Gaby Hinsliff* – The Guardian
What if sticking more closely to home than usual is not a bug but a deliberate feature of life in Britain after coronavirus?
We swam with seals in a cold, green sea, hiked to waterfalls in the drizzle and ate hot chips on a harbour wall in the setting sun.
The weather may not have been exactly tropical, but after months of being cooped up in lockdown, even a week in Northumberland felt wildly exotic, which in the circumstances is probably just as well. A summer of camping, cagoules and beach picnics eaten stoically behind a windbreak beckons for many, now that ministers are finally spelling out that any foreign travel in a pandemic is a gamble. And while my heart goes out to anyone whose Spanish holiday just went up in smoke or whose job in tourism now hangs in the balance, if nothing else, a stay-at-home summer is a chance to appreciate the beauty of what was always on our doorstep. The pandemic is shrinking horizons even faster and more bewilderingly than globalisation once expanded them. The question is whether that will have consequences well beyond the holidays.
Could living, socialising and generally sticking rather closer to home than we have been used to become not a bug but a deliberate feature of a post-pandemic world? This idea lies at the heart of the 15-minute city movement, which argues for cutting out unnecessary car journeys and tackling climate change by ensuring city dwellers can work, shop, get the kids to school, hang out in the park and generally manage their everyday lives all within 15 minutes’ walk or cycle from their front doors. Melbourne has been experimenting with something similar for years now, while in Paris the pursuit of la ville du quart d’heure was a feature of mayor Anne Hidalgo’s re-election campaign last month. Variations of the same idea have emerged in cities from Ottawa to Detroit.
But it’s the hunkered-down mood brought on by living with coronavirus that has really sparked interest in the idea of cities as a string of self-sufficient neighbourhoods, each with its own thriving high streets, affordable housing, jobs, green spaces and even communal vegetable gardens. The idea resonates with commuters, who have learned to love working from home during the pandemic, but also with people who liked getting to know their neighbours better in lockdown or who feel a new rush of loyalty towards local shops that sustained them through the worst. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has already signed up to a post-Covid-19 recovery strategy devised by the C40 group of city mayors worldwide, which includes 15-minute cities among its ideas. Even Boris Johnson’s new anti-obesity drive, with its emphasis on walking and cycling more, nods in the same direction, albeit for different reasons.
It’s not about confining people to cramped, parochial lives – city dwellers will always be drawn to wherever the action is – and nor is it as twee as it may sound. If you live in villagey Dulwich or Didsbury, then you already have the artisan deli, the leafy park and the cafes full of freelancers hunched over laptops, which means a true 15-minute strategy would focus more on regenerating the grittier neighbourhoods lacking so much as a decent supermarket. Levelling up, you might call it. Yet instead the prime minister pleads with commuters to pick up the threads of their old lives, traipsing back to their city centre offices to help save jobs in Upper Crust or Pret a Manger.
To be fair, the government has good reason to fear the economic consequences of an exodus from city centres. The middle-class fantasy of never having to go back to the office too often ignores the consequences for lower paid workers whose jobs relied on servicing these now unwanted commuter lifestyles. It’s not just coffee and sandwich shops: quit an office-based job, and you save on everything from suits to train tickets, childcare to drinks out after work. Multiply those individual cutbacks thousands of time over and there must be consequences, not just for jobs but for public services. (How long would some bus and train routes around the country stay viable, stripped of rush-hour passengers?) But for as long as fear of infection lingers, Downing Street is fighting an uphill battle. It should be thinking instead about harnessing the new localism for the good of the planet, while helping businesses follow the money back out to the suburbs and market towns.
For after months with nothing to spend it on, many higher earners have cash burning a hole in their pockets. The difference is, they’ll be drawn to spending it on services that go with the grain of their changed lives: hub workspaces, where lonely home workers can rent a desk alongside others, or cosy neighbourhood joints that make them feel comfortable about going out to eat again. They say all politics is local. Doing business in a post-Covid-19 world may depend on understanding how much of life now is, too.
*Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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