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The UK at night, showing how concentrated our population is

Like many people over the last 6 months or so, I have found my work situation drastically changed. The experiences of this experiment in a different way of working that has been forced upon us has affected us all in different ways, but for my part I have discovered a new found appreciation for many things in life that the rush of the commute and office working all too often overshadows. The whole episode has given me plenty of time to think, and one conclusion I am drawn to, if not yet 100% sure about, is that our cities are too big.

The rise of the global megacity is often a source of great national pride, in the UK, politicians of all stripe love to heap praise on London (urban area pop. circa 9 million) for its dynamism and ability to project a soft cultural power to enhance the UK on the global stage. New York (urban area pop. circa 18 million) and Los Angeles (urban area pop. circa 12 million) are often the first things that come to mind when we think of the American dream and the megacities of Asia, such as Tokyo (urban area pop. circa 37 million), Singapore (urban area pop. circa 6 million) or Shanghai (urban area pop. circa 27 million) are the images which resonate most strongly when we think of the economic miracles which have occurred in the last century or so. No doubt as achievements of innovation and the ability of humanity to build and grow, these cities are remarkable, and the rapid advances in technology in the last half century have made these places ever larger. The concentration of people in one site allows for an exponential growth in productivity and output which in turn helps to build the wealth of nations and people. This has been true ever since humans first began to create urban centres in places like Sumer and for all the 5 thousand or so years leading up to the modern day.

However, in pursuit of the goal of wealth and economic performance, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that such large conurbations also come with a cost, to individuals, society, and the planet. The pressures of those costs were already starting to tell before the pandemic hit. In the UK, people have crowded into cites pursuing better jobs and careers, which has led to a marked inequality between the regions, but has also seen housing and rental costs in cities sore, eating ever further into pay packets and trapping city dwellers in a vicious cycle of renting a cramped flat for an exorbitant fee or see your career wither on the vine. Rising costs of housing have drive people further into suburbs, which in turn has increased commuting time and overcrowding on trains. Official wellbeing figures in the UK show Londoners to be the most anxious and unhappy people in the county. These economic and social cost are before we start considering the damage to the environment such urban centres cause.

If nothing else the pandemic has highlighted that there are other ways to do things, different ways to live and work and that we have the technology to achieve a different outcome, not least that large scale remote working is effective. In other words, we do not need to cram ourselves into an overcrowded city. As the world slowly begins to put itself back together after the shock of the coronavirus, we are in a position to stop and think about what we want our societies to look like, what we want to get out of living and working together and how we can rebuild from this hard stop in a better way. This is true not just in terms of economic performance, but for our own wellbeing, for the environment and even for the better functioning of our politics and societies. The technology available to us currently has demonstrated, at least in part, a new balance can be achieved without losing the economic benefits gained from our large metropolis’.

In terms of our own wellbeing, a smaller city and new ways of working would allow more space to live in, allowing city dwellers the chance to rent or even own a property larger than a studio flat, perhaps with their own garden. In the city we could encourage wider more ascetically pleasing streets, with large pedestrianised areas and greenery taking predominance. With less time spent commuting and not being stuffed into overflowing trains, as well as adopting new methods of working, and less focus on centralised office structures, rather more devolved organisational models, we would find more time for ourselves, hopefully promoting both physical and mental wellbeing. Yes, some productivity may be lost in pure terms, but individuals with more time and space would be able to invest in personal projects. I would prefer to think of it as a way to increase the productivity of the individual over that of the collective. As a society which apparently holds the creativity, ingenuity and drive of individuals in such high regard, indeed we have a tendency to credit individuals with the majority of human achievements, surely allowing people the time and space to engage in their own pursuits would only be a benefit to society as a whole.

Similarly, the environmental positives of smaller cities with a new approach to working, speak for themselves. Less concentration of people would lead to less concentration of pollution, fewer trains, buses, and cars making the daily commute would lead to cleaner air. An exhaustive list of benefits would be hard to compile, but I am sure you get the idea.

Finally, our politics could improve. This argument may seem somewhat left field, but with smaller urban populations who spend less time commuting, the opportunity to encourage people to engage in the administration of their city at a local level would present itself. Not only this, but people who live and work in a small space which they hold dear would provide incentive for engagement. If you combine this with a flatter approach to political structures, which could be possible in smaller urban communities, then the ingredients for a kind of politics in which people feel they have a voice and a say in the governing in their local community would be there. Ironically, this could even lead to better governance at a national level as the burdens of local governance could be lifted, allowing the national executives and legislatures to concentrate on other matters.

Even in economic terms the story is not so one sided. Yes, businesses whose model relies on the dense crowds of city workers will suffer, but the pandemic has seen to that either way. With a return to some normalcy, previously office dwelling workers will be looking to spend their cash elsewhere, smaller cities will allow independent shops and cafes, closer to residential areas, to flourish with the cash flow being redirected to these outlets, or the bigger chains can adapt to the change in circumstances, the forced innovation may even drive growth in a different direction. We could also see a reduction in the inequality between our regions, an especially prominent problem in the UK, if our population were spread more evenly amongst smaller urban spaces.

On an individual level, I think the case I’ve laid out above speaks for itself, with a smaller more compact urban space, or perhaps even a complete reimagining of the division between urban and rural, we can find a superior balance between work and life, not only allowing time to pursue our own personal projects and interests, but spend more time with family, develop new skills and hobbies, and even develop better physical and mental health. At a societal level, we have the opportunity to reimagine how our world functions, and provide ourselves with a better governed, healthier and more effective state and society, with a new economic model that is not so focused on growth above all else, but leverages technology to make the perhaps more modest growth work better for people. What I sketch out above may seem idealistic, and no doubt in part it is, but nevertheless an opportunity is unexpectedly presenting itself, I hope we do not waste it.

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I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.

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