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Fifteen-minute cities? Nice idea, but not everyone can afford a fitbit

July 30, 2020

Sometimes I’m ashamed of how cynical I’ve become in my old age. I offer an example. This morning I read a delightfully idealistic fantasy of post-COVID life in big cities. Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, extols the virtues of the fifteen-minute movement, which advocates that our cities should be transformed into villages in which everything we need for normal daily life is within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle ride.

Not only will we save the planet by reducing transport emissions, but we will level up – in other words, regenerate neglected areas and turn them into versions of Hackney, where currently middle-class millennials rub shoulders (or elbows, I guess) with drug dealers and knife fighters. In Gaby’s ideal fifteen-minute cities, high earners who have saved money on commuting, Pret sandwiches and suits will be:

drawn to spending it on services that go with the grain of their changed lives: hub workspaces, where lonely home workers can rent a desk alongside others, or cosy neighbourhood joints that make them feel comfortable about going out to eat again.

There will be affordable housing, a decent supermarket, artisan shops and all the rest of the stuff you would expect to find in some of London’s “edgy-but-cool” inner city havens.

Yep, and the big rock candy mountain as well.

No matter that you’ll have to tear down the rat-infested fire traps doubling as tower blocks, and find decent jobs for all the people who are no longer required to get up at three in the morning to take the first train in to their city cleaning contacts. There are only a certain number of barista vacancies in Dulwich and Dalston.

You’ll also have to persuade those who may have enjoyed the experience of working from home that this is forever. How long before they start hankering for the gossip, the office politics and the ceaseless manoeuvring for promotion by being the last person to leave the office?

As for building local communities, I suppose that’s a laudable aim as long as you understand that in modern cities, or rather the inner city areas we all want to see regenerated, communities, like the people who create them, are transitory things. Half the people want to move away to better jobs and safer lives, and for the other half are at the stage in their lives when they crave the excitement, the vibrant creativity that results from many ethnic groups living close together. And, of course, the fact that many of their friends from uni live nearby.

So these communities, where a hundred years ago people would have spent their entire lives, are now largely transitory. Not quite pop-up communities, but definitely places where you live for a while until you can afford to move on. And if you can’t afford to move, you either sink into apathy or you make damn sure that your kids can.

When I look back at my life trajectory, I ask myself if the dynamics of the city life that I experienced were so different in the Sixties and Seventies. I went to university in Birmingham and for the following decade continued to live within fifteen minutes by bus from the campus. I couldn’t afford a car, so I didn’t bother to learn to drive until I could. The places where I lived, in flats and house-shares, were full of people I met at university. Moseley, Kings Heath and Harborne were my stamping grounds. We didn’t have craft beers and internet cafes, but we did have pubs, music, curry houses and each other’s places for some riotous assembly.

Then, at the age of 29, via a circuitous set of circumstances, I ended up in Saudi Arabia, where I spent most of the next decade. I got married, we started a family and when we came home we bought a house in a small Surrey town utterly different from Moseley. Which is where, apart from some further excursions to the Middle East, we have remained ever since.

If you judge it by the ideals of the fifteen-minute movement, my town is a deprived area. Any sense of community is negated by preponderance of people who live in gated estates who might pay lip service to the idea of sharing space with other people, but who actually want to keep themselves to themselves, save for visits to Waitrose, the occasional night out at a “cosy local restaurant” and maybe a trip to the movies five miles away.

We have no local newspaper, though there is an online version. Once upon a time there was a communal hall, but that closed years ago. The local hospital burned down a while ago, to be replaced by a couple of general practice surgeries in portakabins. We do have plenty of park space, as well as good schools and supermarkets, but “community activities” are far and few between beyond those that are centred on schools.

That was my journey, and you’d be hard put to convince me that the fitbit-wearing, yoga-panted vegans in the inner cities aren’t on the same road themselves.

Our town is as far from edgy as you could possibly imagine. And of course I was joking when I said it was deprived, which is not to say that nobody you could call deprived lives there.

So where I live, COVID is hardly likely to force a lifestyle change. All it’s likely to do is put the aspirations of its population on hold for a while. As soon it’s no longer a dominant factor, be it in six months or three years, they will be back on their trains to their offices in the city or the outlying suburbs, pursuing their goals of endless upward mobility.

As for city-dwellers, I’m afraid it will take much more than a few affordable housing estates and supermarkets to create permanent communities that care for each other from cradle to grave. Cities will remain as they are: a permanent crust of the suburban entrenched that encloses an endlessly shifting population. A bit like the planet we’re trying to save, actually.

I hate to pour cold water over the dreams of idealists, but in my humble opinion the entire structure of our country, with its entrenched interests and its inequality, its greed and its guest-workers, and its relentless pursuit of what others have, will have to change if fifteen-minute cities are to become a reality.

Mass impoverishment through economic collapse is only likely to lead to existing power structures being replaced by others whose main purpose will be to constrain and restrict rather than to liberate and empower. The imperative will be keeping the show on the road.

Will COVID create these conditions? Possibly. To assume that once the virus has done its work, people will be focused on anything other than their own struggles for economic and social survival, is naive at best.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t dream. Fifteen-minute cities are splendid things. I lived in one once, after a fashion. But it will take more than a wodge of government money to make them happen. You could argue that it will take a revolution. Or an apocalypse.

From → Business, Social, UK

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