Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Welcome to the 'Great City of the West' - mankind's dead end

In the opening chapter of 'Starman Jones', Robert Heinlein sets the scene with the young hero, dreaming of space, watching the Chicago, Springfield & Earthport Ring Road - essentially a high speed inter-city transit:

"The incredible sight and the impact on his ears always affected him the same way. He had heard that for the passengers the train was silent, with the sound trailing them, but he did not know; he had never ridden a train and it seemed unlikely, with Maw and the farm to take care of, that he ever would."

In this short chapter, Heinlein not only sets the scene for 'Starman Jones' but describes the chasm that divides rural and urban America. It's true that, in American Dream style, Max Jones, Heinlein's hero does escape from his rural isolation such that the book closes with Max on one of the trains. But we need to be interested in the rest of Max's world, in the people who stay on the farm. These people, rednecks, provincials, the "left behind" have suddenly become important folk. Not individually but collectively.

The election of Donald Trump, the UK's vote to leave the EU, the growing support for France's Front National and similar trends in Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany all focus on people who aren't living in the shiny world of what Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post calls "the West's major cities". And the world beyond the cities is filled with reactionary forces aimed at stopping the glorious people in those shiny cities from dominating the world - there's even an "if mayors ruled the world" group that says this:

“These reactionaries,” Barber said, “are the last wave in a series of political attempts to pretend that sovereign states still work.” The nation-state isn't about to disappear, he cautions. But Barber envisions a future where there'll be a “rebalancing of the relationship” between nations and cities that will enable greater local governance across the world for the benefit of all.

By greater local governance, Barber doesn't mean a local municipality at some sort of human scale but rather grand 'city regions' ruled by elected but autocratic mayors. And some places will be left outside these 'Great Cities of the West' struggling in rural decrepitude or small town decline. Other rural places will tag themselves onto the great cities, stretching their boundaries so as to get some small crumbs from the mayor's table. Soon these latter places will realise they've the worst of both worlds - higher taxes, more regulations and the envious sight of money pouring into super-rich inner suburbs and city centres. Places the residents of the city region's remoter outposts seldom visit and that's often merely to gawp at the beautiful people as they enjoy their playground while shrugging at the unaffordability of all this stuff.

Since the West's population is increasingly concentrated in cities, we've come to assume that the city is the demographic and, therefore, political form of the future. There's a hankering for the idea of the city state - essentially autonomous places within a weak state - and, in this, with the idea of strong, enlightened leaders elected by those cities' wise and enlightened electorates. The result - or rather the objective of the 'Mayors Should Rule the World' advocates - will be a fragmented, divided polity dominated by the needs and preferences of those ruling mayors (or rather those with access to these mayors).

Returning to 'Starman Jones' for a second, we see the manner in which the human world's design intentionally favours the city as a form. It's not just that the train swished through Max Jones' rural America but that the design of such systems today is creating such a world - England's HS2 is designed to connect London to Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. What lies between the cities is irrelevant except as a place filled with ghastly NIMBYs who oppose the railway for spoiling the countryside. But why should someone in an old mining village like Havercroft or Fitzwilliam look kindly on HS2? Like Max Jones they'll be watching the fast trains whoosh by while wondering where their children and grandchildren will get a job that's better than in a warehouse or serving on at a cheap restaurant (assuming that the robots and minimum wage rises haven't killed those jobs).

There's no actual reason, other than our sociable nature, for us to live in those 'Great Cities of the West'. Indeed, they're filled with untypical humans. There are the brave few who upped sticks and travelled thousands of miles to live poor quality lives on the fringes of the gleaming, sparkly city hoping for a lucky chance. We've the fortunate beneficiaries of inheritance or beauty who can skim across the surface of the city enjoying its lights and pleasures while affording the means to avoid its darkness. And there's a vast mass of clever, skilled, hard-working people who turn the wheels of the city's economy but can't get a stake in the city, can't find the means to settle and have a family, and who justify this on the basis that they can get to see the beauties in their plays, galleries and stadiums.

If this - 'The Great City of the West' is the future of mankind then it isn't a future, it's a dead end. Because the great mass of the city dwellers can't afford a family, the only way to provide the services is to import more people from elsewhere. But what happens when those elsewheres don't provide people any more? The city grinds to a halt when economic growth in other places reduces the imperative to migration. So perhaps this explains the enthusiasm of the great and good of such places for elsewheres to remain poor - not starving but just poor enough for the stream of migrants not to dry up. But this is a false perspective - even the gradual rising of economies results in reduced birth rates so the city cannot win if it does not breed.

And cities are, in everything they do, anti-child:

...localities with higher densities and higher prices — the two are often coincident — have considerably lower birth rates than areas with lower prices. This becomes even more evident when one considers the segment of the population between 5 and 14 years old, when children enter school. In 2012, urban areas with the highest percentage of children are predominately lower density and lower cost, including Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Riverside-San Bernardino, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Urban areas with the lowest percentage of people in these age groups were also the New Urbanist exemplars, such as Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle.

And who would - without necessity or accident - have children in a high-rise environment featuring fug-filled air that causes asthma, streets filled with rushing vehicles, public spaces designed for adults, and places dominated by strangers. In San Francisco and Berkeley over 70% of households are childless. And we're supposed to see dense urban living as a better model than the sprawl or the suburbs, the comfort of the small town or the community of the village?

The problem isn't just that the rural and small town West has rebelled against the city but that the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.

Planners rejected suburbia as somehow too naff, 'not our sort of place' and then justified their rejection with tales of sustainability, sprawl and the curse of the motor car. Yet suburbs - at least the one I was brought up in - were liveable, open and child-friendly. They might have been a bit boring for childless, young adults but they weren't boring for children and, mostly, weren't so for grown ups with sheds to do hobbies in, gardens to keep and associations to join.

So no, the city is not the West's defence "against right-wing nationalism" but rather one cause of that right-wing nationalism existing in the first place. If your billions of infrastructure spending excludes most of the country they won't thank you for it. If every policy you espouse is designed for the child-free world of the city, the provincials will hate you for it. And if your attitude to people who don't live in the 'Great City of the West' is sneering, dismissive and patronising don't be so surprised when they kick out at you.

This idea of a the city as a place piled on top of itself, crowded, expensive, frantic, is a dead end. It is a model that will fail and in doing so may threaten what we choose to call western civilisation. The lesson in all this is to understand that, as one commentor obeserved, cities come with a huge barrier called "cost of living", a barrier that far from making the city a solution sets it up as a parasite.

Right now the only route to success in the city for the likes of Max Jones is still to borrow your uncle's space suit and save humanity. And given that few provincial folk have uncles with space suits (or other opportunities to save mankind come to think of it) they'll stay in declining rural and small town communities sneered at by people in cities who think the future of humanity is having shiny things but no children. It won't end well.



Diesel said...

Terry Pratchett foresaw this back in 1991, in his fictional book "Reaper Man". Funny how fiction is so often precognition!

Tim Almond said...

Here's a problem: most of the 'clever' people aren't in big cities any longer. The effect of fast rail, roads and later internet changed the value of short distance.

Software in London had been on the decline for years. I know a new media design agency that are almost entirely out of London now. Mostly Newbury and Leeds. You can do most of the review work over the internet. Almost no one records at Abbey Road, which is why they wanted to turn it into flats. It's cheaper to travel out to Peter Gabriel's studio near Bath.