Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Green dream

Yesterday's proposal for green-belted suburban villages linked by internet will sound hopelessly utopian to Americans. We have turned sprawl into a way of life. One suburb merges with another, the roads between are strip malled. Land of the free and the home of the build whatever, wherever you want.

The American model seems positively foolish in certain other parts of the world. Britain, for instance. I became familiar with the British countryside when I did my Walking Zero walk, and I liked what I found.

Here is snip of a British Ordnance Survey map, near the Sussex village of Wivelsfield Green -- picked by throwing a virtual dart at their Get-a-Map web site. You will notice that the village itself is built up compactly, including its shop, pub, post office, and so on. Then -- stop! -- no development until you reach the next village. Look at South Road: the north side developed, the south side pristine.

Take an imaginary walk if you will; the green lines are all rights of way. Out of Wivelsfield Green to the east, south through Grassy Wood, and on by footpath to Cottage Wood, west through North America Farm, then north through West Wood to Wivelsfield, and home in time for a pint at the Cock Inn. (That blue mug above the PO is the symbol for a pub.)

A walk of only a few miles. You could have tramped across the countryside as far as you wished, seldom putting foot on asphalt and never passing a one-off new home or business.

This strict separation of development and countryside is the result of planning regulations that would be repugnant to Americans. We are a nation of rugged individuals; the common good plays second fiddle to private property. The Brits treasure their countryside and put its preservation ahead of individual rights. My model of distributed employment would not seem so farfetched there.

For the time being.

The British countryside has no great champion in Tony Blair's Labour government, which seems as intent at making war on rural Britain as it was in making war on Iraq. I have little truck with the right, but I suspect on this issue I have more in common with those tweedy Tory types with walking sticks and border collies I met along my walk. "O, if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew -- / Hack and rack the growing green! / Since country is so tender." (Gerard Manley Hopkins)