New way of looking at reality
Many years I visited London, passing through on my way to York University in the north of England in the 70’s, or as business destination in the long executive period of my life until about 2005. Today is different. Never before I looked at the city through the sustainocratic “City of Tomorrow” eyes of human and ecological values (health, safety, self-sufficiency, self-awareness and food/water supplies). This time I arrived at London through the harbour of Harwich after the ferry crossing from Hoek van Holland. When boarding the boot, together with my teenage daughter who I try to make sensitive to different worldviews by visiting cultures, the huge SCR sign on the side of the ship surprised me positively.
The SCR message of Stena line
When we arrived at the Harwich port on Sunday morning the usual train connection to London was substituted by a bus service for maintenance reasons. The bus took us through the eastern countryside around Colchester which was primarily dedicated to massive wheat production. The yellow fields on the hill slopes offer a beautiful sight, some already harvested others waiting their turn.
Wheat fields around Colchester near London
We now know that such single crop, horizontal mass production is devastating for the soil while producing periods of extreme air pollution. In March 2015 central Europe was surprised by a peak of air pollution that could eventually be related to massive ploughing and fertilizing processes. It even caused Paris to close off for certain traffic. Now in August the harvesting is producing dust, leaving behind desert like fields ready for a second cycle of massively wrong productivity. British documentary maker Rebecca Hosking made a great report of the vulnerability of the UK and the rest of the world.
Eastern London construction site
When the bus entered London we were immediately blocked by road works, closed infrastructures and extensive traffic jams. Our destination was Liverpool train station in the city center but to get there the bus needed to go through all kinds of detours. Weekends are being used for works on infrastructures, maintenance and special events. This weekend London was emerged in a cycling event that caused the stress of many weekend commuters that found their usual routes blocked for this unique happening.
The first impression of my 14 year daughter of London was a huge and ugly and chaotic construction site. Signs up on the buildings that say “no ball games allowed” give a highly child unfriendly feeling. In this area of London, surrounding the City Airport, the extensive building activities provided a sense of unfriendly, unattractive and messy London in which old, obsolete, dirty structures mix with ultra modern cement and glass. In between we observe an impressive spaghetti of train and car infrastructures.
Construction sites all over
I hadn’t been to London for over 10 years and was impressed by the enormous development of the city. Simple observation made me feel totally demoralized with the air quality challenge that all cities face and I represent through AiREAS. In London the economic development prevailed all common sense to harmonize with nature. Living green was eliminated from the new city development all together. Every square inch was dedicated to multilevels of cement experience, consumption and mobility. Since the promising SCR sign on the ship we had not seen one single positive intention to combat climate change or pollution.
City center fun fair
Finally we arrived at the Liverpool train station where we could benefit from the left luggage and start our visit to central London. The Oyster card for the underground was easily purchased even though it took a serious instant bite out of our budget already. London was going to prove to be with difference the most expensive city we had visited, in every sense. My daughter had her own bucket list which we started to work through. For some reason she wanted to see a red phone booth. I had tried to talk her out of this because phone booths were outdated since the introduction of mobile phones. Just look at our own home country where a phonebooth cannot be found anywhere.
To my surprise (not my daughter) these old red landmarks were all over the place and serious tourist attraction.
When we arrived at Westminster tourism had visibly taken over the roads through massive pedestrian activity mingling with the limited traffic due to the cycling event. The abundance of selfie sticks, cameras and all cultures of the world, that try to dodge each other as everyone tried to make the picture of a lifetime of the Big Ben, House of Parliament, the London Eye and the Thames, was our first impression of modern downtown London. After the selfie with the red telephone booth we headed towards the London Eye. On the one hand I was positively surprised with the magnificent pedestrian infrastructure that London had created along the Thames and elsewhere in town. Why use cars, cabs or other vehicles when everything can be reached on foot or using the Tube? On the other hand London had converted into an expensive fun fair with all kinds of attractions that lure tourism. The London Eye is apparently run by Coca Cola while surrounded by the Shrek, an Aquarium experience and the Dungeon. Individually each attraction can be accessed against prices that dwarf Disney World, Movie Park or the Efteling.
Central London remains a magnificent combination of historical and monumental city development around the importance of the river Thames. It is impressive how London has created and maintained infrastructures in a huge complexity. View here the development of London over the last 200 years.
