I’ve lost my muse. I can’t do it anymore. Not actually writing of course – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this – but my ability to identify with places, the very thing that made writing this blog (and I hope reading it) such a delight.
In a post earlier in the year I described how I had realised that my attachment to places was very largely fuelled by my imagination – based on what I’ve read, films or TV programmes I have seen, or even songs that I have heard. And once I understood that I was attaching to somewhere created in my imagination – or in many cases originally in somebody else’s – the hold that place attachment had over me was gone. And I can’t get it back.
It all seems so long ago now. At the time of the general election that swept Margaret Thatcher to power I was a first year undergraduate reading Town and Country Planning – although of course, as the joke ran at the time, I actually spent most of my time reading the New Musical Express.
Fired by enthusiasm from studying Peter Hall’s 1975 primer “Urban and Regional Planning” (Pelican, £2.00 in those days – now in a rather pricier 5th edition), which I had chosen for a school Geography prize and was the only book on Town Planning I had opened before settling on the course, I saw in Planning my chance to become a key player in the enduring post-war political settlement.
“Look – the cottage has hardly changed in over a hundred years. It’s just as it was when Helen Allingham painted it”.
This kind of experience, no more than a mile from where I live, is just the thing to increase my attachment to the place. And as readers of one of my recent blog posts will remember – Place Attachment is one of the essential building blocks of opposition to development.
I got this idea from the writing of Patrick Devine-Wright, who explores it extensively in his book “Renewable Energy and the Public – from NIMBY to participation”. But rather than carry out an extensive study of the attitudes of others, as he has done, I decided to take the rather more straightforward step of using a sample size of one – me – to try and get to the bottom of Place Attachment and what it is about it which seems to lead inexorably to a dislike of change.
Last November the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advocated that people should stop using their cars whenever a journey can be done in under 20 minutes by walking or cycling, and that planners and other professionals need to do more to encourage this. Nothing new in that you may say – after all it would achieve all kinds of sustainable development goals, and promoting unpowered travel has been enshrined in planning policy since Noah was a lad. Without, it has to be admitted, doing much to halt its inexorable decline.
“Ladies and gentlemen – you can now see the northern lights off the port bow.” The on-board restaurant emptied in seconds, and a hundred or so travellers from more temperate climes charged out onto the observation deck – into a temperature of about -10oC – to witness the spectacle.
Like almost everyone else on board the M/S Nordkapp, I had come to Arctic Norway in December to try and see these highly charged electrons from the solar wind interacting with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere over the pole. And very pretty it was too. However, quite apart from experiencing nature’s own firework display in the night sky, and the spectacular coastline of Troms and Finnmark in the winter twilight, I also found out that we were to be the subject of a PhD thesis. A collaboration between the Psychology and Tourism Studies departments of Tromsø University was researching tourists’ experiences on the trip, and in particular how witnessing the high arctic landscape impacted upon our attitudes and our interests.
Now if you read this blog at all frequently you’ll realise that this is pretty much what I do. I go somewhere to have a look round and talk to local people – call it what you like I’m still a tourist at some level – and then write about the impact it has had on my attitudes and interests. So I was immediately fascinated.
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England there are plans being prepared up and down the country that could take enough land out of our Green Belts to build 80,000 houses in the coming years. Sounds a lot doesn’t it? Until you realise that if we are all to be housed in a decent manner we need 230,000 new homes to be built every year for as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee.
When I tottered slightly unsteadily out of the Philharmonic Dining Rooms at closing time on the Saturday of Planning Summer School back in September, I little imagined that two months on I would be helping to celebrate the award of “Great Street 2013” to its address, Hope Street, Liverpool, by the Academy of Urbanism.
It is a basic irony of neighbourhood renewal that the best way to create the impression that you have improved the lot of local people is to import a large number of new, more affluent residents into the area.
After decades of declining populations, it is once again the inner areas of our major cities which are seeing the fastest growth in residents. According to the first results of the 2011 census, eight of the ten fastest growing local authorities were inner city areas. Six are London Boroughs, mostly on the east side of the capital.
It was a beleaguered profession which arrived in Liverpool last weekend for the annual Planning Summer School. We met beyond the iconic buildings and £multi-billion recent developments of the city centre, and the boarded up streets of Kensington’s stalled Housing Market Renewal Area, in the leafy surroundings of Hope University, a former teacher training college just up the hill from John Lennon’s childhood home of Mendips in Menlove Avenue. But despite the optimistically named Fresh Hope cafeteria and Eden lecture theatre expectations of paradise were in pretty short supply.