I’ve never liked living in a city and they do seem to be getting worse, in that their livability is falling. Increasingly the way cities function makes less sense, yet generally people are still moving into them. I have lived in probably all the main types of ways of living in Britain: Rural idylls, Small towns, Commuter Towns / Suburbs and Large Cities. Choices about where to live now seem to be a conflict between where people want to live and where work demands that they live. Work has become more demanding so we need more leisure time to re-charge. The problem is that this whole system of living and working at distances is now unsustainable in that not only is it unpleasant and environmentally damaging but also unnecessary.
It seems to me that I and many other people are basically harking back to how things used to be. I still feel that the Brexit vote was largely an expression of frustration with life getting harder in Britain an a yearning for more sensible times. Yet that sensible structure is still available but it is surprising how economic forces are not supporting it, making the UK less and less productive and efficient. To me if society were to realise that small towns are not only my living preference but are the answer to the general problems faced in the UK and possibly globally too. The general problem is that we spend more and more time and money simply travelling around on ever more congested transport systems to do everyday life, largely because we are able to do fewer functions in our localities. Centralisation is limiting choice and making every more time and money expensive.
Small towns have one of everything someone needs to be able to do what they want and need to do on a daily and weekly basis and be able to walk everywhere to do it. Then longer distance transport is optional, to do once or a couple of times each month: for desirable entertainment, shopping, business meetings or to visit friends or relatives. So a small town has one of everything, a supermarket supported by independent shops for food needs, a medical centre, a school, a sports centre, a pub and an arts centre (which doubles up by being a cinema, venue, nightclub and group meeting space), a work-space and somewhere for young people to get involved with useful projects. This is what all towns used to have and you rarely needed to leave them unless you wanted to.
However most small towns, suburban centres of cities and commuter towns have lost some or all of these facilities, which means travelling to access these services. So people end up travelling to work, travelling to do their shopping, driving the kids to school, driving to the cinema, driving to the gym (largely as they don’t have space to exercise at home), basically driving or catching public transport to do anything outside of the home. So really where your home is isn’t important anymore as you don’t live there by choice (except in the rural idyll). Which is basically living as if in the rural idyll, but instead with pollution, traffic noise, not having enough space to do more things at home and stress and more time to get to the nearest centre to do other functions as they are ever further away without the advantages of the rural idyll (like no internet and getting snowed in in the winter <sic>).
Generally people have been complicit in this. My generation has known that there is an awfully big world out there and been frustrated with how slowly things came to our towns and tradition is great but not if it’s the only thing. So what people did was look forward to going to places where a wider range of things was available and driving to them wasn’t all that horrible or time consuming and was simply a nice change to everyday life. This then took vital money away from the local suppliers to the big centralised chains, we ended up travelling more often,which led to the local services closure. These closures meant that you could no longer do as many daily life functions in the small towns.
I used to think it was just me being different. My local bookshop never had the book I wanted to read, so I had to order it and wait a few days or wait until our next trip to the big city and revel in being able to pick the something I wanted off the shelf, which really was a thrill! I rarely want a “Top 40” record or a latest “Bestseller”, I have oddly shaped feet and the local show shop would rarely have shoes that fitted me or offer zero choice in what kind of shoe to wear. I became vegetarian at the age of 15 and needed ingredients not available in my town. we would have to wait months for the latest films to make it to our cinema with all the pops and crackles of film run though a projector too many times. People seem to want their urges satisfied now and are not prepared to wait.
I also used to think it was just us lot in deepest darkest Wales, in a very small town (2000 people) a good hour and a bit drive to anywhere significantly bigger, that people in the bigger small towns at least had some choice, or even something other than going to the pub on Fridays nights to do and then we had to share the pub with all strands of society of every age group [which is very nice really, I really don’t get why people like to go to bars where everyone else is similar to themselves all the time, isn’t it just a little dull?]
