As part of my glamorous jet-setting lifestyle, I recently stayed for two nights at a Premier Inn near the intersection of the M57 and the M58 on the outskirts of Liverpool. To get to the hotel from the station was only a short walk, but with one enormous obstacle: a six-lane main road. There was not a controlled crossing anywhere to be seen, nor an underpass or footbridge. This despite the fact that the road bisected a densely populated suburban area. In the end, I took my life in my hands and dashed across during in a break in the traffic. Quite what a frail or disabled person or someone with small children was supposed to do, I have no idea.
The great problem with bad town planning – and for the connoisseur of bad planning Britain can provide a lifetime of interest – is that it is inescapable. I can avoid pretentious poetry and badly written novels and dull films. If I don’t like the prevailing trends in painting, I know which galleries not to visit. But the unpleasantness inflicted on town and city dwellers by decades of perverse planning is thrust in our faces every day.
Changing trains in Peterborough a few weeks ago, and with an hour to kill, I thought I would stroll over to the cathedral. That edifice and its precincts are outstandingly beautiful, and the centre of the city has retained much of its medieval charm. But the approach to them from the station is almost defiantly ugly and mundane. First, you leave the station itself, a squat concrete box which replaced a fine if unspectacular Victorian original during the architectural Great Terror of the post-war years. Then make your way past a series of grim office blocks and car parks and under a dual carriageway. You would never know that you were just a few hundred yards from one of the finest buildings in Europe.
I don’t want to pick on Peterborough. My work takes me to towns and cities all over England, and so many have been marred by inexplicably bad decisions taken by urban planners. One of their besetting sins is a preoccupation with making life convenient for motorists, although in fairness many places are now pushing back against the tyranny of the car. Another is what I will generously describe as indifference – others might call it hostility – to harmony and beauty and human scale. The centre of my home borough, Croydon, is now being partially reclaimed for people by an expansion of the tramway and the planting of trees. But it still suffers from having been designed by people with no regard for what it would be like to experience it as a pedestrian. If there is even a moderate wind then the canyon effect of the tall buildings makes it gusty and unpleasant at ground level, while the superb Grade I-listed Gothic Revival Church of St Michael and All Angels has been hemmed in on all sides by featureless and grimy commercial buildings.
So far, so predictable: “Conservative in not liking modernity shocker.” But the landscapes in which we move do matter. Having children has made me much more aware of how completely we have accepted the domination of public space by fast-moving metal boxes which kill 2,000 people per year. There is a busy junction near my home where five roads meet. On only two of those roads are there pedestrian crossings.
More fundamentally, I have a deeper worry about urban areas where walking and cycling are dangerous and discouraged, and where buildings are ruthlessly functional and dissociated from any meaningful tradition: they undermine our ability to feel at home in the world. This is one of the great human needs, to resist the alienation and discontentment that stem from the Fall and carve out a place for ourselves where we belong and can connect with others.
Clearly this is not simply a question of built environment; but nor can that aspect be ignored. It is not easy to grow in peace and love with our neighbours if we only see them in their cars rather than on the streets. Some of the saddest history I have ever read is the testimony of those who were moved into tower blocks after their terraced housing was demolished in slum clearances. In many cases they were now living in objectively better homes, but equally the radical alteration in their physical surroundings often devastated communities and fractured long-standing social bonds.
Indeed, it is striking when reading about some of the leading lights of modern architecture and planning, such as Le Corbusier, to see how disdainful they were of the feelings of the people who would actually have to live and work within their grand ideological visions.
Let us hope that the signs emerging in Britain of a better urbanism – proper cycle infrastructure, stronger anti-car policies and a greater focus on liveable spaces – are not a false dawn, but a real turning towards cities where we can be truly human.
Niall Gooch tweets @niall_ gooch
This article first appeared in the January 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here