They are not words that I expected to utter, but I think that London could learn something from America. Well, to be more precise, from Portland, Oregon.
While I’ve been here I’ve been impressed by a number of things, simple things that I think that London could also benefit from.
What London could learn from Portland:
1) Portland has an incredibly positive attitude to recycling. Special recycling bins proudly proclaim “Portland Recycles”, garbage trucks have positive messages about the number of homes that will be powered by burning of the rubbish they are carrying, and most coffee-shops and cafés separate all their waste to minimise the amount of stuff that gets thrown away. In London people to find recycling more of a chore than a way of life, if our bins said “London recycles” perhaps we’d start to become proud of it too.
2) Better attitude towards cyclists. Portland has 100 miles worth of dedicated cycle-lanes within the city and have numerous bike corals. These replace parking space for two cars with parking for 40 cyclists and complement the smaller bike racks around town. I know London now has ‘Boris Bikes’ but there is still a long way to go…
3) Water run-off management. In the UK we see a rise in the number of people concreting over their front gardens to create driveways, thus reducing the area available for storm-water drainage. In Portland the council has taken to using permeable paving techniques which allow water to drain away through the paving blocks. There are also bioswales dotted around the place. These are vegetated ditches which not only slow the flow of water into the sewers, but also help filter it naturally.
4) Transit Tracker. Every bus-stop and train stop has a unique ID number which you can use to call, text or check online to see exactly when the bus/train you want is due to arrive. It doesn’t just work on printed timetables, this is real-time data, immediately updated to show delays. Portland’s transport operator, Trimet,releases all the data in an open format avaialable through an API, which has enabled an entire ecosystem of transit apps to be build around it (only the phoneline is actually run by Trimet). They were the first to do it in the US, and thus their data format has formed the blueprint for many other cities to follow suit.
5) Educational billboards. I especially liked the use of billboard space to hammer home the message that if you catch a cold then antibiotics won’t help you. Patients demanding antibiotic treatments from their doctors for viral ailments is a real problem. I was impressed to see the council spending money trying to reduce this problem.
6) Council Art Exhibition. “All the art that fits” was a small exhibition of artwork that had been created by members of Portland council. Any member of staff could submit a piece to be displayed and they crammed in as many as would fit in the exhibition space. The blurb about the exhibition mentioned how they want to encourage their employees to be creative even if they are stuck in offices all day. I just thought that it was a nice way of personalising the workers that run the city’s amenities.
7) Powell’s Book shop. Wow. Every city should have an independent book store like this. Covering an entire block, the maze of bookshelves in Powell’s could keep you occupied for days if not weeks. Not only do they sell new books, but also second hand books alongside them. You can take your pick as to which you’d like to buy. Receiving 4000-6000 books per day, you’re sure to find something to your taste, and a few gems along the way. I picked up two vintage NASA books of photographs from the Gemini programme for less than $15. They were in the “Space Exploration” section of their technical book store which is across the street from their main shop and includes all sorts of weird and wonderfully specific sections.
8) Scrap. We need to have Scrap in London. I’ve already blogged about it being a wonderful Aladdin’s cave for crafty folk, but it’s worth stating that again. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that finds a home for unwanted things from local businesses and Portland natives. They run classes for schools and provide a fantastic little work-shop space if you can’t wait to get home with your latest treasure. Last time I visited someone came in and donated a sackful of colourful zip components, there were concrete gnome moulds, kites, floor samples, violin chin-rests and all kinds of paper, pencils, materials for inventive minds to enjoy. The staff are friendly and always on-hand to suggest interesting re-uses and fun craft projects for you to try. I love it. I seem to recall something called “Scrap-Project” that my mother used to visit when she was a teacher, but that was not open to the public. Somebody please create Scrap for London. It is a wonderfully positive place.
9) The ReBuilding Centre. This is like Scrap, but for building supplies. Want a door, a sink, or some glass lampshades? They’ve got the lot! I guess our equivalent would be salvage yards, but these don’t seem to user-friendly to me. The recycling centre in Portland has a lovely entrance-way and encourages donation of old furniture to be recycled by someone else.
10) Free trains in the centre of town. Never going to happen in London, but it’s a nice idea. To be fair, their trains seem more like trams and it’s only a small area that they are free, but still.
11) Cheerful bus drivers. Everyone here seems more cheerful. I understand why there is protective glass/plastic in front of our bus drivers, but they could still make eye-contact and smile from behind if they wanted to. Equally, I know Londoner’s are a rushed an busy bunch and our buses and generally more crowded, but there’s something nice about everyone saying “thank you” as they get off the bus, and the drivers wishing you a nice evening.
12) Bars have to serve food. There is a law in Portland that all bars have to serve food while they are serving alcohol. No more realising you’re getting hungry (and thus tipsy) at 9pm and finding out they stopped serving food at 7.30pm.
13) More neon. Some of the neon signs around Portland are fabulous, tastefully done, classic. London might look cool with a few of these.
Of course there are some things that my beloved London could teach Portland too….
Portland can learn from London:
1) Oyster cards – seriously, Portland, get with the programme. It’s all about swishing your Oyster card as you get on the bus, instead of faffing about sorting out exactly the right money and slowly posting your dollar bills into the machine. Especially when it’s $2.05 for a single journey. Fishing around for that elusive nickel is immensely frustrating.
2) Buses should run later. There I was thinking that London was lame because the tube stops just after midnight, but in Portland you can get stranded if you don’t catch the bus by 10.30pm (7.30pm on a Sunday)! Madness. For the trendy city you appear to want to be, you really need to sort that out!
3) Night-life. Friday night and a restaurant in downtown closes at 6.45pm? Wow. I know they called you the breakfast city, but some of us are night owls. Londoner’s may not be able to eat in pubs past 8pm, but we can dine like kings until late into the night.
4) How to brew beer. Beer doesn’t need to be eye-wateringly hop-py! You know they only added hops to beer to keep it fresh when they were sailing it to India right? It’s not really meant to be there. Portland, proud of its enormous number of breweries is a great place for beer, but not if (like me) you’re not keen on the hops. Also, if your beer is flat, especially if you know it is flat, then don’t serve it to me. No-one people over here don’t drink too much in the way of English ale, every time I try to order it is undrinkable.
5) Ordering at the bar. Table-service is nice every now and then, but sometimes I just want to stand at the bar, choose my tipple, order and pay for it and walk it back to my table myself. It’s not complicated. Please Portland, let me do that more often.
6) Art galleries and museums should be free. Cost should never be an obstacle to gaining new knowledge. London has some splendid museums that won’t cost you a penny. Long may it stay that way (I’m too old to break out my Blue Peter badge you see).
7) Less neon. Listen-up Portland: A little neon goes a long way. Using a neon sign on a police station is perhaps taking it too far.