How do we improve our towns and villages?

One of the (many) disappointing realisations that came to pass during the Time of Covid is just how many people don’t like being in their own home for too long. The place where they’ve chosen to live (or at least settled into). The place where they raise their families or invite their friends round.

As such, people all over Europe were almost literally running for the hills (or forests or cottages or seaside houses) in order to get away from the public and their own abodes.

This has led to a small spike in house prices in rural areas, the penny has dropped for a lot of people and many are leaving the towns and cities.

Even after all the regeneration projects, skyscraper developments, an explosion in cafes and eateries we still find that some people are wanting out of urban Dodge.

So, how do we make our cities, towns and villages ‘nice’? Somewhere where you actually enjoy living?

What is it that makes a place appealing? What is a turn off?

And what do we do we do when the townsfolk are divided between those who want green spaces, trees, gardens, cafes and pedestrianized areas vs those who just want convenience and couldn’t care if their adjacent road is a tree lined boulevard or a dual carriage way that leads to a retail park with Costas and KFC?

Should towns designate themselves as one or the other in terms of aspirations and cater planning decisions to this chosen ethos?

Personally, seeing town centres scooped out for car & retail parks absolutely crushes me, places that you can only conveniently travel to by car (as the car parks are so big), like the Sainsbury’s area in Ballymena or the Mark’s & Spencers in Cookstown.

They can also have a deleterious effect on the town centre, which then leads to calls for ‘regeneration’ schemes, which in the case of Ballymena seemed to orbit around chopping down the lovely bandstand.

So, as someone who firmly has his colours nailed to the mast of heritage and greenery, the following attributes are (absolutely subjectively) what I view as appealing in urban streetscapes and in villages (to a lesser degree) and examples of where they have such set-ups.

  • Parks & Greenery – an oasis in the town, is it really that much to ask for?
      • Glasgow has a wide selection of parks all over the city (apt, considering its Gaelic name)
      • Munich – Munich’s east side of the city centre is threaded with leafy paths and rivers
      • Zagreb – Zagreb’s ‘Horseshoe’ is a vaguely U-shaped collection of manicured parks dotted with impressive Art Noveau or late 19th Century buildings https://www.visitzagreb.hr/theme/lenuci-horseshoe/
      • Dublin – The St Stephen’s Green park is a gem
  • Pedestrianised Areas – Preferably abutting leafy areas and parks (a bench in a paved-over strip outside of the store front of Boots and Poundstretcher does not hold any great appeal, unless it’s to eat my Greggs).
      • Erlangen, Germany – An impressive strip of pedestrianized shopping areas that back onto a park which is ringed by old mansions & inspiring buildings (and an orangerie)
      • Ljubljana, Slovenia – A pretty little walkable old town, with a river running through it and forested mountain bearing a castle
      • Galway City – Only a few streets but they’re fantastic, with the Atlantic pretty much at the bottom of them
      • Utrecht – The canals and former walls now offer people plenty of places to hang around

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Figure – Utrecht

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Figure – Ashton Lane, Glasgow

  • Cycle Paths and Scenic walks – A means to escape congestion and pedestrian perils

 

      • The Highline, New York City – A repurposed railway line in Manhattan stretching 1.5 miles
      • Glasgow – Glasgow has also repurposed some of its old railways as bike paths as well as the canal sides
      • Randalstown Viaduct – Short, but lovely view from the top of the old arched viaduct. (Incidentally, Randalstown is very nice, I’m surprised it hasn’t been Hillsboroughed in terms of house prices) https://visitantrimandnewtownabbey.com/things-to-do/walking-and-cycling/cycling-routes/randalstown-viaduct-walkway-cycle-path/

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Figure – The Highline

  • Allotments – Though this is pretty much more parks and greenery I don’t think people appreciate how beneficial allotments are, so they get a mention
      • Queen’s Park, Glasgow – Right at the top of the hill
      • Anywhere in the Netherlands – The place is full of them
      • Abbotsford, Melbourne, Australia – Actually, it’s a farm, but come on, it’s in the middle of city

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Figure – Dutch Allotments

  • Sufficient Tracts of Consistent and Intact Historical Architectural Styles (Socialist New Towns Not included but not to say that it doesn’t apply to them too)

Going around a town or city that has a partial Victorian terrace interspersed with an 80’s municipal building then a car park then a block of flats then a petrol station just looks awful, if not slightly tragic.

