I am sick to death of friends telling me they have enjoyed the lockdown. They have invariably been cocooned in their country retreats, able to work comfortably from home, taking plenty of exercise and seeing lots of family amid their rural bliss. They speak of London — their usual home and/or place of work — as a diseased city, dangerous and dirty.
One of the frequent “new normal” suggestions is a preference for living in the countryside among many educated, well-off Londoners, Parisians and Manhattanites. Demand for country homes has surged while London rentals are flooding onto the market.
By contrast, my family has spent the past three months in London. My wife was working in hospitals here and several of my companies located in the city, in sectors such as food production, have traded without interruption, and I wanted to be close at hand.
I have always preferred cities to the countryside — the bigger the better. Cities offer excitement, opportunities, new ideas, entertainment and more diverse demographics. They are the places where the ambitious go to pursue their dreams. Of course, they may be noisy, crowded, expensive, sometimes unfriendly and occasionally scary. There is always construction under way, causing disruption and inconvenience, but without new structures, there is no growth or change. The dynamism of somewhere such as London or Manchester offers a sharp contrast to the small towns and villages I know.
Life in the countryside moves at a slow, relaxed pace. Many of these places are sleepy — almost retirement communities. Amenities are typically mediocre, but as long as you have a nice garden and decent broadband, it doesn’t matter. Nothing ever really improves, and nimbyism runs rampant. Streaming services, e-commerce and Zoom mean that no one ever needs to leave their homes — leisure, goods and social activities can all be supplied or conducted remotely.
To me that existence is an anathema. I like meeting new people. I love to socialise in pubs, restaurants, clubs and any other venue you care to name. I love the museums, galleries, concert halls and other resources that cities provide. I have hosted roughly 50 proper parties over the decades in London. I can think of nothing more enjoyable than real human company — making new friends, meeting old acquaintances, enjoying laughter and refreshment and sharing gossip. Indeed, as soon as it is legal I shall throw a London bash to celebrate Liberation from Lockdown.
I’ve been to a couple of large office buildings recently and it is clear that until social distancing ends, they cannot function properly, especially services such as lifts and lavatories. So districts such as the City and Canary Wharf will remain semi-deserted for the present. Let us hope the authorities soon come to their senses and end the ludicrous restrictions. Similarly, cities cannot work without decent public transport, so the unions and the authorities must stop the disproportionate constraints that are severely inhibiting travel and work.
Actual meetings are the lifeblood of cities. For me, virtual just doesn’t do it. Crucial interviews, closing the big sale, forging a partnership, genuine creative interaction — these can only take place in person in the same room. Nuance, humour, dissent, romance — all are inadequate or impossible digitally.
Throughout history, encampments of people in close proximity have been the engines of progress. Government, universities, corporate headquarters, media and culture are always centred in them. Concentrations of talent and facilities produce advances that lead to higher standards of living and a better quality of life.
I accept that commuting is grim for many, and decent accommodation in places such as London costs too much. It makes sense for us to cycle more (disclosure: I’m involved with Brompton Bikes). I hope this government reforms planning laws to enable more urban building. No doubt many people will prefer to work from home one or two days a week in the future. However, networks, and the serendipity of workplace chats, cannot happen online — you need to be on the spot.
Cities represent high productivity, a sense of urgency, concentrations of knowledge, optimism, vigour, the future. Given the considerable social and economic damage caused by the lockdown, we need strong, exhilarating cities to be more attractive than ever.