Winding up my visit here with a few more observations:
Over the last 10-15 years, London has been blanketed by CCTV cameras. They are almost literally everywhere, and thus it is nearly impossible to walk, or to take the Tube, or to drive without being spied on camera at least once during your journey.
It is a level of surveillance that makes many Americans (including this one) uncomfortable. But it also underscores a real difference between American and Europeans about how the best social order is to be achieved.
Americans profess - Dick Cheney notwithstanding - a deep commitment to individual rights. The rights of individuals trump, in the minds of many Americans, any notion of collective rights, or collective responsibilities. Europeans, on the other hand, have had a more highly developed sense of the common good, and individual liberties have often been asked to take a back seat to it.
The notion of individual freedom hardly needs defending, but perhaps we ought to look at the costs we pay for our commitment to those freedoms. Economically, we view ourselves purely as individuals operating in the market place. When any one of us doesn't succeed in that market, we have always viewed the failure as individual rather than structural: it's my fault that I can't find a job. Government policies for the unemployed and poor have tended to agree.
Likewise, we treat health care as an individual proposition rather than a collective right. The notion that in America one's health is tied so directly to one's employment (and wealth) strikes Europeans as just short of barbaric.
Most absurdly, the Supreme Court has ruled - willfully ignoring all the historical evidence to the contrary - that gun ownership is an individual right, just like the right to speech, not a collective right that can be effectively regulated through the political process. (For more on the history of the 2nd amendment see my colleague Saul Cornell's book A Well Regulated Militia).
In Europe, where collective responsibilities compete more equally with individual rights, the result has been a more lively urban realm - measured by the life on the streets and in the parks and in cultural venues of all sorts. It can't simply be a coincidence that as Americans venerate individual rights, we have retreated further and further from public life - into "gated communities," private transportation, and on and on. We are scared of each other to a dispiriting extent, and for a generation have not been able even to discuss the idea of a commonweal.
Massaging the balance between public and private, between the individual and the group is the very essence of what urbanism means. Cities, after all, are where people come together to pursue their private dreams, but in a way which makes it possible for others to pursue theirs as well. No one in a city gets to do anything s/he wants at whatever time s/he wants precisely in order that we can all do much of what we want to do most of the time.
Londoners have given up some measure of their individual freedom as CCTV cameras have proliferated across the city. The thousands of them that crowd the streets and shops and parks and paths, making this one of the most energetic urban spaces on the planet, don't seem to mind too much.