In his previous article on planning, CPRE Vice-President Nicholas Crane argued that "building on green field sites in the countryside - remote from jobs, services and public transport hubs - is not a sustainable, or a resilient, option." ‘Planning for Quality’ also made the case for using our plentiful supplies of brownfield land to ensure that new housing is "plugged into existing infrastructures wherever possible…increasing population densities in our existing towns.” This second part of his Royal Geographical Society lecture explores the implications of rapid growth for our towns.
"50 million people live in urban areas of the UK, with 20 million of them living in the 66 urban areas defined as ‘official’ cities. So 30 million people are living in urban areas which are not cities; towns (and suburbs which don’t qualify as lying within cities). That’s about half of the entire UK population who are neither living in the countryside or in cities proper.
Despite their importance; their demographic weight, towns have become the victims of a kind of pincer movement between cities, which dominate news, comment, the economy and culture by virtue of their immense size and power, and the countryside, whose difficulties - and enduring appeal -are aired by the countryside lobby, the agricultural industry and nature writers. Towns are off the radar. Among the top 15 UK visitor attractions charging admission, 8 are in London and the other 7 (such as Windermere lake cruises and the Eden Project) are in other UK cities or in the countryside. None are in towns.
The death of the town?
Between city and countryside, the town has become a shadowy entity. Indeed, there are suggestions that the most definitive species of town, the market town, is now extinct. A recent paper for the Rural Research Evidence Centre began with the caveat that ‘as we no longer know a priori what defines a market town, these results cover all places with between 1,500 and 40,000 population.’
It’s true that the closure of manufacturing plants, the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the convenience of online buying, the flight of holiday-makers to overseas resorts, the closure of livestock markets (over 500 in the last few decades) have stripped some of the teeth from the economic cogs of towns. But I’d argue that towns are the communities of the future. They’re more intimate than cities; better connected than villages. And they are still evolving with startling rapidity.
Signs of life
John Shepherd, from the Rural Evidence Research Centre at Birkbeck College, identified 1,607 small towns and large villages with a combined population of 11.1 million. He points out that in aggregate, they represent nearly one quarter of the population of the country as a whole. Moreover, he says they are some of the fastest growing settlements. Between 2001 and 2006, the population of small rural towns increased by an estimated 565,000, or 5.3 per cent - well over twice as fast as the rate of growth of larger towns and cities.’ If we look at larger towns, Milton Keynes had the fastest growing population in England in the 25 years to 2009, growing by an incredible 65 per cent. Bracknell Forest & Ashford (Kent) the next fastest, with increases of 33 and 29 per cent respectively.
Over the next 40 years, towns will continue to be in the frontline of growth.
Towns already house around half of the population and are likely to house around half of the 2.7 million population increase projected between now and 2050. Clearly, towns are not urban fossils. Rapid growth requires human dynamism, decisiveness, leadership; energy. Towns have always been - and still are - engines of innovation.
Dynamic ‘urban laboratories’
On the south coast of Britain, Totnes is so busy testing new ideas that it's become a kind of urban laboratory. This is where the 'transition movement' took root, inspiring householders to form communities better able to cope with economic stagnation, rising fossil fuel prices, and changes to the climate. There's what you'd expect in the way of shops selling lentil pasties and incense, but there are also rickshaw taxis fuelled with used cooking oil from local cafes and restaurants and an astonishing number of solar panels. The town also prints its own currency; a scheme intended to encourage local trade.
Like Totnes, Ludlow is a kind of urban lab; it was the first UK town to join the Italian Cittaslow - or ‘slow city’ movement, which takes the line that towns - and quality of life - thrive on local produce. With its two Michelin starred restaurants (none at all in cities such as Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester), Ludlow has become the foodie capital of the Marches.
Towns have shown themselves through history to be dynamic, visionary, adaptable; those qualities have endured to this day. As cities have grown bigger and bigger, they have ceased to function as single, coherent communities. Towns on the whole have not lost sight of their singular urban roots; I believe that many of the ideas emerging from towns - these urban labs - can be exported to cities, which will make those cities more resilient in the face of change, whether it be economic, climatic or social. ‘Small town culture,’ as Satish Kumar told me in Totnes, ‘in the cities.’
Communities on a human scale
Fifty years ago, the economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr began to raise doubts about bigness. Kohr came from a small town in Austria. Systems, from democracy to monarchy to socialism, he wrote in his book The Breakdown of Nations, could all work well on a ‘human scale’, but scaled up, they became oppressive. Towns are communities on Kohr’s human scale; communities where people can play a role in the systems governing their lives. It may be tough for cities to pick up tips from little old Totnes or Ludlow. But our towns are demonstrating how well systems can function when they’re organised on a human scale.
Part way up Totnes High Street there is a dark stone let into the pavement. It's called the Brutus Stone, after the man who - according to the 12th century Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth - crossed the seas to discover a fabulous island. Brutus sailed up the River Dart, and named the island ‘Britain’, after himself. Legend has it that Totnes became the first town in Britain. It is time I believe to return to our urban roots, to look to our towns once again, and to learn."
Vice-President, Campaign to Protect Rural England