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BIGGER - OR SMALLER?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 26th August 2011
Here’s a thought; is Ripon too big?

This column has previously suggested that the city is perhaps too small; too small to sustain the infrastructure needed for a sustainable community; too small to have a realistic chance of a cinema, perhaps; too small to attract the return of a railway station . . .

The argument is that Ripon should become larger, to have a population of at least 20,000 people. That would mean there was what socioeconomists (whatever they may be) call ‘critical mass’ – defined as ‘the existence of sufficient momentum in a social system such that the momentum becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth’.

There is much to be said for that argument; Ripon would certainly be improved with better infrastructure. Most of us would welcome extra facilities – especially, in these days of fuel prices that may bounce up and down but seem to be inevitably on the increase, a railway link.

The trend seems to be heading that way. Ripon’s population in 1841 was 5735 people; by 1881 it had risen only to 6641, and to 6749 in 1891. Over the next 60 years it increased by around a third, so that in 1951 the population was 9480. In 1961 Ripon numbered 10,486 people. Now, 50 years on, we are at around 16,500 – another increase of around a third. Given that rate of increase, we can expect Ripon’s population to have reached almost 22,000 by 2051.

This may be the right way to go; it is probably also inevitable, given the increase in the population and the pressure for new houses right across the country.

But wait! Can we argue the opposite – that Ripon would be better off if it were smaller? This seems to run counter to all common sense – but there would be good reasons to think that a smaller city would be more prosperous – and more aware of its own citizens’ needs.

The thought is prompted by Nicholas Crane’s excellent BBC2 series ‘Town’, which recently looked at Totnes. In some ways Totnes is an ordinary Devon town, with some similarities to Ripon. It has an historic core, based on a medieval street pattern. It has one great building – in Totnes’ case its castle, as opposed to Ripon’s cathedral. In the past, like Ripon, it has had its industries – as a major inland port (it is on the estuary of the River Dart) exporting tin, and importing timber from the Baltic; Ripon had its woollen industry and then its spur-making.

These days Totnes, like Ripon, relies on its shops and on its visitors. Visitors come to see its historic sites; some of them arrive by boat on a day trip up from Dartmouth. Some of them, according to locals, don’t get very far – and that’s a problem we know in Ripon, too.

But they also come to see the shops – and it’s the shops, and the ethos that lies behind the shops, that makes Totnes different. For in Totnes there are lots of independent shops that offer a wide range of goods. There are vegetable shops and bakers, shoemakers and butchers – probably candlestick makers, too. They thrive because Totnes has embraced an alternative culture – it is a Transition Town.

This column has written about Transition Towns before – communities that have grasped the nettle of the changes that the world is facing with climate change and the scarcity of fossil fuels. Totnes has done so with open arms – though as Transition Towns guru Rob Hopkins, who lives in Totnes, pointed out to Nicholas Crane, it’s by no means a self-sustaining place. Lorries still come in to supply the supermarkets, which are still important in sustaining the population.

Totnes is, as Hopkins remarked, not an ‘eco Shangri La’; but it has made the leap that will take it in that direction. Nicholas Crane called Totnes ‘an urban laboratory’, one that is not afraid to experiment with doing things on the small scale.

That may be simpler because of the size of Totnes. It has a population of around 8000, so is less than half the size of Ripon. Why is that important? It is partly because turning around the views of a small town like Totnes is easier than in a place the size of Ripon. The larger the community, the harder it is to reach consensus. According to Crane, what Totnes has above all is ‘vision’ – something that this column has often called for in Ripon.

Of course, the Totnes model, with its own ‘Totnes Pound’ currency and its rather ‘alternative’ attitude cannot – and should not – be used as the paradigm for Ripon. Each place needs to work out its own methods of dealing with problems. But what did come out of Nicholas Crane’s look at Totnes was the distinct impression that the size of the town helped it on its way to a new future. It has a real sense of community, with people working for the same ends.

That may, of course, be a false impression, but Totnes has changed and is thriving. Can we say the same for Ripon? We can’t turn back the clock to a smaller population; we could, though, have the vision and the community togetherness that would move the city forward.

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