29 May 2010
I was sitting in the garden last Sunday, enjoying the sunshine and listening to the birds, when suddenly my ears were assaulted not so much by the 'sound of distant drums' as by the deafening 'boom-boom' of music coming from a house several doors away. It made me realise that people choose to use their personal space in very different ways. How important is 'personal space' in our culture? How sustainable is it?
Like population growth, personal space has become the truth that dare not speak its name and must not be mentioned in polite society. Yet Western society is becoming more anti-communal and, in effect, anti-social. Growing children spend increasingly longer periods of time in the virtual worlds of their computer games. Older children play virtual tennis with a machine rather than interact with real players down at the tennis club. Is this is at the core of our problems – both domestic and foreign – that our species is losing the ability to interact peaceably?
The Eastern Daily Press reported on 25 May that modern life is leaving people feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. According to research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation more people are living alone with the percentage of households occupied by one person doubling from six percent in 1972 to twelve percent in 2008. Yet all this personal space has not made us any happier. One in ten people say they often feel lonely and 48 percent believe that people are getting lonelier in general.
I received a letter this week from Broadland District Council preparing me for "significant growth in Broadland". More trees perhaps? More crops? More Broads? Not a bit of it; just 10,000 more houses within a few miles of here.
Although it is obvious from housing lists that we need more houses, nobody I have spoken to on the subject could tell me why we need anything like this many. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) suggests that population growth is one critical factor, but so is the trend towards smaller household sizes as people choose to spend more of their lives living alone. CPRE suggests that as a nation, we should start asking ourselves "whether the fall in average household sizes is socially as well as environmentally sustainable".
The Community Parish Plan that includes my village shows that the number of residents per house in Little Plumstead comes out at 1.6. To get the average that much below 2 means that a lot of our bungalows have only one person living there. Even Thorpe End, with its many family houses and ideal commuter position for Norwich does not get above 2.6, kept down by the many one-person households.
Do an increasing number of people choose to live alone? Could the social 'alienation' of their youth have anything to do with it?
The plans to cover good agricultural land around Hethersett, Cringleford and the North-East Norwich triangle in houses suggests that - as population growth goes on and other nations need the food we presently import from them – we may have to decide between eating and having so much personal space. My partner and I live in a four-bedroom bungalow. It could easily be converted into two dwellings, and the social, ecological and demographical benefits of doing that are extremely disconcerting, because neither one of us would want to do it.
Yet, as low-lying nations begin to be submerged by rising sea levels and migration increases, I hope the media will begin to explore ways of dealing with the inevitable decrease in our entitlement to so much personal housing space. One thing is certain: as the numbers on this island continue to swell, untrammelled countryside to breathe in and share will become even more valuable, not less.