Tuesday, 6 May 2014

England is super crowded. We must accept that and move on.

I don't know if anyone has noticed but England is crowded. Really crowded. From the air it looks like one of those flowcharts you use to explain a complicated subject, all lines and blobs and colours. It has a population density of about 411 people per square kilometre, and rising. In fact if it were a country of its own, England would be the fourth most crowded in the world, behind only Bangladesh, South Korea and Taiwan (and a couple of city states, but I don't think it's fair to count them).

Ok, the UK as a whole is not quite so bad, but that is largely down to some of the emptier bits of Scotland and Wales, and they may be going their own ways. In any case, regardless of what happens in September - and I still hope Scotland will vote no to independence - England is already a separate territory in terms of planning and infrastructure and many other things beside. Put simply there are a lot of people, and we need to address that.

When I first really understood this it was important to me. We all know England is small, but because of its language and history it feels larger. The fact that North Americans and Australians speak English means that these vast countries form part of the greater cultural mind set. This has caused the adoption many of the urban practices of those countries, particularly expectations of houses, car ownership and a suburban model of development. However while England's population is large, it is still a very small place. To put it into perspective, the county of West Yorkshire has a higher population than 17 US states and territories, including places as vast as New Mexico and Alaska, each one many, many times larger.

None of this is to say that England is unimportant. Whether alone or part of the UK it is one of the world's largest and most creative economies. Culturally its reach is enormous. What is does mean is that it needs new ways of doing things. In fact, once you accept it as the fourth most crowded country on earth several things suddenly make a lot of sense.

First of all there is a great need for more devolution of power to local regions and cities. I am far from alone in saying this, but politics is too concentrated in Westminster. Having more elected Mayors, and possibly regional governance, would inject life into areas outside the capital. (It is telling that regions of the US with fewer people have many more layers of government). This must be done properly however. The half-baked devolution which has left us with Scotland vs. Westminster must not be repeated, and it should not be restricted to those areas which have historically thought themselves a little different (like Cornwall).

Secondly, there is a need for a rapid reappraisal of our urban spaces. Look at a list of Europe's most densely populated cities. There are no British towns in the top thirty. Not even London, which can feel so packed that you might expect a black hole to open up. The reason is that while the centre may be crowded, the 'burbs are empty. This clearly needs to change. As the population continues to expand, new models of urbanisation need to be found. Sprawl must be reduced, cities more tightly packed and cars curbed. This will have many benefits. Denser cities provide more economic opportunity, and easier access to the countryside (there is less sprawl to get through). At the same time they mean much less building on the green belt and more space for wildlife (anyone who reads this knows I am passionate about rewilding). But it must be done well. Apartments must be designed with people in mind. Public transport must be improved and extended to second and third tier cities. We need to bring nature and public space into our new denser, cleaner cities, or alienation will be the only result.

This will of course require a change of mindset. People in England are still too interested in the idea of a two story-box with a garden and a car. Suburban America is the dream. However, I do think this is already changing. Better-designed flats and high rises, the declining popularity of the car and environmental concerns are making communal living a little more acceptable, as is the example of Asia, where high-density towns are the norm.

Indeed, that may be the biggest change that must take place. Rather than looking West for our urban ideas, we must increasingly look East. Our natural peers are not in Los Angeles but in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. This is not about abandoning the past, or destroying the England of old, but of simply accepting where we are, and trying to build a better future.