Sunday, 29 June 2008

A London of villages

The past week has been spent in the New Forest. I have tramped miles of forest and heathland paths (with T in a rather impressive new backpack), cycled to the coast and wandered around small towns and villages.

Once you got outside of the real tourist traps, I was taken aback by how polite people were. Civility has become quite important to me in recent months. I am getting sick of seeing people spit in the street, toss litter in the park, or leave their pit bull lying across a shop doorway. It's the one thing that makes me regret where I live. A nod and a 'good morning' from a passerby, then, was a stark contrast to some of the interactions I have with those who share my particular patch of SE4.

Civility - treating people with respect and decency - seems to me to be an ultimate foundation of a good neighbourhood. It's a quality somewhat underplayed by many of the writers on what makes for a successful city.

Perhaps, then we need to conceive of the successful city not in terms of its totality, but more as a collection of smaller communities - akin to the small towns, villages and neighbourhoods of the non-urban and suburban bits of the UK. We are continually told that disappearing pubs, schools and post offices are ripping the heart out of such communities, and I wouldn't want to romanticise, but noticeboards on village halls and the banter in pubs where I stopped for a pint told of places where people had ample opportunity to interact with each other, and to do it at a level which is meaningful to them and their lives.

Such thoughts recurred to me as I wandered around yesterday's Blythe Hill Fields Festival. People came together in their area to do something with each other, and the effect, from what I could see, was fantastic. People were happy in each others company and were having fun. We need more opportunities to do this, and while festivals have their place, it needs to be embedded in the core of what local places have and what they are about.

When I say we need to look at making successful places to live in terms of thinking of cities as a conglomeration of villages, I'm not saying that we need to import some bucolic vision of a pastoral idyll. We don't want to make places that crush diversity or are small 'c' conservative, restricting people to their allotted role and preventing them reaching their full potential. What I mean is creating a space where people live that they know is theirs, and where they have opportunity to interact positively with those around them, and where everyone is aware of their shared interests and works together to secure them.

What attracts me to this idea is that it creates and supports communities of interest by place, and thus is supportive of diversity. Your neighbours are the people around you, no matter who they are. It is a way of breaking down barriers of race and class.

So, how to do this? Firstly, you need to make sure that people have the spaces to interact. You need to invest in high quality parks, libraries and public places - and not to see them as an add on. You need to take a robust line on school admissions so that schooling becomes social as well as educative.

Then you need to make sure that people have the motivation to interact, so it has to be in their interest to do so. The only way to achieve this is to make local communities themselves responsible for their quality of life. So, devolve as much power as possible to the lowest possible level and support people to be involved in using this power.

Finally, you need people to respect each other. Civility is vital. No man is an island, and if our interactions with our neighbours are blunt, negative and coarse, then so are our lives. If you you create spaces for people to come together and you make sure it is in their interests to work together than you promote better relations between people. If we treat each other decently then we have the essential building blocks for us to work together, and then we can make the successful villages that can make a successful city.

Civility, though, is the one thing that government cannot legislate for. So the onus is on us to treat each other better.

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