Here’s a roll call of the buildings of Belfast that didn’t survive the combination of bombs and developers: https://archiseek.com/tag/lost-belfast/

Places that have ‘it’ in terms of intact architectural fabric:

      • Edinburgh, Hillsborough (Co Down), Glenarm, Ballycastle, Caledon, Zagreb, Bruges, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Londonderry, Aberdeen, West End and Southside of Glasgow, South Belfast, L’Viv, Venice, Florence, Newtonstewart (Scotland), Perth, Pitlochry, Celle (Germany), Erlangen (Germany), Melbourne inner suburbs, Enniskillen, Armagh City, Randalstown, Kilrea, Krakow, Strangford, Gdansk, Moy (The), Sion Mills, Gracehill, Auchnacloy, Draperstown, Moneymore, Ramelton, Killyleagh, dozens of towns and villages all over England, Scotland & Wales.

Places that no longer have ‘it’:

      • Ballymena, Larne, swathes of Belfast city centre, east end of Glasgow (outside of Dennistoun), Portstewart, Rotterdam, Frankfurt, Kaliningrad, Cookstown, Stranocum, Port Ballintrae, Clydebank, Maghera, Bellaghy, Portrush (c’mon, it’s been hammered by developers)

Places that still have ‘it’ but are in Danger of Losing ‘it’

      • Ballymoney (arguably), Ballycastle, Portglenone, Belfast city centre (as always…), Downpatrick, Armoy, Sion Mills,

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Figure – Gracehill, has ‘it’

So, What Can Be Done?

Again, these are subjective answers.

    • Park percentage for new developments – A stipulation that all new housing developments must have X amount of land set aside as a green space
    • Garden space minimum for new developments – Many of the new garden patches for new developments are contemptuously small, what kind of lockdown life can you have with a garden the size of a bed?
    • Bike lanes for new housing developments – A stipulation that the roads in new housing schemes must accommodate bike lanes
    • Railway line preservation – A ban on building on the sites or in the way of old railway lines
    • Golf course perpetuity rule – That the areas presently designated as golf courses can never (ever) be sold for building development in order to have a green space as suburbia spreads https://www.thegolfbusiness.co.uk/2020/03/northern-irish-golf-club-may-relocate/
    • Planning permission requirement and rates for car parks – Presently it is quite easy to tumble a building and turn it into a car park e.g. the wasteland north of Belfast city centre
    • Rate relief for car parks turned into ‘green spaces’ e.g. private parks or allotments or urban gardens – A way of undoing the damage of the aforementioned eye sores
    • Rates for vacant buildings – At present there are many empty old buildings whose owners neglect them as there is no penalty for letting them crumble, they can just wait for the day when a developer comes knocking at the door. Having to pay rates will force people into selling them or doing them up.
    • List ALL pre-war era buildings. Not so that they have to be preserved down to the last door knob but to the point where obtaining permission to demolish them is nigh on impossible.
      • This reduces the price of buildings, as it means the building will be sold as a building, not as a building site; a Victorian detached house with gardens is prime real estate as it can be demolished and turned into a block of flats hence the price for someone who’d like a nice house that fits in with the local architectural fabric is often prohibitive, same with old mills.

There are no doubt many other ideas that could green-ify and prettify the place, but, the chief appeal of the above suggestions is that they don’t require public funding. In fact, some of them could bring in money (such as ditching the vacant building rate relief).

While these measures may not be immediately restorative, they can certainly help to lay the foundations for a more pleasant townscape in future and arrest the current trend of demolition, car parks, traffic, retail parks, conversion of green spaces to tarmacked spaces and all the other factors that reduce the appeal of an area.

Please add your suggestions below, keeping in mind the price tag and unlikelihood of government funds.

The Ballycastle harbor” by brookscl is licensed under CC BY-ND

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