No place like home

City life or escape to the country?

New York, Paris, Venice, Rome. Just the names are enough to conjure up exotic images and romantic dreams for both inveterate and wannabe travellers. Cairo, New Delhi, Marrakesh, Hong Kong, Sydney – there’s an endless choice when you’re compiling a bucket list of top twenty cities to visit while there’s still time. But whichever must-see destination we choose, the reality is we’ll experience only a small section of the sprawling mass of roads, rail, buildings and humanity that make up that city – namely, the tourist bit.

As tourists, we each take innumerable photos and videos of world-famous locations and buildings so we can “entertain” friends and family when we get home. Downtown Manhattan and the Empire State Building, the Grand Canal and the Doge’s Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Seine – we’re so busy lining up shots through our smartphone cameras that we barely remember to actually see the sights. “And there’s me at the top of the Eiffel Tower. And there’s Shirley at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Oh, and there’s me and Shirley at the top of the Eiffel Tower.” “Right, so who took the picture of you and Shirley?” “Oh, it was this really nice German guy we met. Can’t remember his name, but he’s in the next few photos, too.” So we glimpse the landmark sights, but rarely see the whole picture – the suburbs, the darker districts, the areas where residents would prefer not to live if they had the choice.

Many of us commute to a city for work, but few can afford to live even close to the heart of the urban buzz, where you find the glamour and excitement

It’s a similar story with major UK conurbations, particularly London. Many of us commute to a city for work, but few can afford to live even close to the heart of the urban buzz, where you find the glamour and excitement. We just come and go, enduring long journeys back home to towns that feel grafted onto the edges of the nearest city as the urban sprawl ever widens – towns that once enjoyed a definite and separate identity. Post-pandemic, it’s clear few of us enjoy that daily grind, and recent research shows more than a third of employees plan to resign if ordered to return to the office full-time.

In theory it will all be very different, for both residents and tourists, in a new city already under construction in Saudi Arabia. The Line – yes, that’s the current name for the city in the Neom region of the kingdom – will be more than 105 miles long but only 200m wide. There will be no cars or roads, but high-speed rail will carry people from end to end in twenty minutes. It will run entirely on renewable energy and will rise 500m above sea level – higher, by the way, than the aforementioned Empire State Building. Costing hundreds of billions of dollars, it will be a walled city, but its nine million residents will be able to run every necessary errand within five minutes’ walk. Sounds just the place for you? Or maybe a little too much like Huxley’s Brave New World.

Perhaps you’d prefer an escape to the country. Little cottage with roses round the door, green fields, quiet roads and all that clean, fresh air? Good neighbours, a sense of community, a bit like BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, where everyone looks out for everyone else? Then again, perhaps not, for after all The Archers is fiction, comfortingly portraying a return to how life used to be, or how we think it used to be. The reality might not be quite so comforting or comfortable. There might be no village school, no local GP or village shop, not even a local pub, since so many have closed. For most families it’s about driving to schools, driving to work, driving to the supermarket, driving to see a doctor or visit hospital, with not even a Friday night takeaway within delivery distance. And what about emergencies? The police turning up quickly? Some hope! An ambulance? Fat chance. It’s not their fault, we all know they’re understaffed and under too much pressure. What’s that old saying about the grass always being greener… Might it be time to look again at some of our edge-of the-city towns, and give them back that identity of their own?

Sources: WorldData.info, World Bank

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