I came across an interesting article by Justin Webb (BBC Radio 4 presenter) on the importance of railway stations in city centres and I thought it worth paraphrasing.
In the UK most political conferences involve the delegates arriving by train, and in getting from the train station to their hotels and the conference venue they have to go through the town or city (Manchester, Brighton,Brighton, Bournemouth etc), and in doing so get a feel for the place and how well, or not, that town or city is doing.
However, in the USA too many conferences venues are out-of-town which are not well served by rail. Therefore everyone comes by air or car, and in so doing they assist the economy of the roadside and airport food chains, but they see nothing of the hearts of the cities which they visit. They do not mix with other people on the journey, or in the evenings after conference. They see nothing of the chaos around the central rail station which creates a sense of place, and missing out on this means that you miss out on getting a sense of what your nation is like. Airports tend to be homogeneous and ‘sanitised’: are separate and do not reflect the local.
Justin argues that if you arrive in a bubble you will be more tempted to base yourself in one and recalls arriving in Denver and realising that he wasn’t going to see anything of the city of Denver because the airport was miles from the city centre and the convention centre was outside town. Although out-of-town conference centres may be useful; at least in Manchester, Brighton and Birmingham the delegates, journalists, politicians and others will see and experience the heart of each if these cities if only in getting from the city centre train station to the city centre’s conference centre. And, in the evening they might even get out of the conference centre’s bars into those in the town centes and get talking to ‘real’ people rather than just themselves.
Justin argues that this matters – and I agree with him. He says that lack of working railway stations in most American cities contributes to the sense of the city and the visitor being separate. It means that the political events bring no real contact between the ‘party faithful’ and the place they are nominally visiting. In using town centre conference centres served by town centre railway stations, those going to conferences partake in the life of the nation, and for politicians and their faithful (who are increasingly accused of being out of touch) this is vital.
I feel that this observation is useful to bear in mind and is topical, at a time when the nation is considering the location of train stations for HS2 (some of which are proposed to be outside of city centres; and will no doubt have plans for out-of-town conference venues and retail next to them), and in the continued debate on out-of town retail and leisure centres which require cars to visit.
‘Out-of-town’ anything cuts you off from the real word and its rough edges, and the benefits are ring-fenced to a large extent and the spill over benefits are not spread widely enough.