“Some cynic said to me, name me a village where a Nobel prize was won.” I heard Professor Ricky Burdett of the LSE’s Cities Institute say this on an excellent piece of radio on London’s development the other day and it got me thinking about the city and the countryside.
The city – as a major, heavily populated and diverse conurbation – is routinely lionised as the place for creativity, innovation, revolution. Yes, there are major problems to deal with – slums, overcrowding, pollution etc – but, the argument goes, cities are a melting pot for the creation of new ideas.
This praise for the city tends to go hand in hand with criticism of the countryside, often as conservative and backward looking, as Burrett’s Nobel prize comment implies.
Cities are of course wonderful for all the reasons cited, but at the same time the countryside needs defending. I don’t know if any Nobel prizes have been won by villagers, but that’s beside the point. (Nobel prizes are won by individuals often in universities who may or may not live in city itself.) There are other goods that come from people living in rural areas:
It offers vital space for reflection. Cities are places of investment and innovation, they are places where things are made to happen. The countryside offers time for thought and reflection. Frederic Gros’s book, The Philosophy of Walking, shows how thinkers like Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau used the time and space of walking in the wild to think deeply.
It is less consumerist. The city is awash with commerce – fast paced living where acquisition and new experiences are endlessly consumed. So many of these, from the latest purchase to meals out, are transitory experiences. What Karl Marx said of capitalism is most accurate of all in its depiction of the city: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Much of life in the countryside is different: slower, with less intense but perhaps deeper experiences llike walking, gardening, being home, and so on.
It’s home to experiments in different ways of living and organising. With such overcrowding and inequality, it is said – by David Harvey In Rebel Cities and Mike Davies in Planet of Slums among others – that the city is likely to be the site of resistance and revolution. But at the same time, rural areas have often been places for new movements to emerge too. To name a few: the low ;impact living movement is a network of people trying to live off the land and off grid. ‘back to the landers’ in the ’60s and ’70s were aiming for self-sufficiency as an alternative to capitalist development; the landless peasants movement in Latin America, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the network of self governing villages in Southern Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War.
It tends to create tighter bonds of community. A big area of discussion for city builders is how to create a sense of community in large and often transitory city neighbourhoods. In the countryside, by contrast, communities are often well established and connections between individuals are strong because they are so frequent: through schools, social activities, work, travel, meeting regularly, people see one another so regularly in different contexts that multiple tight bonds develop easily and quickly.
None of this is to say that the countryside is better than the city or that it doesn’t have its problems. Just as the city as its good and bads, rural areas do too. But it is to say that the countryside can offer, among other things, non-consumerist spaces for reflection and experimentation – and for that reason we shouldn’t just talk about cities as the places for progressive ways of life.