Sunday, 27 December 2015

The freedom of the city

I love living in London, as opposed to the small-town-outskirts-turning-to-fields I grew up in. And even after more than eight years, I'm still discovering new reasons why.

I already knew I love the galleries, talks and other cultural events; the interesting buildings and amazing views; the possibilities and anonymity of massive crowds.

Today I added, while staring out the window of a rail-replacement bus service on the first leg of my journey back to London after Christmas: the physical freedom.

I realised that on some level I'd always thought a person's physical freedom to roam increases in proportion with the rurality of their surroundings. This probably came about because of notions like the freedom of the open road, adverts for offroaders and places like Ireland and the Scottish highlands, and received cultural wisdom like the desirability of Thoreau's great wilderness.

But it's bollocks. If anything, something like the opposite is true.

The fields around where I grew up are all farmland, meaning that they're private property: no trespassing is allowed. The roads around them offer few turnoffs, and what you find down those rare turnoffs is just more of the same, rendering your taking them pointless. Plus you need some kind of vehicle, or at least a bike, to get around them: the drab fields go on forever.

It's slightly better in the suburbs, but even there all roads only lead to houses, commercial property or dead ends. You probably can go down most of them, but chances are someone will want to know why, or you'll find nothing worth seeing anyway.

Compare that with cities. OK, the majority of the land in cities is increasingly owned by corporations or oligarchs, but at least you still have the freedom to wander it, and what you find at the end of one street might be just another street, but it might be a nice church, a soaring glass edifice, a tiny crooked alleyway, a public park, a river, a surprise square, a set of steps or any number of things you'll more than likely be free to explore as much as you like.

I live on the border of zones 2 and 3 in London, and within minutes of leaving my (admittedly shared) flat for a run, I can be passing nightclubs and 20-story buildings, ducking under a railway overpass and then joining a canal for a few kilometers before hitting, if I have the stamina, a massive public park. Or I can take a different route down to the river, or I can head north for views of the whole city...

Or if I'm out for a walk, I know I'm guaranteed to find streets I haven't walked before, and down them surprises I'd never even suspected.

It's not just London: Copenhagen a few weeks ago was the same, and I'm sure Amsterdam, New York, Toronto, Delhi, Mexico City or any city would be likewise.

Probably national parks offer the ultimate in physical freedom, but how many of us can live within easy reach of one? And by easy reach of one, I don't mean a 30-minute drive.

Outside of national parks on one's doorstep, it's cities that offer the freedom to roam. The suburbs stifle.

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