Daniel Moylan: When this is all over we should celebrate London’s messiness

Daniel Moylan: When this is all over we should celebrate London’s messiness

I have had a quiet lockdown. For seven weeks outdoor exercise has been rationed. For me, at least, this has created a sense of anxiety that, by not taking up my ration, I may be missing out and as a result I have been daily pounding the lawns, hillocks and glades of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park at, as it has turned out, one of the most glorious seasons of the year. On my way to the parks, I pass at the top of my road the mooching motorcyclists who deliver takeaway food locally. These are people who might today scrape into the approved category of heroic key workers, but that was not true a few weeks ago.

Back then, when things were “normal”, we regarded them as a rather annoying manifestation of what was contemptuously called the “gig economy”.

We had only two ways of explaining these people: either they were being ruthlessly exploited, in which case they were to be pitied, or they were willing participants in the lowest form of economic organisation, in which case they were despicable. Our solution was simple: the law must force them to become subject to the infantilising web of employment legislation. We had no conception that they might prefer the freedom and autonomy of being in control of their own economic actions. They had to be told what to do.

The urge to regulate the messiness of urban life was identified by Jane Jacobs as the main threat to cities, those vast engines that delicately balance wealth-creation, community life and personal self-realisation. Jacobs’ insight was that what looked like disorder was in fact a vastly complex and continuous web of human interactions beyond our ability to analyse. And what we could not analyse we mistook for messiness and set about eliminating. In city planning terms, that meant a rational re-making of the city: different places for different activities and uniformity within them, with models as various as Sir Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities and Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine. 

For Jacobs these were not paths to renewed cities but ways of destroying cities, by eliminating the complexity of human interaction that was crucial to the city’s success. For a city to prosper, we needed to live with a degree of disorder.

We made some brave experiments in that direction under Boris Johnson, with streetscape re-modelled to remove signs and guardrail and with some tentative experiments in shared space, inspired by the work of the late Hans Monderman in the Netherlands. But the instinct to control was quick to re-assert itself and now we design our cities in response to barks and yelps from well organised single-issue lobby groups who are keen to allocate the city’s spaces for the purposes they favour, usually with no better argument than that they are morally superior and deserving persons. And so we face demands for bicycle lanes here, bus lanes there, kerbs for guide dogs everywhere, all to be allocated top-down by highways engineers practising what remains one of the few professions still working to a Soviet model.

The lockdown has taken the bossy society to a new zenith. Even in the Second World War people weren’t told when and whether they could sit in a park. Of course there has been a very strong justification for this: plague management is not new and for centuries it has included urban lockdowns, isolation of the infected and social distancing. It would be remiss of the government not to resort to those measures learnt from hard experience.

But there are too many decision-makers relishing these new powers. Loath to let a good pandemic go to waste, they are emerging with plans for a radical re-shaping of the city’s transport: more lanes for everyone! Some are indeed pondering a far less dense city – not a city at all, therefore. We see hints of a new, even fiercer obesity strategy. And of course we are to be shouted at by recorded warnings whenever we ride on a bus or a Tube. It’s easy to believe that for these people the queue is the paradigmatic form of social organisation.

I am not sure anyone has asked the mooching motorcyclists whether these are their priorities.

The London Society is blessed to have so many educated contributors with bright ideas for the capital’s future. I am no different – I have got the degree certificate to prove it – and I am greatly honoured to be invited to put down my thoughts as to how we might change London when the pandemic recedes.

So let me hark back to Lenin and Trotsky, who, with the ruthless insight that accompanied their ruthless brutality, gave us the question, “Who, whom?” Who will control whom? It was always a slogan to summarise class struggle but it is not without applicability to London today, for truly the capital is divided into those who do and those to whom it is done. My suggestion for change in London after the virus is that we, the educated doers, should celebrate the messy takeaway bikers as a freewheeling symbol of a city that has been a success for 2,000 years and take a break from telling those to whom it is done what they should do.

This article was originally published by The London Society as part of a series entitled When This Is All Over. Daniel Moylan was an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor, in particular on transport issues, and is chairman of Urban Design London. Follow Daniel on Twitter.

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