Which is Better: The City or the Town?

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Google+ (and, to a lesser extent, on Twitter) are by now used to my habit of linking there to 10-20 articles a day on various issues. If you dive back through the timeline or stream involved, what you’ll see is a thread emerging: the value of community, and of human scale.

I have certainly posted here a number of pieces in the past month that suggest that an urban neighbourhood can be that community. But — if you were looking to relocate to establish yourself where a suitable community for your future would exist — which way should you look? Should you, following, say, someone like Richard Florida, with his focus on “creative classes” and the cities that best accommodate them, head to an urban centre? Or should you, perhaps following transition thinking such as Rob Hopkins’ work on Transition Towns, seek out one of those that has made good progress? Or should you just head off, in the shoes of a James Howard Kunstler, to a small town that still has the elements left from its past to survive and thrive in a long emergency of collapse? Or just — following Joel Garreau’s notions that there’s a place that is “home” to you — you focus on that, settle there, and not worry so much about the size or nature of the place you choose?

Of course, we are also required to consider other matters: elderly parents and in-laws, our children perhaps stampeding to another part of the world (and wanting to be close enough to be grandparents-that-are-there), and so on. Still, thinking about this can be helpful, if only because it helps clarify what to work towards wherever you choose to be.

I remember listening to the Reverend Dr. Canon Giles Fraser on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day back in August of 2009, as he held forth on the virtues of less-tightly knit communities. He was pitching urbanism over village life. It sparked some thoughts.

I make no bones about the fact that I have been an urban dweller all of my adult life. My move away from my parents’ home (which is what was then a suburb but now within the city limits of Toronto) was directly to a central city apartment. Only twice since have I lived in a suburban community (Trumbull, CT, USA and Coquitlam, BC, Canada); otherwise, whether in Toronto, New York, The Hague or Vancouver I have always lived right in the city — indeed, within an hour’s walk of the financial/commercial centre at most (and, thus, within 20-25 minutes by transit).

Part of this has been driven by my work — I have always needed access (until recently) to a good International Airport, almost all of which (if one chooses not to pay outrageously for parking) are associated with cities and either the city transit system, an affordable taxi fare or are directly served by inter-city rail (as was the case in The Hague).

Part of it, too, is a need to find (and have coffee with) interesting fellow travellers on the road of life: a city offers far more opportunities to meet other people who have had experiences and share interests. (My regular coffee companions are almost all, like me, people who have lived and worked in Europe, the USA and in Canada; who have washed up on these shores and may well move on.)

The last part, however, has been the most important: settling into a city culture means anonymity.

For, as Fraser noted in his three minute reflection on air, small communities — hamlets, villages, etc. — are noted for their tight-knit bonds, where everyone knows all about everyone else, knows all their business, and where the community becomes (in the words of Eric Voegelin) a cosmion or little world. (I note that this excludes the sort of place that has become just a dormitory suburb to another centre, whether that “other” is an edge city or a former town that’s been overtaken by places around it [where we lived in Connecticut was one such: originally a place unto itself, that became a dormitory for edge cities between there and New York, and a suburb of New York], because their little worlds are much like the little worlds you find in the city: people who are neighbours but whose circles of interest are tied to work, profession, and activities, rather than to the territorial community.)

If you fit into that small world — your opinions match (enough), your tastes match (enough), your beliefs match (enough), your speech and appearance match (at least well enough) — fine; if not, best pack up and move, or prepare to always be the “outsider”.

Cities, on the other hand, can have people of widely-varying views, experiences, tastes, beliefs, etc. share not just the same street but the same floor in an apartment building without incident. Each is mostly anonymous to others. As with Facebook or Twitter or other social networks (which take this point to its conclusion) the city dweller moves in circles of co-workers, co-believers, co-activity without reference to his immediate neighbours.

It is this anonymity of the city which I have certainly cherished up to now. Nevertheless, I see a small town, or perhaps even a village, in my future. Here’s why.

The virtues of city living are purchased at a price. Cities live at the end of long supply lines that — thanks to population density — don’t create much inventory. (The density of potential buyers of anything means that the shopkeeper does better turning the inventory frequently, unless the items in stock are highly specialised: it is in world cities that one finds shops dedicated to the sale of an individual type of item.) As a result, any disruption to those supply lines and people in cities are deeply inconvenienced at best, and starve at worst. (City dwellers, too, tend not to keep much on hand, since around the clock shopping is right outside their door, and density also raises the cost per square metre of space, be it rented or owned. You don’t tend to pay that much for storage!)