Yet, it wasn’t just me, perhaps everyone pined for choice and getting things now, to not just have one option all the time. To be able to see the bands you wanted too and not put up with whomever happened to come our way. However that pining for choice often wasn’t seeking alternatives for other these people, it was seeking the trendy, the latest. Perhaps people didn’t want to put up with the ageing creaky seat of our cinema and they wanted a big hole to put over-priced popcorn in like they do in the U.S. of A we’d seen in the movies, to be deafened by Dolby Surround Sound on an even bigger screen. Perhaps people wanted what them people in the big towns and cities were having, even when it the same things available in every big town and city with no quirky uniquenesses and not actually any better than what we had, but it was perceived as being better somehow. People maybe lost the appetite for putting up with a strange Eastern European arty film because that was all what was on that night and want to choose the film that everyone else seemed to be viewing at the time. To desire a centralised one size fits all of false choice of fifty shades of grey, when really having the choice of one of two bright colours is a much more enriching choice, say a Bollywood film or a Hollywood film.
However, perhaps this same reaching for standardisation and centralisation has affected the world of work too. Perhaps people are not happy working to serve a local community but rather be a small cog in something more global. Perhaps people don’t want to produce a service in much the same way as the service in the next down down the road, but reap the economies of scale, even if that means paying for the privilege and not actually being better off at all at the end of the day. This has meant that instead of playing a role in decision making in small business, to have a decision making role involves working in the big office in the big city.
The problem with going to work in the big city is that everyone else is also going to work in the big city now and the big city can’t cope with this. The big city quickly runs out of housing and its transport networks clog up with people travelling in and out allday. So the only livable bit of cities is the inner city, with it’s pollution, noise and teeny tiny homes. There have always been commuters, people who wanted to work in the big offices, but not live in the smaller city housing. Such commuters were generally wealthy and happy to spend time commuting in on a train. These though it’s the minimum wage people who commute in from ever further afield as minimum wage will not get you a city home. So everyone arrives to work already tired from an hour or so of stress, yet are expected to be more productive that someone after a bracing twenty minute work into the small town centre. At the moment I look forward to school holidays as then I can get to work in half the time as the roads aren’t as clogged up, so even getting to work is delayed because of people taking their children to school/ doing ordinary daily tasks.
Yet nothing is gained from all this time spent travelling while others travel in the opposite direction. we could all go back to small town living again and travel purely for leisure and it would be leisure on unclogged transport networks, or rather travel in comfort. Living in the suburbs and commuter towns now offers no advantages as the local cinemas in the suburban centres have closed so it’s into town to the overly priced multi-screen cinema showing the same film on different screens. It’s overly priced because it’s in the town centre, which now has to serve everyone, rather than just the inner city residents and it’s visitors. I remember when inner cities were cheap and grotty places to live, but thronged with young people who are the section of society that is exploring themselves and want to go to interesting nightclubs or see the latest bands every night of the week, because it’s was relatively cheap and a twenty minute walk and was rightly their playground. Now the wealthy live in the inner cities who don’t use these facilities and then have the temerity to complain about the noise from the nightclub they have just moved next to! So the nightclub is forced to close as it has less money than the people rich enough to afford city centre flats. They just use their wealth to be the minority that can walk to these facilities and in doing so force them to close. Instead of being poor ghettos, the inner cities have become rich ghettos.
It just seems bonkers to me. Why not go back to the small town system? We have the internet now, so you can order what you want and it arrives in a day or two, just like small town shops once did. You can order the exotic things you need the local shops won’t stock. You can work from home and hold meetings over the internet for the vast majority of office jobs. Even if you work in manufacturing, the costs of the buildings (the land) is much cheaper in a small town, it’s easier to expand, your overheads are much much less and even if you need experienced workers, they will be happy to move as the housing costs won’t be exorbitant and the town will have one of everything just like whenever they were before with merely a little bit of interesting cultural change. You can go the the cinema if you want a cinema experience, or stream a film at home if you want to watch that arty East European film. Lets make the places where we live liveable again! Small towns could be better than they were and we can transform city centres into accessible leisure playgrounds, wouldn’t that be nice!