This Side of the Pond – Nov. 16

By Sarah Pridgeon

I found myself flabbergasted this week to discover that my mental picture of my own home country is about as inaccurate as it could possibly be. I’ve always thought of Britain as a series of cities and towns, each one’s nose jammed into the elbow of the next one along and the occasional park to break up the monotony.

We do, after all, have to find space for one fifth the population of the United States on an island that could generously be described as “snug”. The landmass of the United Kingdom is roughly the same size as Wyoming, though defined by a higgledy piggledy shape rather than a nice, neat square.

Imagine, for a moment, that our grand and spacious state was home to 65.64 million people. I will wait while you fetch a paper bag and calm your breathing.

Where on earth would we put that many people, even with as much open country as we have in this part of the world? By the time you’d finished figuring out yard space and amenities, what on earth would we do with all those spare deer?

Britain’s answer to those questions, I thought, was to stack everyone on top of each other and get rid of all the wild animals. We’ve barely a badger to our names these days, so I didn’t have much reason to question my theory.

And then I came across the results of a detailed analysis of every council area in the UK, with useful maps showing how much of the land is used for farming, left completely natural, categorized as “green urban” or built upon.

My expectation, as I began to browse the numbers, was somewhere in the region of 80 percent for buildings of one form or another. My reasoning was based on the fact that my home city of Poole is so close to its next door neighbor, Bournemouth, that you can’t actually tell when you pass from one to another. The route to the next city from that, Southampton, doesn’t travel through what you’d call a rural paradise.

And then there’s London, a city that exists in the first place because all the tiny towns and villages in that area began to grow, only stopping when they hit the next one. The sole memory of their existence today is that they gave their names to the boroughs and suburbs.

Apparently my experience has been contrary to the norm, however. It turns out that 56.7 percent of Britain as a whole is actually farmland. In England and Northern Ireland, that figure is closer to three quarters of the terrain; Scotland drags the average down with just 26.4 percent.

That was surprising enough, but my eyes were like saucers by the time I discovered that 34.9 percent of Britain has been left natural, unspoiled by the presence of football fields and factories. It’s only 14.5 percent in England, to be fair, but 70 percent of Scotland turns out to be covered in pristine wilderness.

When you then factor in 2.5 percent for these “green urban” spaces – golf courses, parks, sports fields and so on – you’re probably thinking there isn’t much room left for human dwellings. You would be correct.

Only six percent of Britain has a structure sat on it, whether that be a road, a building, an industrial center or an airport. The range goes from a shocking two percent in Scotland to 8.8 percent in England. This really does beg the question: where are we putting all the people?

If you spaced out everyone in Wyoming evenly, we’d each get a sixth of a square mile to call our own. That’s plenty of room to stretch your legs or swing a cat, I would say.

In Britain, on the other hand, there are over one thousand people for every square mile of space and, somehow, we’re not even spreading out across a tenth of it. How is this even possible?

Are there millions of us decked in loincloths and unkempt beards roaming around the Lake District, eschewing the comforts of the modern living room? Are we the living equivalent of Russian dolls, several of us sitting on the same chair at once?

I’ve always known that the average family home in Britain is modest and our back yards only big enough for one rose bush and a parking space, but even that doesn’t seem to account for it. It seems we’ve shoehorned a fair number of willing fools into London, where I once heard said that you’re never further than 11 feet from another human being. Not surprising, considering there are 4542 of them in every square mile.

It’s even worse in Liverpool, where you’ll find 10,000 of the buggers in every mile of the grid – in Manchester, it’s 11,439. That’s about 300 square yards for every person to call their own, if my dubious math skills are correct.

Of course, that’s before you carve off chunks to go towards the general pool for roads, corner stores and schools and factor in that we all need an office to work in as well as a place to live. The average American home is 2600 square feet, while ours are just 818, so the Brits really are living in shoeboxes in the middle of the road, as Monty Python has claimed all along.

I suppose there’s a lesson here, for those of us lucky enough to have natural views in every direction and enough room for a vegetable garden. The next time I shake my head in dismay at the idea of urban spread, I’ll remind myself it could be far worse – I could be nose to nose with my next door neighbor in a dining room the size of a doormat.