Yes, Britain is a green and pleasant land - still! A cross-section of our island reveals a surprising amount of unspoiled green countryside. And the beauty of much of our coastline and mountain ranges is one of our most valuable assets. Preserving the beauties of our rural and natural heritage while at the same time allowing modest development and ample access for enjoyment and recreation presents a challenge of good stewardship which we are now beginning to meet with increasing success.
We also face an urban challenge. On the one hand we have a number of large sprawling conurbations, their suburbs merging seamlessly one into the other with little sense of identity, while on the other hand, many of our picturesque rural villages lack a population sufficient to support minimum services. In many cases, random housing developments have been created with little reference to any urban or village centre, lacking a sense of place or community.
It would seem that our developers and planners have lost touch with the fundamental nature and patterns of community development which our ancestors practised instinctively.
The old market towns developed as centres for trade and culture serving their surrounding villages, farms and countryside. Movement was on a radial pattern linking the surroundings with the centre. Though movement patterns have now become confused by random development, the basic nature and purpose of the town or city centre remains: it exists to serve as a focal point for the surrounding communities, providing opportunities for work, trade, and culture, linked like a web to its outlying, dependent area.
Villages, each with its village store, church, kindergarten and recreational green, are dependent upon their nearest town which offers a wider choice of goods, services, employment and activities; towns are then linked commercially and culturally to the region's core city, providing those highly specialized employment opportunities, goods, services and activities which can only be supported by the overall regional market. The core city becomes the hub, the centre of its surrounding region.
The "core city region" region is not an assemblage of unrelated parts, but a working system of interlocking components which must be properly coordinated, planned and maintained if the whole is to function efficiently and fulfil the demands of its residents whilst preserving character and a pleasant livable environment.
The importance of establishing Regional Centres lies in focalizing commercial development at the centre and providing coordinated transport links. Without this sense of urban focus, industrial, commercial and retail developments spring up haphazardly.
Fundamental to the planning and apportionment of land-use is the provision, not only of space for "static" facilities such as housing and commercial developments, but also the needs of mobility which is essential to the proper functioning of the region as a whole. The nature of the region and the inter-dependence of its component villages, towns and central city, defines the pattern of movement as a hub with radiating spokes. The core city is at the centre with transport routes radiating out to the surrounding towns, each of which has routes radiating out to dependent villages.
This essential concept of centre and radiality which permeated medieval geography has now been at last been revisited, as planers begin a return to the concept of the region with a core city at its hub. The Core Cities Group is a self-selected and self-funded network of England's major regional cities: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. They form the economic and urban cores of wider surrounding territories, the city regions. The Core Cities work in partnership to enable each to enhance its economic performance and make real advances within a highly competitive international market.
The Core Cities share a common set of circumstances and ambitions.
Their shared agenda is to create accelerated economic growth and to distribute it throughout the region, increasing cohesion and benefits for local people.
This significant beginning needs to be widened in scope, identifying further city-regions throughout the country, then using the power of Regional Investmnt Agencies to finance the necessary infrastructure.
With shared transportation playing a larger role, town scale can be humanized and centres pedestrianized with improved amenities. Central urban planning should stress compactness, the concentration of development at the core and the exploitation of unused or waste land within that area. Commercial centres can be reinvigorated through environmental enhancement, pedestrianization, and full integration with public transport facilities. These days opposition from High Street traders to street closures and pedestrianization is not as strong as it used to be, as lessons from new and successful pedestrianization projects have been learned.
At Stevenage and Peterborough, for example, footbridges lead directly from the station into the shopping centre, and many shoppers and office workers come in by train. This is a start; better however if the station itself formed an integral part of the shopping centre.
Cambridge has a buoyant economy that attracts commuters and shoppers from miles around. But the Cambridge railway station is a mile out of town, remote from the shops, so most people come in by car. Cambridge should have left the historic centre to the University and the tourists, and concentrated shop and office development around the railway station. Now the damage is done, and planners should not expect the public transport industry to rescue them from the results of their errors. Good transport depends on good planning.
The overall strategy has three elements. First, a national high-speed and/or fast rail network links the major city centres. Within cities, rental bikes and small electric cars should be available at stations. Second, each designated city then becomes responsible for its own regional transport network, connecting the centre with surrounding communities and interlinking with the national grid services. Using the facilities of the Regional Investment Agencies already discussed, and within the disciplines of established standards of good practice, cities should plan and execute their own transport network without recourse to Westminster. Third, transport, residential, recreational and commercial facilities and developments must be inter-linked.
Britain is fortunate financially and environmentally in having many disused rights-of-way which can be returned relatively cheaply to public service. These can be revitalized as light rail lines, connecting towns and villages with city centres. In Holland and Germany, the concept of reviving disused rail-lines, and converting existing heavy-rail but little-used rural lines to tramways or "tram-trains" is already underway.
New new housing developments created around new stations on agricultural land should aim to offer a major proportion of dwellings at a price reflecting basic building cost. Availability of at-cost housing would make it possible once again for young families to afford that most basic of all needs: a decent home in pleasant surroundings.
Despite its overall high population density, rural Britain is often sparsely populated, making life difficult for existing residents in small villages or isolated areas. New housing could take form of small new residential developments in sympathetic style around country stations, thus strengthening the viability both of the village and of the public transport which serves it. Country stations can be developed as social centres for the surrounding area, offering perhaps a village shop and post office, a pub or café, a clinic, small multi-purpose hall, a kindergarten, and a few budget hotel rooms for walkers and tourists.
On a wider scale, regional transport should also link up with our many country footpaths, parks, rural leisure facilities, lakes, and scenic spots to provide a pleasant day's outing as indeed can already be found in Switzerland. Indeed public transport can help to alleviate pressure on popular coastal sites by linking them with the regional system. Narrow Cornish fishing villages should be served by small, low-floor buses connecting with the regional system and serving discreet car parks on the village outskirts.
The predominating issue however, is that future planning must be public transport oriented. Public transport must be planned as an integrated whole, its different components coordinated and scheduled with one another, and the transport system coordinated with the commercial, residential and leisure facilities which it is expected to serve. In this way public transport can serve as a catalyst to encourage and develop local initiatives for urban enhancement and development.