The vast majority of the population in Britain live in cities and large towns and yet much debate on rural landscapes and communities seems to be based on two false propositions underlying this self-evident fact. Firstly, that city-dwelling and experiencing and valuing the countryside are somehow mutually exclusive: 'townies' and urbanites are removed from the land and only understand it as a remote and ill-understood other; at best a vague and aspirational place of retreat should the fast-pace, alienation and all-round brutalism of urban life get too much. Secondly,that rural living is intrinsically more natural, healthy and slower-paced with an all round higher quality of life for bringing up children, retiring to or finding inner peace ie its what we all want and need, if only there were space and resource for all 65 million of us.
As a long-term urban dweller and countryside lover I have always found these articles of faith, like much received wisdom, to have little basis in reality and to quickly break down when subjected to proper analysis and personal experience. This is not to say that there are not many people who are largely removed from a real sense of connection with their environment in their day-to-day lives, but this problem potentially infects both urban and rural communities alike and, in any case, defining settlements and lifestyles in these terms is simplistic and problematic; are not the boundaries between living in the town and in the country often blurred? Are many of us not semi-rural or semi-urban, whether 20th century model suburbanites or, car and Internet-dependant country-dwellers? Or perhaps, a new breed trying to lead more of a 'good life' that combines the best of both worlds, often now also driven by economic necessity?
A recent article in the Observer by Rob Penn (No place for old people? Actually, the country is the best for all ages, 4th March 2011) in response to a campaign to warn retirees of the pitfalls of moving to the country provides an example of the 'urban-bad: rural-good' dominant paradigm. This is not to decry the arguments in favour of country living: whats not to like about Rob's lifestyle in the idyllic Black Mountains (one of my favourite landscapes), suspicious but kind-hearted locals and all? But I do wonder about the confused message we are presented with: dreaming of a place in the country; unobtainable for most, and in reality often a stage for playing out an uneasy co-existence between London refugees and weekenders and the disaffected rump of authentic yokeldom.
In my own case I would argue that, although we live in a city, in many ways my family live a semi-rural life. Bristol has its share of the familiar roll-call of problems associated with urban life, which there is no need to list here. But it also has numerous large areas of open and accessible green space, an extensive network of cycle- and foot-paths, heavily wooded river gorges, farmers markets and city farms, as well as interesting and beautiful countryside in the surrounding area (including the full-range of National Park wow factor landscapes within easy reach). This means that I cycle to work to the sound of bird-song, observing king-fishers and herons, family time includes a large slice of walking, camping, picnicking, country pub visiting and other fresh-air activities; and our kids are regularly observing and experiencing flora and forna as a natural part of their everyday lives. And guess what? We know the names and interact with many of our neighbours and have plenty of good friends in the local area (oh, and a clear night time sky, seen from our garden, yields a decent array of stars). I'm not arguing that this is the same level of immersion in the landscape that would be experienced through living on and working a farm or small-holding; but I do think it gives the lie to the tired cliche of urban dislocation and angst. We are not overly brown-rice and sandal-wearing in our outlook and I don't think our experience, or many aspects of it, is untypical of many people who call the town or city home but easily combine this with time spent in the countryside and more local semi-rural space.
Contrast this with some of the real problems that truly rural communities face: a declining agricultural base, dependency on private road transport, limited local amenities, a feeling of dislocation from the rest of the population (particularly the urban poor and minority communities); the list goes on. All of these issues need to be addressed but many of the potential solutions should also be applied in an urban context to ensure the maximum benefit to society as a whole. For instance, local co-operative structures to run post-offices, pubs, shops, small-scale farming operations or manage wildlife habitats would be highly beneficial in a hamlet, village, town, suburb or inner-city neighbourhood.
So, surely, rather than selling a dream of aspirational rural utopia that may well not even exist and, in any case, for most people is unaffordable or impractical, why do we not focus on debate, policy and practice that encourages a more modest, but more impactful, interaction with our environment and landscape for the majority urban population as well as those living in the country? Could this not be a better route-map towards greater empathy between communities urban and rural, rich and poor and a shared commitment to ensuring that the countryside that we all value has a viable, sustainable future as a real place and not just a theme park or a bolt-hole for the upper middle-classes. Lets hear it for the semi-rural and semi-natural lifestyle may not be the most inspiring of call to arms but is a realisable future that will benefit us all.