In cities, too, the density to allow transit systems, specialty shops, and specialised employment, to fluorish and operate at a manageable cost means that we build up, not out. Ideally, we would be more like Paris: five or six storeys along the street. Instead we build nodes of skyscrapers, to allow for much single-family housing to line streets. Do you recall the power outage of 2003 in Eastern North America? I have a friend who lives on the 21st floor of his apartment building. Twenty-one floors is a long climb down for supplies, and up with bags, simply to eat.

The credit crisis, peak energy, and a host of other issues are tearing away at the fabric of those supply lines and the stability of city systems. No, they haven’t broken yet. One would hope they would not. But if they do, city life will suddenly become perilous.

Country folk know better. A friend of mine who is a village dweller in upstate New York has oil lamps mounted on his walls, a very large propane tank outside, and other internal means of living for several weeks without deliveries (for supplies to his village are cut off for days at a time due to impassible roads each and every winter), and lives on foods that store easily without power or refrigeration. Living like this in a city is not easily possible. Living like this in a village is normal.

For that reason the more tightly-knit communities Fraser talks of — if one can join the little world of it — are more likely to handle disruptions better than are urban areas. (The suburbs, being neither country nor city, will fare worst of all, I fear, for they are totally dependent upon driving. Electrical outages stop fuel pumps at petrol stations quite as much as does a banking system shutdown due to a credit crisis, and, as the Southeastern United States discovered in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, their pipeline-delivered supplies stopped for a few weeks as the pressure fell below 90% with the gulf coast’s problems Too many different things have to keep working almost flawlessly for the suburbs to be viable in the longer term.)

I have not lost my love of the freedom of the city — Stadtluft macht frei (“city air makes one free”) is as true today as it was in the High Mediaeval — but planning for a long healthy old age means (to me) thinking about where to achieve that. I suspect that tightly-knit neighbourhoods are a key part of that, much more so than whether or not there’s a tertiary care hospital 10-15 minutes away. Cities and suburbs can develop these (and may well do so in time) but for now villages bring that just by being there. (A village that has become a bedroom community to an urban area is a suburb, simply one with much higher aesthetic values than the typical arterial road, mono-zoned, cul-de-sac street layout does.)

Where would you prosper under different conditions? It’s a question worth thinking about. From that, you can start to answer two other questions: what is the good life, and what can I do to put food on the table living that way?

I’m still pondering on it, asking myself “what would I like my streets to look like (closely fitted houses, or large lots?; wood, brick, stone or “modern” constructions?; how far to the high or main street?; what needs to be on it?; do I need rail/bus links regularly to leave? … there’s a long list you can put together to help you find “your place”).

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  1. Good questions, Bruce. I grew up in The City, lived in a rural/farming environment for 8 years (as a non-farmer), a small town for 8 years and am now back in The City and have been for the last four years and have lived in four distinct areas (despised two, loved one and loving current) within that City. Before starting out 30 thirty years ago I remember clearly thinking that my ideal would be a small cottage on the West coast of Ireland, near enough to a small village or town, but far enough away for solitude. I’d write novels (Ha! That never happened). I’ve never tried the suburbs. And I don’t think I am about to. I think the anonymity of the city (not knowing your neighbours) is the most annoying feature of the City, actually. I have to make a decision – today – about where I am going to spend the next year and a half, at least. But where I would like to spend my elder years – aging gracefully – THAT is a real tough one and one I have not really thought about. I can easily see myself as an old geezer, that is not the problem, but I have yet to see any elderly people in any situation that is appealing. I could conjure up such a place in my head – one that would not need a lotto win to fund it – but I’m not sure where it would be sited/situated.

    • I experience the same problem. Oddly enough in my case it was a stone building on a cliff overlooking the waters of the Pacific shore (I did get to BC, but never to that rural outpost).

      Given my druthers, I’d be crossing the Atlantic to find that village. You can get around European countries without driving and social services tend to be better in non-city settings. But I expect to have to sort it out right here…

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