The Basic Unit
But how is a physical infrastructure created? Where does it start? For Landry it all starts with the street. I catch up with him one morning in central London, where he has come to preach to an eclectic mix of retailers, company heads, cultural entrepreneurs, and city officials. The venue is a hard-to-find storefront gallery in an elegant back alley filled with inviting shops and pubs behind Old Bond Street, and the title of his talk is “Reimagining Commerce, Reinventing the Commercial Street.” Landry paces the floor as he delivers a steady stream of insights accompanied by spontaneous observations and philosophical asides, his lecturing style providing a demonstration of flow in action. He speaks in a hushed, dramatic tone that compels attention, his crisp British articulation infused with the excitement of high purpose. His intellectual pyrotechnics are brought down to earth by the homemade quality of his slides, assembled from snapshots he takes in far-flung parts of the globe.
The importance of the street is one of Landry’s great passions. He sees it as the basic infrastructural unit, and notes that people are drawn to (or repelled by) places according to their physical, aesthetic, and emotional experience of the street. The street is how we process place, and it provides the image we carry with us. If we think of ourselves in Rome, we see ourselves in the Via Condotti — we don’t envision the abstract entity of “Rome.” If we think of ourselves in Sydney, we remember the view of the Opera House as we walked along George Street, the central artery that winds through the Rocks. The street provides the central building block of our place memory, reconciling a larger entity with the scale of human perception.
And just as talent is drawn to hubs and the patterns of links they enable, so are hubs in essence a great collection of streets. For a hub to succeed at drawing the best people and unleashing their talents, therefore, its collection of streets must be aspirational, world-beating, irresistible — a draw. London, he tells his audience, cannot maintain its status in the first rank of the world’s hubs unless it becomes more skillful and intentional about managing and improving the experience that its streets provide.
Landry recognizes that cyber-commerce is changing how people buy their goods, expanding consumer choice while reducing and homogenizing the experience of transaction. Yet he insists this only makes it more important that commercial streets provide a compelling experience and also fulfill their traditional function of bringing people together. If we feel at home in the streets, we will feel at home in the local culture, and if we feel at home in the culture, we will aspire to participate by investing our time or money in its precincts.
But what makes a street desirable? What makes people feel culturally at home? What constitutes a positive experience at the most basic unit of place? Landry describes the three characteristics that distinguish great collections of streets: distinction, variety, and flow.
Distinction means avoiding sameness, offering an experience that cannot be had somewhere else. Most places accomplish this by means of an iconography that lets you know that here is not the same as there. This is the problem with global brands, Landry says; although the streets that welcome such brands may aspire to exclusivity, the brands’ ubiquity undermines that principle. As soon as a great street like rue Saint-Honoré or Calle de la Reina becomes colonized by global retailers, people looking for an individual experience start to avoid it. Sameness creates boredom, and a hub cannot afford to be boring: It exists in order to stimulate.