The Many Faces of London

The courses I am studying while here at Western have given me insight into London that not even many Canadians have experienced themselves. Me being me, I like to be truthful and impartial, and so far my blog posts have unveiled just one face of London: its attractive one. Inevitably, as the novelty of being an international student has worn off, I now find myself writing about its darker side.

But first, here’s a [4-paragraph] summary of my antics over the past week or so (a reward for submitting my urgent assignments). Last Friday, I got to open an early Christmas present: a second flying lesson. Again, I couldn’t resist! What made this lesson even better was the fact I was accompanied by a friend, Rogier. We were both able to fly together, and so we took turns in being each other’s passengers. Unfortunately for Rogier (for whom this was his first time in a light aircraft, let alone flying one) the wind speed picked up progressively throughout the morning which made for an extra-turbulent flight, but he handled it like a pro [see below]! It felt great being a passenger for a change – I soaked in the beautiful views as I knew this would be my final time up in Canadian skies!

Next came WESMUN, a conference for the Model United Nations society that I’m a member of. We, each representing a different nation, debated (pretty much) 09:00-17:00 about Anti-Doping policy and a suitable host country for the next Olympic games. After we had all the energy and concentration drained from our bodies, a group of us decided that nothing would cure our lethargy more than a trip to Five Guys – while still in our formal dress – so that’s exactly what we did. To add to that, as we left the conference venue we witnessed our first heavy snowfall; and then as we were devouring our burgers (not only did I learn that you can eat monkey nuts with their shells on, thanks Anthony, but…) a decision was made to see Fantastic Beasts. So, the perfect end to a long day!

Sunday was the day of my first ever ‘Escape Rooms’ experience. To our frustration we didn’t win, but it was great to try something new – I certainly wish there were more of these in the UK! We also managed to squeeze in some time for Trivia Night (student pub quiz) the following week. Our start was strong, and we remained confident for a long as humanly possible. But by the time the third round was upon us, the Canadian-biased questions were just too much, even with a Canadian team member – outrage! That week then came to the perfect close as I made time for a second riding lesson. This time it was 1:1 and so I got to pick up the pace. Unfortunately, my legs still mirror those of John Wayne. I’m clearly out of touch…

Last Tuesday Daisy and I represented Southampton (and the UK) at the International Exchange Fair. Equipped with a hand-made poster full of iconic British landmarks, foods and animals (and quotes from the ‘Very British Problems’ Twitter feed that we found more entertaining than the Canadian students), we did our best to put Southampton on the world map!

Now to share with you the alternative side to London. Naturally, I’m making this sound far more sinister than it is in reality just to keep your attention, yet there is method in my madness. As a student of the Land Use and Development course, I have been on numerous “fieldtrips” to the downtown region of London to see first-hand how the city has evolved, where it is heading, and what efforts they are taking to preserve the city’s historicity. From my perspective as a Brit, the future of preservation isn’t too bright. It’s clear that a ‘great divide’ exists between the values and practices of people in the UK, compared to those living here.

Façade Fetishism

Since I arrived, I’ve been pondering the reasons why most of the buildings look superficial, perhaps even like a saloon from a western movie. And now I know: North American architecture is obsessed with façades. That is, a building often has a totally incongruous front to it. This is their chosen means of ‘preserving’ historic buildings. A form of preservation that often involves deconstructing the original building, and rebuilding with different materials, albeit with the intention of making it look as similar as possible. At best, developers may preserve the original bricks.

Take for instance, our favourite venue Budweiser Gardens; the London & Western Trusts building; the Armouries; and the old King’s Mill department store (soon to be the first downtown campus building, courtesy of Fanshawe). All examples of façades that resemble failed attempts to preserve; exemplifying character-less buildings that are built with contemporary materials. Budweiser is perhaps the most superficial example of ‘preservation’, optimising the North American style. A metallic venue enveloped in a sandstone brick exterior that lacks adequate height and is plastered with fake windows to resemble the building that once stood in its place. What once used to be one of the finest hotels in London is now home to the (arguably even finer) London Knights ice hockey team.

 

i-love-my-car-sticker

Me and my car

The main reason for this great divide is, quite frankly, an entrenched obsession with cars. Now, I love my car, but this North American attachment is unhealthy. From the daily commute and school-run, to the weekly shop, gym session and even withdrawing cash from a bank. The trusty automobile enables most North Americans to go about their daily lives with little difficulty. But this convenience comes at a price…

I must make it clear that this widespread dependence on the car is not always choice. In fact, it is has become so commonplace that cities have, quite literally, been built around the car. Since the 1950s, the suburban lifestyle become a whole lot more attractive. The result? Cars became a ‘necessity’. How else were people to get to and from work in the city centres? Suburbia, as well as the HUGE expanse of land on this side of the Atlantic, has lead many to become accustomed to driving. It’s the preferred mode of transport. After all, the highway infrastructure makes it convenient – especially with all the convenient fast-food stores and gas stations (that are as common as Tim Horton’s) adjacent to the highway; trains are too expensive; the buses can never be relied upon; and walking is near-impossible, unless you have a death-wish or are brave enough to venture beyond the small network of specified paths. That’s not to mention cycling – good luck with that!

To those of you reading this that, like me (before I arrived), didn’t believe people were so stuck in their ways… Having recently been in the audience of a presentation by one of London’s top city planners and heard the remarks of the staunchly “pro-car”, including: associating sidewalks with crime; assuming that “car-less” is a synonym for poverty or ‘the undesirables’. I can assure you, NIMBY attitudes are rife, and are very much yet to be changed.

All of this is linked to the sedentary lifestyle we (in the so-called Western world) are accustomed to. We may desperately wish to escape from this trap, yet succumb to it because of convenience. The physical fabric of our towns and cities is based upon the car, and the drive-through culture, be it for food, cash or even prescription drugs, gives rise to even more unhealthy lifestyles. The most obvious being lack of activity, but let’s not forget the broader effect on climate. Unfortunately this is the norm. I’m not saying it will be easy to change, but perhaps it should always be at the back of your mind when you next go to drive to the shops, bank, University, or work. Do you really need to drive? Can you ride-share, cycle, or simply walk? If infrastructure is the problem (as it the case with London), then talk to someone with authority. Lobby for change.

Remember: London is one of the better North American cities.

[Disclaimer: I still love London!]

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