Monday, October 24, 2016

Bryson's Belt

My favorite librarian and I have a habit of reading books aloud together (mostly she to me), and one of our favorite (or favourite) authors to read together is Bill Bryson, perhaps best known for A Walk in the Woods, a featured in our community-wide reading program a couple of years ago and later turned into a film in which Robert Redford played Our Hero.

He is a writer from Iowa who spent two decades living in England. His trans-Atlantic writing life (abetted by his trans-Atlantic family life) help to make him a wry observer of culture on both sides of "the Pond," better able than most anybody to entertain the citizens of each country with the foibles of the other.
Box Hill in Surrey, from the London Telegrahp excerpt of Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain.
This evening, I was taking a turn at reading in The Road to Little Dribbling when I found myself reading this remarkable exposition on environmental geography (at the beginning of Chapter 9: Day Trips). It is very instructive about both the UK and the USA.
Stand on the eastern slopes of Noar Hill in Hampshire and you have a view that is prett well unimprovable. Orchards, fields and dark woods sit handomely upon the landscape. Here and there village rooftops and church spires poke through the trees. It is lovely and timeless and tranquilly spacious, as English views so often are. It seems miles from anywhere, yet not far off over the Surrey Hills is London. Get in a car and in about an hour you can be in Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. To me, that is a miracle, that a city as vast and demanding as London can have prospects like this on its very doorstep, in every direction.
What accounts for the great bulk of this sumptuousness is the Metropolitan Green Belt, a ring of preserved landscape, mostly woods and farmland, encircling London and several other English towns and cities with the single-minded intention of alleviating sprawl. The notion of green belts was enshrined in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and is to my mind the most intelligent, farsighted, thrillingly and self-evidently successful land management policy any nation has ever devised.
And now many people want to discard it.
The Economist magazine, for one, has for years argued that the green belts should be cast aside as a hindrance to growth. As an Economist writer editorializes from a dementia facility somewhere in the Home Counties: "The green belts that stop development around big cities should go, or at least be greatly weakened. They increase journey times without adding to human happiness."
Well, they add a great deal to my happiness, you pompous, over-educated twit. Perhaps I see this differently from others because I come from the Land of Shocking Sprawl. From time to time these days I drive with my wife from Denver International Airport to Vail,high in the Colorado Rockies, to visit our son Sam. It is a two-hour drive and the first hour is taken up with just getting out of Denver. It is a permanent astonishment to me how much support an American lifestyle needs -- shopping malls, distribution centers, storage depots, gas stations, zillion-screen multiplex cinemas, gyms, teeth-whitening clinics, business parks, motels, propane storage facilities, compounds holding flocks of U-Haul trailers or FedEx trucks, car dealerships, food outlets of a million types, and endless miles of suburban houses all straining to get a view of distant mountains.
Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from London and you get Windsor Great Park or Epping Forest or Box Hill. Travel twenty-five or thirty miles out from Denver and you just get more Denver. I suppose Britain must have all this infrastructure, too, though I honestly don't know where most of it is. What I do know is that it isn't in the fields and farmland that ring every city. If that is not a glory, I don't know what is.
Being "over-educated" is of course not the problem with the errant writer at against whom Bryson is railing here, for there is no such thing as too much education. There is, however, such a thing as too much faith in free markets -- a fetish of mainstream economists. Bryson goes one for a few more pages to give a remarkably cogent explanation of why the efforts to dismantle Britain's green belts should be resisted. It is a primer in land-use dynamics that I will be using as a text in future sections of my Land Protection course. I also need to add this post to my page on sprawl.

Enough of the economics, though. This blog -- and Bryson's book -- are about the real world. This is the place that inspired Bryson to write the words above.

From Bryson's description in this and the previous chapter -- and by exploring the area online -- it is evident that this is simply a lovely site. As geographers, we zoom in to learn about sites -- the characteristics of places -- and we zoom out to learn about situation -- the context of places.

Noar Hill is situated between London and the sea, in a zone that surely could support the kind of sprawl that surrounds places like Denver, Atlanta, New York, and Dallas. But it need not!

Bryson's polemic in favor of green belts is just one of countless reasons to read this and his other works -- he is genuinely funny, a modern Mark Twain with a keen sense of geography..

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