Every once in a while I discover a truly wonderful, utterly walkable neighborhood. Sometimes it requires traveling 4,000 miles to find it. On my recent trip to London I stayed in a neighborhood in the borough of Hackney, just north and east of the City. I checked in to my Air B&B and set off on foot to explore. I was immediately captivated and happy. Don’t get me wrong, you could set me down on any street there, and I’d take one look at the color of the bricks and the distinct chimneys and I’d exclaim “I’m in London, and I love it!” But my enthusiasm for the city aside, the neighborhood where I stayed in Hackney checks all the boxes for what makes a walkable city. Let’s take a look.
We’ll start with the pub, of course. English pubs are some of the great “third places” of the world, providing a casual place to pop in for a pint and conversation. Luckily for me, the Prince George was immediately across the street, so pop in I did, early and often. But I didn’t linger on my first day, as there was much to see.
“My neighborhood” in Hackney essentially lies between the Dalston Junction station of the Overground and London Fields, a major park. This quintessentially walkable neighborhood has a combination of old and new, with excellent transit service, and all the retail and restaurants one needs. It is a virtual how-to for good urban design, starting with the streets themselves. I previously wrote about busier streets in London (and Paris), but the smaller residential streets are the essential skeleton for good walkability. Most are narrow, although they vary in width. Of course, good street design makes the entire neighborhood more pedestrian friendly, but, as shown above, raised table intersections with bumpouts calm traffic even more, making walking a pleasure (and safer).
The majority of the neighborhood was originally developed between 1850 and about 1900. Buildings destroyed by World War II bombing have been replaced, sometimes with much less charming results like council estates (albeit important for affordable housing), and then there is some very recent transit-oriented development near the Dalston Junction Overground station, but the original rowhomes have stood the test of time. They enabled a walkable neighborhood then (although there wasn’t much choice) just as they do now. Interestingly, when reinvestment occurs, it happens at the back of the rowhome, with the kitchen getting expanded toward the back garden. I didn’t see “teardowns” like in single-family districts. This must be some combination of structural integrity (too expensive and difficult to tear down), lack of space to each side, possibly historic and preservation rules that prevent frontage alterations, but also a degree of not wanting to mess with such a well-designed façade and how it relates to the street. Or maybe just dumb luck.
Where storefronts do exist at corners of primarily residential streets, they either are located right against the sidewalk, or in the case of the Prince George, set back a bit to allow for a pleasant terrace. In either case, they hold the corner well, and housing on those blocks is set back farther from the street.
I’ve spoken a lot about front doors, and sure enough, doors are numerous and mostly well-scaled. Whereas commercial storefronts should have lots of windows and doors close to the sidewalk, the ideal residential front door should be set back 10 feet or more and be five to ten steps above the street. This properly establishes spatial separation of public and private space.
This rule of residential doors is not hard and fast, and appropriate exceptions are to be found. A shorter setback and less elevation change works perfectly well with an attractive hip-high wall and the right plantings.
Residential doors on side streets and mews can open directly on to the sidewalk. While not for everybody, my observation was these doors served much smaller units, sometimes on the back or side of a larger building, and they help add doors and enliven the street.
Busier commercial streets in the neighborhood have a combination of older, original retail and office buildings, but a significant amount of infill as well. I had an excellent choice of grocers, but I chose the Dalston Local Store, which is part of a more recent mixed-use development. The store had a good selection of produce, but perhaps most importantly, the sidewalk in front was at least 15 feet wide, an important feature given its close proximity to the Overground station and high pedestrian traffic levels.
Besides the functional and very walkable commercial streets, there are the more quaint destination streets, like Broadway Market in Hackney and Camden Passage in nearby Islington. Broadway Market is closed to traffic on Saturdays in lieu of market stalls, and Camden Passage is a traffic-free zone. The added bonus is strolling along Regents Canal to get to these places.
After all this the only thing left is a park. Luckily, London Fields is located nearby; a nice, big, elegant park with space for strolling, cricket, grilling, playgrounds, and even its own pub. My goodness, all the pretty people (mostly millennials) at the Pub on the Park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon is quite a sight. Come to think of it, there were lots of pretty people pretty much everywhere.
There isn’t much to it; narrow streets, appropriately-scaled sidewalk and setbacks, and lots of front doors. And sure, there are blemishes, but why dwell on that? Besides, all the wonderful urban design is perfectly worthless without the people. The owner of the local Laundromat shoos away traffic cops so neighbors don’t get parking tickets; talk about “eyes on the street!” Pub quiz night at the Prince George is fun, particularly the obscure American questions like “who is Ansel Adams” or “what is turducken?” But there’s more. I stopped in London Fields to talk to a park ranger (he said the difference between rangers In England in America is American rangers carry guns!). Later in the day, I ran into the ranger on the sidewalk closer to my Air B&B. That same day, I ran in to the Air B&B owners on the sidewalk a few blocks away. I’d been walking around London for two days and already I was seeing people I knew. I think that is just wonderful.
I’m famished after all that walking. I believe there’s time for another leisurely pint! Goodnight pub.
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