JOHN HUMPHRYS: Why Covid could kill off the big city dream… and we should all be grateful
He was just what you would expect a New York cop to look like. Big and tough and chewing gum with his gun strapped to his bulging belly and a bored look on his face.
I was a slightly overawed 27-year-old who’d arrived in the U.S. for the first time in his life the night before. It was a sunny Saturday morning and I wanted to explore the city.
‘Excuse me,’ I said politely in my best British accent, ‘can you tell me the best way to get to Central Park?’
He didn’t even glance at me.
‘Buy a f*****g map, buddy.’
John Humphrys (pictured) explains how coronavirus might change the way people look at big cities
I knew then that when I brought my wife and two small children out from Britain, we would not be living in this city.
Instead, I rented a house 20 miles away in Irvington, on the banks of the great Hudson River. They arrived a few days before Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, I was flying south to report on a massive earthquake in Nicaragua, riddled with guilt at leaving my family in this strange land where they knew nobody.
I shouldn’t have. They were immediately adopted by lovely neighbours who treated them as if they were their own family.
This was small-town America.
When Watergate forced us to move south to Washington DC, I chose once again to live in a small town. In the battle between small town and big city, I reckon there’s only one winner.
Big cities around the world — not least London — have been having a hard time of it since Covid-19 went on its rampage. Behind every death lies a personal tragedy.
Cities like London (pictured) have been struggling since the coronavirus pandemic began
Yet Covid is destroying not only life, but the way we live. And perhaps we should not fear those changes but welcome them.
Throughout history, cities have been a magnet. From the late 18th century, people have been abandoning the land and the villages where they were brought up, to find fortune in the big cities of the new industrial revolution, like Birmingham and Manchester. But it was never a bed of roses.
As the great novelists tell us, many ended up in slums with their hideous overcrowding, their violent crime and their susceptibility to disease.
Yet they kept coming. And no city exerted more pulling power than London.
In modern times, the new arrivals have been mostly young people drawn to the bright lights. Keen to get on and keen to escape the narrowness of provincial life. And keen to have fun.
Then it changed again. Immigrants arrived to fill the jobs at the sharp end of the service economy. They worked in social care and the NHS. Waiters and hotel staff now had foreign accents.
And the rich came, too. The changing skyline screamed out that this was becoming the financial capital of the world.
A little over a year ago, the financial services sector contributed a massive £132 billion to the economy of the nation. Roughly half was generated in London.
We don’t yet know what effect the pandemic will have on that financial powerhouse. We do know how it’s affecting those who work in it. As I write, their offices — and thousands more — are empty.
Working remotely began as necessity, but is now becoming a choice. Many company owners are re-examining their leases and asking: what are our vastly expensive offices actually for?
Technology is changing everything. And this is just the beginning. Quantum computers are already being developed. You need to be a physicist even to begin to understand what they do, and I’m not. But they will make today’s supercomputers look like children’s toys.
Mark Zuckerberg, in a rare interview this week, revealed his plans to have half of Facebook’s staff working from home in less than ten years. He called it ‘fundamentally changing our culture’.
Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) highlighted how change can always happen in society when he announced that he wants half of his Facebook staff to be working from home in ten years
Where Facebook leads, others will surely follow. Twitter already has.
And Covid has given this revolution the motivation it needed. Cities equal crowds. Crowds spread infection.
And it’s not a straightforward, linear equation. The theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, has shown that as cities grow, the ‘hazards’ they pose grow at a greater rate — not just the spread of infections but crime, especially violent crime. So if a city doubles in size, the risk more than doubles.
Perhaps a new Charles Dickens will emerge to bring home to us quite how dreadful conditions can be in Covid London beyond the bright lights and the comfortable homes, like mine, on pleasant parks.
Perhaps Covid will make those at the bottom end of the social and economic ladder wonder whether the city game is really worth the candle.
Perhaps Covid, combined with the digital revolution, will finally finish what began with the industrial revolution.
Without social life, London loses its lustre and many will be escaping to the countryside
It is not just the poor who may be having second thoughts. Samuel Johnson wrote: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ Not these days there isn’t.
Even for the middle classes, the indulgences have disappeared. The theatres, the opera, the galleries, the museums, the fashionable restaurants. All closed. And when eventually they open, will they still retain their allure if their patrons are treated as potential lepers?
London without social life loses its lustre. No wonder the wealthy have decamped to the countryside.
Like millions of others, I escaped last weekend. I rested after running through glorious woodland that gave way to pastures full of grazing sheep, their mischievous lambs trotting around, a lone hare spotting me and loping off towards the distant hills.
Everything bathed in the morning sun. I was 50 miles from London. An hour’s drive away. A century away.
Those forced to live in the polluted mean streets of a big city like London often dream of the rural idyll, and the response of governments to this pandemic has focused many minds on alternatives.
Commuting is not just boring and wasteful. Now, it can also be life-threatening.
Why not build communities where we can afford to live, and where social divisions are not as extreme as they are in the capital?
Take away the power of the financial services, and much that it dictated begins to wither. Once cities lose their economic function, they go into slow decline.
Ask Liverpool. It is a wonderful city, but 100 years ago it was the greatest port in the world and the world flocked to it.
Liverpool used to be the greatest port in the world – the way the city has declined in value shows that big cities can be doomed
But can cities really be doomed? Perhaps they will adapt to dangers like Covid. London looks as if it may have the better of it for now, and yet the Mayor is cautious about lifting the lockdown.
And anyway, a pandemic changes the psychology of a city. It’s not just the disease that makes crowds potentially so unappealing. Cities are uniquely vulnerable to many other threats.
When the Cold War ended in 1989, I asked the head of MI6 where the next greatest threat to our way of life might come from. He did not hesitate. Cyber warfare. It seemed fanciful then. It seems prophetic now.
A hostile country, or even some maniac loner, might well bring our economy to a juddering halt by hacking into the essential computer systems that keep it running.
The cities would fall first. And then the ‘crowd’ could very easily turn in on itself. We would not be competing for toilet rolls but fighting for food.
In short, the calculus of city living is undergoing great changes. No one knows where they will lead, but if it ultimately loses its appeal, would that be such a bad thing?
Those outside London and other big cities — fed up with being called ‘provincial’ — might rejoice to see the end of city bragging. A provincial nation might be better prepared for a pandemic.
Those who live away from London might just enjoy everyone not bragging about the big cities
Look at Germany: its biggest city, Berlin, is a third the size of London. One consequence of Covid here could be a resurgent local government.
And maybe those who sneer at ‘the suburbs’ from their metropolitan ivory towers might envy them instead. Especially when there’s no need to spend thousands commuting to the office. Imagine, too, what it will do to house prices.
Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have talked about ‘rebalancing the country’.
They may not have chosen this new path, but it may lead there. And given how all politicians love a slogan, let me suggest one.
If you love life, leave London.
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