Most people who like to observe human action and its inherent dynamism (in tension with some inherent stasism, too) seem to be fascinated by cities. I love cities – their histories, their energy, their culture, their architecture (and yes, let’s admit it, their restaurants, and shopping). The various neighborhoods in east London are a great example of organic evolution and dynamism. When I first visited London in 1986, as a history buff and a fan of technological change, I visited them with memories of the Spitalfields wool weavers, the markets, the tumult, and so on. But when I first visited them they were bedraggled collections of down-on-their-luck people and buildings, an agglomeration of poverty that had begun in the Georgian 18th century with the development of upscale housing in the West End.
Since the mid-1990s, though, the areas of Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and Hoxton have seen an influx of artists and dance clubs – artists looking for cheap rents, and dance clubs taking advantage of low rents, high ceilings, and a dearth of high-income neighbors to complain about the noise and late nights. Like other cities (including my beloved Chicago), these neighborhoods contain some old warehouse buildings that have been turned into loft apartments, taking advantage of low property values, high ceilings, and large windows. The proximity to Liverpool Street and new commercial buildings as the City grew east didn’t hurt either.
This is an exciting time for these neighborhoods. They remain edgy and funky, and are also attracting new commercial activity in the form of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and the art galleries that have been in the area for about a decade. As with other neighborhoods in other cities, as they gentrify they may lose that edge, but may become attractive places to live where they were not particularly attractive before.
The thing I most love about the evolution of such neighborhoods is the creative re-use of old industrial and commercial buildings. This creativity symbolized for me the form that dynamism takes in urbanism these days – opportunistically taking advantage of conveniently located but underpriced real estate, keeping the respect of the existing buildings (of course, this is not always organic and is usually accompanied by some zoning or historical protection), seeing opportunities to create new value in a neighborhood.
Of course, given the realities of 21st-century living in Britain, there is substantial government planning of land use. But even within the planning confines, creativity finds its expression. It reminds me of that great book, Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ point is that urban planning fails when it fails to honor the organic patterns of human activity that have evolved in the neighborhood.