Monday, April 09, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the British

Our family recently made the trip to England to visit our son Peter at university. Being the child of British immigrants, my family frequently made the trip "over 'ome" when I was younger to see my grandparents, assorted aunts, uncles and other relatives. As we made arrangements for this most recent trip, I realized that it had been 25 year since I had last made the trek across the Atlantic.

Things have definitely changed. The England that I remembered as a child lived up to its reputation for being the stoic matriarch of the Commonwealth of Nations. It was stalwart, firm and unchanging. While the thousand year old churches, ancient castles and monuments still exist, modern England is a country of great extremes, some good, some bad and some quite wonderful.

For starters, there is the most remarkable division of the urban and rural landscapes. Canadian planners could learn a great deal by studying how this tiny country has managed to preserve large tracts of green space. This is no small feat considering the fact that England's overall population density is more than 120 times that of Canada, making it one of the highest in the world. More than 50 million people live in an area that covers 130,410 sq. km, which translates into 383 people per sq. km.

By contrast, Canada's population of 33 million is spread out over 9,218,529 sq. km., giving us a population density of just over three people per square kilometer. With so much open space at our disposal we Canadians feel perfectly comfortably spreading out from sea to shining sea. Ironically, the result is that our communities sprawl out uncontrollably, gobbling up the precious green space that we crave. Without the density of population to support sustainable transportation infrastructure such as public transit, we lay down great ribbons of asphalt and concrete that allow us to use our automobiles to connect these bedroom communities to commercial centers and workplaces.

In England, there is no such sprawl. Like the pieces of a patchwork quilt expertly sewn together, the towns are fitted inside large squares of green with nicely trimmed edges. What this means is that although the houses are neatly stitched together, with little room for lawns and gardens, real tracts of English countryside are often within walking distance. This is in sharp contrast to Canadian suburbs, whose promise of life in the country is just an illusion created by developers to sell endless tracts of so-called premium estate lots.

Which brings me to a really wonderful thing about England. Outside the large urban centers, people walk everywhere, regardless of the weather. Within the cities, the heavy population density makes public transit fast and highly efficient. London's famous underground system connects thirteen different subway lines that overlap to form an amazing network that can take you across the city in minutes. Above ground, the subway connects to high-speed trains and buses. Brilliant.

Alas, nothing is perfect. In sharp contrast to its carefully controlled cities and transportation is the great temple of excess, Harrods of London. Billed as the world's most famous and perhaps successful department store, Harrods is the pinnacle of blatant modern consumerism. The store's 300 departments offer customers virtually every consumer good they could possibly think of, provided they are willing to pay the price - and that price is often higher than you can possibly imagine.

For example, we stopped at one of the many restaurants in Harrods for a drink. The price of two small glasses of juice and two small bottles of mineral water was 14 pounds (or about $ 32 Canadian). And that's just the beginning. One piece of underwear that caught my eye cost 55 pounds, ($ 125 Canadian) and that was for a thong.

For the ultimate in decadence, Harrods offer its personal shopping service for those who have so much money they simply can't decide how to spend it. The award-winning "By Appointment" provides a dedicated team of personal shoppers who provide shopping advice on fashion, exquisite jewelry, art, furniture, crystal, antiques, sports equipment and beauty products.

Excess, civility, rampant consumerism, carefully planned and beautifully managed cities and landscapes. The devil, the deep blue sea and a whack of green in between. Here's hoping that there'll always be an England.


Seeing is believing. Check out

London’s transit system is nothing short of brilliant. Visit


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