At the same time it is clear that major cities like London are transforming from old industrial, political and administrative centres or trade mindsets to tremendous centers of mass consumption in the shape of “Panum et Circenses”, referring to the old roman principle of providing superficial needs (bread and entertainment) to gain favours of the masses. In basic sustainocratic terms this is (just like the history of the Roman Empire) the beginning of the end of an era when consumption overruns the individual contribution to productivity, producing a parasite like unbalance that always leads to collapse.
Nevertheless, realistically, when observing the visual about the growth of London over the years, who in his or her right mind of policy making can find time to moralize when confronted with such patterns? Keeping the cancer-like infection growing is as legitimate in economic circles as questioning or curing it in circles of global ethics and sustainable progress like sustainocracy.
Cycling in London
It was good to see how London had integrated cycling into the infrastructure and I rapidly learned that over 500.000 bicycle movements are registered every day in town. Observing the cyclists risk their lives in the dense traffic of London made me wonder how safety was dealt with? It wasn’t. Some simple google research shows how cyclists are victim of motorists while hardly protected by the authorities. Only when fatalities are registered some police investigation is initiated but otherwise the hit and run practice of hurrying vans seems to be everyday practice. Over 1000 injured and 3 dead on average every day makes London very bicycle unfriendly. Tourists are invited to use the “Santander” bikes that are for rent everywhere with free of charge usage during the first 30 minutes (like in other European cities). But the different traffic rules in the UK combined with the lack of protection makes it an adrenaline fight to give the bike a try. I decided not to and take the Tube instead.
Positive was to note the efforts to keep the Thames clean with the registered effects of the return of life in the river. Salmon has been spotted again in the river as well as other wildlife. The river has proven to be a huge health hazard in the past when it was still used as sewage system carrying around all kinds of diseases. Since the 70’s the city council has made a serious attempt to keep the river clean even though it still collects an impressive amount of plastic waste every day from the over-consumption and lack of responsibility of people. This daily pollution could also be seen in the city’s waste management that clearly ran overworked as plastic bags piled up waiting for garbage collection trucks to pass by.
In the “bread and play” culture food is key and everywhere one can find food in London, from fast food franchises to pub food and restaurants. Everything is equally expensive. My memories took me to a pint of hand pulled real ale and inexpensive homemade pub grub but all this had changed. A pub meal would run as expensive as in a restaurant while fast food would also go against wild prices depending where one was in the city. It is not at all a surprise that overweight is a serious issue in the city center. Healthy food is offered in all kinds of outlets but who can afford this in the rush of daily city life? Just like everyone else in cities around the world the population depends on processed food that has hardly the nutritious values that one needs. People tend to overfeed due to the lack of both awareness and participation in the food productivity chain. The easy access enhances blind consumption. London has no visible initiatives in city agriculture, green roofs or integration of living green in its facilities.The large parks in the old town center (Hyde park, Green park, Greenwich park, etc) are very decorative and relaxing but do not provide any value to the food system. Their design seems highly functional from a maintenance point of view and not at all as a productive element in the city other than recreational. London is totally dependent on supplies from outside the city, for all its primary needs. This makes the city very vulnerable within the speculative nature of economics. London is seen as an influential city but when we look at the “other reality” London, its 10 million human residents and equal number of visitors are at the top list of risk areas. Being on the island, connected only through the channel tunnel with the mainland, Great Britain relies primarily on itself if a major crisis hits. And such crisis will hit. Now the attention goes still towards those 1000s of refugees that try to access the “promised land” through the tunnel but one day the situation may well turn around.It is just a question of time.
Meanwhile I was impressed by the “second city center” located near Greenwich and referred to as Canary Wharf at Tower Hamlets, a huge new financial district with nothing but glass and cement. If this is the future that London builds on than the concept of sustainocracy will remain unseen until the city’s current securities and focus collapses.
Despite the efforts of various London twitter groups and NGOs the “healthy city” of London is still a long way away. Every sign shows the focus on economic growth and speculation without morality or ethics around sustainable progress. There seems no real tension other than the river issue that seems to be solved and attended. The rest of the city’s development is based on high level, semi-automated under and overground infrastructures that provide the backbone for new financial clusters. A healthy attitude of bike commuters is penalized with lack of safety. On the way back to Holland we left behind a city on verge of yet another paralyzing strike of underground personnel. Despite the beauty of the original city of London between the House of Parliament and the Tower Bridge the underlying current in modern times is of generalized big city risks covered up by unsustainable dependence on speculative import of basic needs and total lack of awareness or responsibility to do something about it. It is clear to me that the world’s future is not to be found in the large cities, on the contrary.