We live outdoors

Jonn Elledge has just re-shared this excellent piece he wrote in April about lockdown and those of us who live in cities. He argues that it isn’t country folks who live outdoors; it’s city ones.

it’s actually the urban residents who live their lives outside, for the obvious reason that their homes are so small they don’t have a choice. If you live in a major city, you are less likely to have a garden, or a spare room, or even – in the age of landlords taking the piss because, hey, who’s going to stop them? – a living room. Finding space to work that isn’t also the space you sleep in means going to a café; space to socialise means going to the pub. If you want to chill out and enjoy the sunshine, you go to a park. What else can you do?

As he writes, the city is a trade-off: we have a smaller, more expensive home because of the things that surround us and our proximity to things such as our workplaces and social spaces. And that’s great, until those things get locked down.

this trade-off always seemed like a good one to me – right up until the point three weeks ago when the government announced that all bars, restaurants, galleries and so on were to close, and the entire country was in lockdown for the foreseeable future. At which point I was suddenly just living in a small, expensive space very close to other people, with all the advantages to doing so taken away from me, and without even a balcony to hang out on.

I have a balcony, but otherwise I’m in the same boat: I’m paying a lot of money to live close to things that aren’t open.

This isn’t a complaint. Many people have it much, much worse than me: I don’t have to cram an entire family into a tiny flat; my kids are still at school so I can work. But there’s no doubt that the experience of COVID restrictions is very different for city dwellers than it is for suburbanites or our more affluent neighbours (and for those who are partnered rather than those who live alone).

It also raises interesting questions about the future of cities. If working from home becomes the new normal, if our social spaces die from lack of support, if our cultural centres close and events are unviable, if COVID accelerates the shift from bricks and mortar retail to online, what are cities actually for?