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June 27, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Want nice neighbours and community spirit? Then move to the city

This appeared in the Independent [27/06/13] reporting on my talk at the York Festival of Ideas. Please do check out the report mentioned (it is not my work) CHARM OFFENSIVE from the Young Foundation:

Beside the shiny skyscrapers and posh urban gardens, many parts of the world’s “supercities” are looked on as hell holes and no-go areas – and some future urban centres are likely to look more like the slums of Mumbai than Trafalgar Square.

Yet city dwellers in the UK at least have been found to be more polite and connected than people who live in villages or bland new towns, research has revealed. Urban friendliness among strangers has also been found to put the neighbourly bonds between country dwellers to shame.

These findings come from a study cited at the York Festival of Ideas, which looked at the way people behaved towards each other in a series of Wiltshire villages, a quiet new town in Cambridgeshire, and St Mary’s Market in Newham, one of London’s poorest boroughs. Newham came top in terms of politeness, indicating people in cities look out for each other far more than anyone imagined, said Leo Hollis, an expert in cities.

The city’s “supercharged atmosphere” could also pave the way for an urban renaissance which may yet save an over-populated world, he added.

Mr Hollis said that the megacities of the future could become great places to live if we rethought the way they were run and laid out.

In a lecture entitled “Cities Are Good For You”, Mr Hollis – the author of two books on the history of London who has travelled the world to find out what makes cities tick – laid the blame for much of the decay at policies which put traffic before pedestrians and playgrounds built more for health and safety than the enjoyment of children.

“What is really powerful about a city is it is a super-community where connections go way beyond a village,” he said. To make megacities work, communities need to reclaim those areas where they can gather together, just as people do on the South Bank in London, he explained during the conference at York University.

The potential self sufficiency of cities through urban farming is already being demonstrated in New York, where the roof of an office block in Queens is producing a regular harvest of 350lb of food. There are also city centres around the world which are thriving after being pedestrianised or where run-down areas have been reclaimed by local communities as places to gather and socialise.

“Cities are possibly the greatest social experiment in human existence,” he said. “As resources deplete, cities might be our salvation – an urban ark rather than a concrete coffin… By the end of the century, 10 to 11 billion people will be hoping to enjoy the urban dream.”

Some might see this as disastrous, given the negative perceptions of city life, he admitted, adding: “We see so much poverty, pollution, and congestion, the constant bustle of the place. It is easy to become alone and lost.”

Though nobody believes in “utopia or pavements of gold any more,” people still come to cities in hope of a better future – only to find “no-go areas, gated communities and sink estates,” he said.

The location of the conference was pertinent; despite being held up as an example of appalling poverty by Joseph Rowntree in 1891, York is now one of the country’s least divided cities. However, average house prices are now more than £200,000, making it one of the most difficult places to get on the property ladder outside London. In the past six months, more than 1,000 residents have been referred to food banks.

Capital gains: The research

The Cities Are Good For You study watched people going about their daily lives in Newham, an inner-city borough of London; Salisbury, Trowbridge and Devizes in Wiltshire; and the new town of Cambourne in Cambridgeshire.

In Newham, where there were more children, researchers found people were far more tolerant of youthful behaviour. In more affluent areas such as Trowbridge and Devizes, the researchers found older people were quick to jump to conclusions about “spoilt”, “rowdy”, “rude” and “intimidating” young people”.

The idea of pushy Londoners was dismissed because busy people knew the value of civility. People in the quiet towns had more time to bear grudges, grumble, and were more likely to be stuck in their ways.


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