thoughts on our urban future

Xmas Lights

London, Regent Street 2008

It might be a strange first post for the Jewish urbanist, but if you live in a city, or to be honest, even a town or the suburbs, you can not escape the xmas lights.  Walking down Bond Street today in London, I was again struck by how strange I find the typical British holiday displays.  To be fair, they have improved in the eight years I’ve lived in the UK, but they are still miles behind the States and would be sure to disappoint any American visitor hoping for magical sparkles.

In fact, I’ll never forget when my American friend Samantha, full of enthusiasm and having only been living in the UK for a couple of months, called me up to say that whatever we did that weekend, we just HAD to go look at the xmas lights at Oxford Circus.  “Really?”  I said to her, “Because I think you’re going to be disappointed.”.  But she told me that her colleague had enthused about it, and she really wanted to go see them.  So I reiterated my warning and off we went.

The xmas lights in question are the photo above.  I think they may have changed color.  But then, maybe they didn’t.  Needless to say, she wasn’t impressed.

But times have changed somewhat.  The lights are getting better and the window displays are improving.  It’s still not Herald’s Square, but it’s getting bigger.  And I think it does make an impact on the winter outdoor experience.  It’s dark, it’s cold, and in the UK it’s probably wet.  These are not conditions that make you want to take to the streets and linger.  But xmas lights give you a reason to shuffle along and just look around.  They can make you smile and certainly entertain.  They add brightness to what would otherwise be a fairly depressing time of year (there’s a reason people cry on buses in Helsinki this time of year).  So do xmas lights improve the urban experience?

Clearly on the one hand I’m saying they do.  But the other part of me is not so thrilled with the energy waste and the ubiquitous nature of following the herd.  What was wrong with UK xmas lights that they weren’t as big and as bright and fantastic as American ones?  Are xmas lights just an homage to the consumerist religion of shopping?  Do xmas lights have anything to do with xmas at all?  Are xmas lights a symbol of rampant globalization?  Do questions like this just make me a grinch?

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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  1. Kayla,

    I think you are a GRINCH! Think of how it is to walk around the dark streets of London in January after the lights are turned off. It’s dark, dismal and noticeably less vibrant.

    Oxford Street has been a big disappointment for several years – the low point being the gateway floodlights pointed into the air (a great city feature seen from far away, but not festive at all once on the street). This coincides with the ad hoc nature of Oxford Street – from the wide variety of shops, maintenance and quality throughout the street.

    Regent Street – pictured in your post – attempts to celebrate the street with uniform lights. The street-wide floating stars help to do this and create a sense of encloser. In addition, there is a changing theme (usually some cartoon) lights incorporated into the street. Yes, this is commercial, but I assume it helps to pay for the lighting. What is disappointing along Regent Street is the lack of any other individual element – yes there are window shop displays, but they do not have a profound affect on the passerby. The tight control of the street by the Crown Estate probably limits great expression from the tennants – who probably would be happy to splash some lights beyond their shop windows.

    Walk a bit to the east or west, and you get a much better Christmas light experience: Carnaby Street and Bond Street!

    Each year, Carnaby Street redesigns its streetwide, elaborate street decorations, which hardly could fail to impress in their attempts. Where else would you find human sized strung Christmas lights, huge inflatable snowmen or drifting galaxies?

    Bond Street on the other hand, has taken a mixed approach. There is uniform – perhaps even a bit tame or boring – lighting across the street to define a uniform character, and an individual approach by the shops. Here you see the big, exciting effects: one shop is covered in white lights and another with a huge red bow (as if the shop is one big gift). Each shop is happy to out shine its neighbour… it is Bond Street where it is more than appropriate to show off.

    The lights aren’t just about commercialism, although there is an obvious link, but they focus on the hearts of our towns and cities. I do agree that if you are going to go through the effort, however, then the lights should be a full hearted attempt to make a statement, to inspire and be innovative. More often than not, the inspiration up and down our high streets and squares are dated, boring lights topping lampposts. More inspiration needs to be learned from Carnaby Street and Bond Street.

    What other areas in the UK have you seen great Christmas lights?


  1. Night life |

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