Forest Village #4: The Reality

So we had imagined (previous post) a medium-density self-sustaining new settlement, planned for pedestrians and bicycles, in which residents could live surrounded by the trees, plants and wildlife of their own forest, which the process of development had not only retained but actually improved. Could a place like that really exist? Well, it already does…

It’s called Center Parcs.

My readership will now have split into two groups. Those of you who know Center Parcs will probably understand where I’m coming from. If on the other hand you’ve never been to a Center Parcs, you may have only just finished choking on your coffee at the apparent absurdity of what I’ve just suggested. You probably think of Center Parcs as a glorified Butlins, with trees…and in one sense that’s fair. Let me explain.

The Center Parcs I know – at Elveden in Thetford Forest – follows a familiar format: hundreds of ‘villas’ are laid out around a ‘village centre’ comprising a huge indoor swimming ‘oasis’, vast sports halls, a bowling alley, bars and disco, a super-market and gift-shops plus a number of rather disappointing eateries. The current business model relies on customers staying – and spending – on site for their entire holiday, a weather-proof yet hermetic ‘stay-cation’, the idea of which will be very off-putting for many; the Butlins-effect, if you will. However, away from the Sky Sports bar and the fast-food joints there is a different holiday to be had.

Center Parcs was founded in the Netherlands in 1967 with the simple intention of offering visitors ‘a villa in the forest for a few days’, away from the bustle and noise of everyday life. Alongside the weather-proof leisure-complex and the sports bars, a stay at Center Parcs offers more simple pleasures: sunlight glancing through trees, leaves rustling in the breeze, a squirrel bouncing past, or a Muntjac deer stepping silently through the undergrowth just outside your bedroom window. And because the site is free of cars apart from take-over days, ‘commuting’ to and from the village centre is by bike.

With kids of the right age we have enjoyed many long weekends at the Elveden site over the years, and found its Sylvanian pleasures genuinely attractive. So in fact Mischa Balen’s article was only the prompt to write down and expand a notion that crossed my mind each time one of these relaxing weekends drew to a close: ‘What if I could I actually live somewhere like this? Could a new town be like Center Parcs?’

Next post: Forest Village #5 – Sustainable Development?

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