Liveability Is … Charity Shops & Smart Thinking

David Nichols continues his series investigating what makes a city liveable with a visit to a town dubbed one of Britain’s ‘funkiest’, and a city built on reclaimed land in the Netherlands.

Hebden Bridge

Though not a city, Hebden Bridge - in England’s north (Yorkshire with a frisson of Lancashire) - nevertheless has many of those attributes often associated with successful cities. And yes, it does actually feature on some important lists: it was named in the British Airways magazine as the fourth ‘funkiest’ town in the world (Daylesford outside Melbourne was the funkiest). It also has, since the 70s, had the highest concentration of lesbians in Britain.

Naturally the combination of funk (translated, in some accounts, to ‘quirkiness’) and gayness has seen the town’s profile increase amongst yuppies espousing ‘tolerance’ (perhaps even of each other) and house prices rise accordingly.

It’s not only the price of real esate that rises. Imagine if, instead of dropping into the doldrums of a quasi-‘ghost town’, little Walhalla in Gippsland had thrived due to some obscure industrial specialisation (in Hebden Bridge it was knee-high clogs, apparently). The two places have the same kind of gully trap focus: a village in a valley, straddling a waterway. In Hebden Bridge’s case – just to emphasise its bridginess – there are two waterways: a sleepy canal riddled with picturesque boats and a wide but shallow stream. The houses seem to sit on top of each other like a mediaeval painting from before perspective was discovered.

Image courtesy of the author

Image courtesy of the author

The populace – well, you know what the funksters are like – are clearly shopaholics, and the village has much to recommend it in the realm of charity shops, antique shops, book shops and a boutique rather amusingly called ‘Home… Oh!’ which my guide – from nearby Accrington – pointed out to me, then apologised for. The place drips with Doing the Right Thing: within minutes of arrival I saw a woman wipe her dog’s arse with a plastic bag and go searching for a turd while two friends tried to help by pointing.

When in doubt about what kind of society you might be encountering in a town, look to their gig guide. The last few months in Hebden Bridge have been humming with the obscure hits of rockers whose rise to semi-prominence 30 years ago rarely saw them top the pops. These include Lloyd Cole, Julian Cope and the redoubtable Spizzenergi, whose ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ was described by DJ John Peel as the best Star Trek-related single on its release in 1979. They also have burlesque. Of course they have burlesque.

I scoff, but of course if you put a gun to my head and said I had to live in England, this is precisely the kind of place I’d want to live. Good coffee, charity shops and always the possibility Spizzenergi might play again.

Almere

If I may draw from folk wisdom (i.e. what I was told by my Dutch hosts), the two new Dutch lands created decades either side of World War II were the idea of a man named Lely. He died in the knowledge that the dyke-pumping-draining scheme that he designed in his younger years, and for which he had been scorned, would earn him eternal fame (except for the fishermen of the Zuider Zee).

Not only were the two large open areas in the former Zee (now a more or less freshwater lake) available for farming; they were also now available for the building of new towns. Hence, Almere - not yet 30 years old and an experiment in creating a city at once livable and affordable.

Image of row houses in Almere via dysturb.net/Flickr

Image of row houses in Almere via dysturb.net/Flickr

In Australia there’s enough bollocks spoken about the redolent history of streetscapes just over a century old. Imagine then the Netherlands, where a town hall might be half a millennium old and passed by with nary a glance. It would seem that there are plenty of Dutch people who shun a place like Almere for being cultureless, in the ‘if those walls could speak they might tell tales of being sacked by the Spanish or burnt by the French’ sense, or at the very least, occupied by the Germans. The only tale Almerean walls can tell is that of Dutch ingenuity and the fine spirit of a progressive nation willing to look for new solutions to old problems. I’m told housing in Almere’s clean and distinctive suburbs can be a third cheaper than similar housing in older towns or cities in the enormous, patchwork agglomeration of the Netherlands and beyond.

Although the city is still being built, it’s already the eighth-largest in the Netherlands. There are dedicated busways at key points on the edge of suburbs. The suburbs themselves are unashamedly experimental, though all seem to adhere to the conventional regional pattern of attached two- (or three-) storey homes. Some experiments are more successful than others, but encouragingly, newer developments are less car-centric and adhere more closely to the classic template of the community hub.

The centre itself is a cross between Canberra’s Civic and Melbourne’s Federation Square: it’s a carless series of open-air malls with carparking underneath. An enormous lake at one edge of the centre reinforces the Canberra-ness of the affair, as does the ostentatious embrace of cultural consumption mixed in with the material acquisitiveness. But this is not to deride Almere. The city is proactive. Whereas early campaigners for the Federal Capital – 110 years ago, in Melbourne, a gaggle of distinguished and semi-professionals and experts – considered the possibility of pumping hot water throughout the new best-practice Australian city, Almere has actually done it. While it may at present be for many not much more than an affordable dormitory town for those Amsterdam commuters, it is nonetheless both of those things in spades.

There are so many Dutch people in such a small space - they can’t get away from each other. So, they create solutions. It makes perfect sense, but it’s something Australians aren’t used to seeing that often in urban planning, where there’s no true sense of a broader communality. A plus for effort, Almere.

And the coffee is good. And the poffertjes rockin’.