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Who wants communities?

While the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott promotes the 'social inclusivity' of his Sustainable Communities programme, Austin Williams recommends the anonymity of busy cities. People, insists Austin, come to cities to escape the parochialism of village life. So why does the government think that the inclusivity of 'urban villages' is going to be attractive? This article is kindly reprinted as an extract from FX magazine February 1998 (p124).

'If you would be known and not know, vegetate in a village; if you would know and not be known, live in a city.'

The tacit approval that Charles Caleb Coulton offered in 1835 for anonymous urban living over the communal idiocy of village life has been unquestioned for ages.

Going to the city has always been a symbol of an individual's personal ambition, breaking with the cosy comforts of home to experience the unknown rigours of the Big City. In fact, anonymous entry into the city has always been one of its positive lures. I remember well, when I was accepted to go to college in London, it seemed as though I could do whatever I wanted and no one would know me.

These days, however, fewer young people are casting off their maternal shackles, and are instead opting for a quiet life; being a student while living at home. As far as I'm concerned there could be no greater contradiction in terms - like a mountaineer afraid of heights, maybe.

However, such an unadventurous response is not confined to teenagers. Many people today would see Caleb Coulton's advocacy of the benefits of urban life as irresponsible. Anonymity today smacks of a lack of community, a disregard for responsibility, and having something to hide. Nowadays, there is a tendency to try to bring the idea of the transparency of rural life to bear on the inconspicuousness of the city.

Ludicrously artificial histories are created to provide a sense of some halycon age to which we should aspire. More worryingly, false fears are being raised about the future, to caution us to change our ways in the here and now. Given the spectre of the collapsing city, it's hardly surprising that fewer and fewer people want to venture into it. Unless they are comforted by the hope that one day the city will be indistinguishable from the place they've left.

'The city can be a lonely place. In the midst of millions of people, you can still be alone', was my grandmother's advice before I left home. Well boohoo! Life can be a little unfriendly in a small Welsh Baptist village for a teenager wanting to know more. There is nothing intrinsically good about village life - nor city life for that matter.

The city isn't a compact, pristine place. It's vast and dangerous and exciting. It has a dynamism that is lacking in more bucolic settings. Admittedly there need to be improvements. London, for example, has crumbling infrastructure, dingy bedsits and expensive beer. But at least it's not a village stuck in the past.

Old-fashioned puritanical disquiet with the city has been replaced with a more modern version which pays lip service to the dynamic urban economy. However, the talk of 'urban villages' is consistent with the old moral rhetoric, in assuming that wholesome community life has been lost in our headlong rush into apparent urban hedonism.

We need, we are told, to become more community-minded in our urban relations. In true yokel fashion, cycling and walking are advocated as alternatives to motoring. Generosity to those facing poverty with good-humour are promoted as examples of communal fortitude (Nobody like a pushy Big Issue seller). Humility is in. Out-of-town shopping is to be frowned upon. Playing in the street is supposed to be character building. The list of cliches goes on. Throw in a bag of marbles, some sparking clogs and a tram, and my grandmother might move to the city of communities.

The promotion of urban village communities is a recreation of parochialism masquerading as radicalism. Underlying the promotion of community is the idea that we should all be aware of our civic responsibilities, and that we must all play a part in stabilising society.

Charles Caleb Coulton is dead. Anonymity is out. We know where you live. Austin Williams 25 Septeember 2003.

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