for next time — and something I don’t think I would have found if I hadn’t done this walk. Pay £20 for membership, and they’ll let you up the tower every once in a while.



After leaving the museum, a short detour to see the Thames got me a bit lost and necessitated some backtracking, adding about a mile to my planned 18-mile route. I was not happy. By this time, the walk had become a slog. The commercial strips began to blend together, although I did notice the city gradually getting more crowded and posh as I got closer to the center. It wasn't too long before things lost their individuality and just became “London-ish.” Pubs that were quaint at the beginning of the walk started to seem generic. Scenes like this McDonald's, which had made me laugh out loud at the beginning of the trip, I barely noticed anymore.



After just a few hours of walking, I was already officially jaded. I don’t blame the city though — so many of these journeys depend on our own state of mind. One hour of sleep on an airplane and a dodgy £4 English breakfast do not make for a pleasant stroll. I probably should have read the food hygiene rating for Pop Inn Café on Bath Road beforehand.

After about 14 miles, I was happily diverted from the commercial streetscape route I had been following when I reached Hyde Park. Soon after, I entered the congestion-pricing zone, the first official indication that I was now in the central part of the city. I started to see the London I recognized from postcards and previous visits – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Westminster off in the distance. The presence of double-decker tour buses and souvenir stands indicated I was now in the area where new arrivals generally start to explore a city. Soon afterward, I came to Charing Cross, generally considered London’s “Mile 0.” It had been less than 24 hours since I’d stood at New York’s “Mile 0” in Columbus Circle.

But Charing Cross was not my final destination — I still had about half an hour to go. After a walk up the Strand I came into the mile-square City of London, the oldest part of the metropolis and now the financial district. Upon rounding a corner, I spotted Tower 42 and the Swiss Re building (colloquially known as the Gherkin) standing above the skyline.



I had walked for almost 18 miles through London before spotting the first modern skyscrapers. London isn’t New York, Hong Kong, or Sao Paulo, with miles of high-rise buildings, but it still has its fair share. This was when it truly dawned on me how vast, residential, and predominantly low-rise the city really is. Staggering down Cannon Street just after 5 p.m., I found two friends waiting for me at my final destination, the London Stone — from which the ancient Romans were said to have measured all distances in Britannia.



The London Stone turned out to be not only a landmark, but also the name of a nearby pub. After 19 miles and 8 hours of walking, a well-earned pint was certainly in order.

Moses Gates is a writer and urban planner living in New York. His first book, a memoir of urban exploration around the world, will be published by Penguin in the fall of 2012. His website is www.allcitynewyork.com.

Credits: Photos by Moses Gates.

+ share