Intervention is vital to prevent the loss of our town centres
I first visited Muncie, Indiana in 1977, 25 years ago. It was my first visit to the US and, in spite of two days in New York City on route, it proved to be a trip that truly represented America. Muncie sits in the Bible belt, full square on flat land that seems to go on forever. Hoosier County is full of people that are not sure where London is, or indeed whether Europe is a country or a state. This is not their fault, as they have no newspaper and the TV stations only talk about Indiana, occasionally other parts of the US and very seldom anywhere else in the world!
This area gives new meaning to the words 'self-centred'! Muncie, a town of approximately 150,000 people, has long been used by marketing consultants to try out new ideas and products, because the town is seen to be the most representative in all the US of the average American. As a result, you can buy things in the town's shopping malls that cannot be seen anywhere else, as they sit on shelves waiting for the decision of the locals as to whether or not the rest of the world will ever see it. You cannot help but wonder what extraordinary things we have been denied as a result of Mr Average's preferences. Why didn't they take to the self-heating underpants? Sadly, we will never know.
In Muncie we can see very clearly the problems created by bad planning decisions in the past.Notably, the development of the out-of-town strip and the city-edge malls. The first out-of-town shopping centre in the world was built in Kansas City in 1923, and in actuality we can see that people got very excited when it was complete. Its success guaranteed, it would be copied, emulated and supposedly improved. It is worth noting that the first centre had no roof but open streets and squares. The separation of the later centres by turning them into total internal experiences removed them from the world and the geography they are a part of.
The effect on Muncie of this type of development was devastating to the town centre. Twenty five years ago when I walked through the town centre there was nothing. A church surrounded by a parking lot, shells of empty buildings and drunks. What is more surprising is that the city recognised the problem but continued to grant permission for more perimeter building. In 1982 they applied some landscaping lighting and street furniture to the town centre; this simply made life more comfortable for the drunks. Nothing happened.
The architecture department at Ball State University established a neighbourhood urban studio, where it conducted many exercises and discussions over a long period of time - and yet the change did not happen.
Ironically today, the premises used by the studio have now opened as a first-class restaurant, where, unusually for the Midwest, you want to eat at a slow pace. Women have always understood that the way to a man's heart is through the stomach and the same is true of towns with lost town centres.
The presence of this one restaurant sounds as though I am getting overexcited, but it means that people are beginning to learn how to use the town centre again. I observed that a bicycle shop is also about to open and above it there are, under construction, loft apartments that are already sold before completion. I am delighted, although I regret that this start has taken 25 years, which proves to me that central and local government intervention is required in large helpings. I don't want to wait that long for Barnsley.
WA, from seat 7F, flight No AC 8011 Indiana to Toronto