I’m back in England and glad to be home after 4 and a half weeks in the US and 3 weeks away from family. It was my fourth time in America, and it was great to experience again what is in many ways such a fantastic country. However, this time, I come back with more appreciation of England than I remember from previous visits. (Maybe it’s advancing age)!
Last Saturday, a friend and I decided that we would walk the two miles or so downtown to visit the farmer’s market. There was going to be a bluegrass jam, and it would be my last chance to hear some local music. However, walking the two miles proved to be a challenge, with no pavements for most of the way. It was either walk through someone’s front garden, or risk being knocked down. (Most houses don’t have walls or fences around them, so it wasn’t too much of a challenge, but it did bring home to me how much they are dependent on the car). Public transport (apart from big cities) is generally very patchy, and people travel everywhere by car. As we walked into the downtown area, it felt like a ghost town. This was a Saturday morning, but there were very few people around, and I thought about my own home town and the crowds of people who would be walking into town for the Saturday market.
Urban planning in the US seems to allow for far too much sprawl and ugly developments. So however much some of us complain about out of town shopping centres, and the effects they have on towns, a trip to the US puts things in perspective. My town of Beverley has about 35,000 inhabitants. The whole town is contained within a area about 2 miles across. Harrisonburg Virginia, population 45,000 (of whom 20,000 are university students) covers at least twice the area of land, with shopping centres all along the route from the downtown area to the interstate 81. The downtown area has a very pleasant feel, with some nice restaurants but few shops and businesses. (Although it’s not bad by US standards).
One of the big discussions here in Beverley in recent years has been to do with building retail developments out of the town centre. The US experience seems to suggest that once you have developments of this kind with large shopping centres, all that is left for the historic town centres is restaurants, banks, antique and gift shops. The equivalent in England seems to be charity shops, estate agents and building societies. If our town centres are to be more than ghost towns, then they must cater for some of our basic shopping needs.
Well, that’s enough of a rant on that topic. I’m back in the ‘green and pleasant land’ again, and pleased to be here.