Town planning

‘And here and there a lusty trout,
And here and there, a grayling.’

(Not the Secretary of State for transport, obviously!)

These lines by Tennyson are inscribed on a signpost alongside the River Witham in Lincolnshire, UK. The Lincoln to Boston rail line used to run alongside the river, but now it’s a cycle path, called the Water Rail Way, with wild flowers and woodlands along its length and many waterfowl, especially the spectacular Egyptian Geese, on the river.

I was thinking about what the layout of a town tells us about the place and the self image and priorities of both inhabitants and visitors. In The NL, the street layout is orderly and people-friendly: the bike is King and its riders, Princes. Even pedestrians have to nimbly get out of the way. In the historic centres, shopping streets and residential areas, small children, the elderly and infirm, those hard of hearing or visually impaired, can all go about their business in relative safety, as long as they don’t stray into the cycle lanes. Cars are mandated to travel slowly and keep a sharp look-out and in any collision involving a car and a pedestrian or cyclist, the car driver is most likely to be held responsible.

In a town, the streets and buildings it’s showcase. There will be important historical buildings, others important because of their function. Flags and banners fly. There are posters like this one.

How better to encourage children to take an interest in the built environment and let them see behind the scenes and what’s going on in the place where they live?

And ‘here and there’ will be a fountain, sculpture, war memorial, decoration on the side of building, displaying whatever it is that defines the place and its people.

I know that passing significant buildings or icons every day can dull the senses, but it’s worth thinking about what messages are being transmitted and whether they are the right ones. Even the presence or absence of litter bins sends a message – even more so if they are usually overflowing. What does having one bin for everything instead of opportunities to recycle, say about local priorities? What about benches where people can rest in the shade and have a chat, or just watch the world go by? Play areas for children? Even the design of bus shelters and the abundance or otherwise of post boxes is sending a message, but how are we interpreting it?

This is tower on the Walburgis Kerk in Zutphen and this summer and last, we moored with this view filling the whole sky. I love the comic book ‘plum pudding’ shape, especially how the top of it is shiny and lower down dull and green, presumably because it’s made of copper which has oxidised in the environment. Like many churches in The NL, this one sends an audible signal too, its carillon chimes every quarter of the hour, binding together the people who hear it.

In the UK, we have closed a lot of public libraries (I say, ‘we’ – it’s nothing to do with me, mate!) A shopkeeper told me it’s the same story in some parts of The NL, but the Zutphen Bibliotheek is one of many exceptions to this decline. In the former Broederenerk (built 1306), it became the public library in 1983 and then they let some architects have a free hand with it, opening as a jaw-dropping public and useful space in 2017. The original ceiling paintings are still there – I got a crick in my neck gazing at them. Here’s the staircase which leads to a mezzanine gallery, where students in captivity are busy

working. Underneath the staircase is a flexible space which can be used for private meetings. I know the plants are artificial, but they are stunning, nonetheless. Of course, there are all the things you expect in a library; mostly books: great and small, for everyone from kids to adults, small and large print, books about art and garden design, local and national history, novels plus the essential ingredient: professional librarians, busy helping the readers find what they want and need. It’s up to date too, you can borrow music, DVDs even children’s puzzles and the noticeboard is crammed with posters about forthcoming events in the library and in the town. I wanted to move in, there and then – I wouldn’t have been any trouble. Just need a small corner and free access to all those books to enjoy in such an uplifting space.
Zutphen is a Hanseatic Town (historical trading league, where different places co-operate to ensure smooth trade and increased prosperity -what a good idea!) on the banks of the River Ijssel. We travel pretty quickly along this river as there’s a strong current and sensibly, we’re going with the flow. Since last year, they’ve finished improving the water front with paving, installing seats and a water feature. When I was a child I always wanted to play and paddle in any ponds, streams puddles and fountains and as you can probably guess, in those days, it was frowned upon. Not so here and now! This water feature is designed for kids, so they can play and have fun and parents can relax. Water management is a huge industry here because even a slight change in water levels would have a huge and unwelcome impact. And there’s so much of it, so water play, here and there, maybe encourages kids to work in the water based industries in the future.

Because there is so much water everywhere; any housing estate will have a lake or pond and numerous drainage channels between the houses, most towns have at least one canal running through the centre; people know how to behave around it and stay safe. If you wanted to, you could just walk off the edge of this quay and straight into the fast flowing Ijssel. See you in a short while in the next Hanseatic Town! But people don’t seem to have the sort of careless accidents around water that I would expect. Parents aren’t constantly warning their kids to ‘be careful’ near water – it’s a manifestation of ‘if duffers, will drown’, although small kids on boats or in harbours always wear buoyancy aids.

We had a spectacular thunderstorm last night and the rain lashed down for about an hour. It had another go this morning. I know the UK is suffering from too much rain and all the accompanying misery. We tend to think of rain as bad weather’ nut of course, it isn’t – it’s just weather and we need rain as mcuh as sunshine. And if it wasn’t for rain, we wouldn’t have all these beautiful rivers and lakes, with all the wildlife, recreation and transport inks they enable.

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