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9 April 2020

The coronavirus lockdown has shown it’s urbanites who truly live outdoors

City-dwellers opt for smaller homes on the assumption that most of the things they want out of life take place outside it.

By Jonn Elledge

There are many things I regret not doing in the world before coronavirus. Friends and family members I should have spent time with while I could. Shops and restaurants I meant to visit that have now closed, some of which never to reopen. In January, I fully intended to take a holiday before the winter was out. Even after years of Brexit, it honestly never occured to me that this would shortly cease to be an option because borders would be closed indefinitely.

But perhaps my biggest regret about the time BC is that I opted for a flat with no outdoor space whatsoever. At the time I thought I was being clever, trading a balcony I was never realistically going to use for indoor space that I would. Three weeks into lockdown, with the sun often mocking us with better April weather than London gets some entire summers, this is beginning to feel like an error. 

There’s a widespread cultural assumption that the great outdoors is a place where rural people go. In colloquial American usage, “outdoors-y” implies the sort of rugged, nature-loving types who enjoy hiking, climbing and other uncomfortable activities, and probably think camping is fun, instead of a betrayal of everything our ancestors fought to create over millennia of human civilisation. The corollary of all this is that those of us who proudly and deliberately chose to spend our lives in cities are the opposite. Terms like “metropolitan liberal” or “metrosexual” suggest someone a bit wet or fey, the sort of person who’s not in touch with the real world and is probably frightened of cows. (Honestly, they can kill you.) 

Such stereotypes have always been oversimplifications, and are also weirdly gendered. But the past month has highlighted another way in which they’re nonsense: it’s actually the urban residents who live their lives outside, for the obvious reason that their homes are so small they don’t have a choice. If you live in a major city, you are less likely to have a garden, or a spare room, or even – in the age of landlords taking the piss because, hey, who’s going to stop them? – a living room. Finding space to work that isn’t also the space you sleep in means going to a café; space to socialise means going to the pub. If you want to chill out and enjoy the sunshine, you go to a park. What else can you do?

This is, for many people, a choice. As insanely over-heated as the property market in many cities is, most of those that aren’t Hong Kong do present the option of living further out and paying the same for more space. Many urbanites have decided that the amenities offered by a city – the bars and restaurants and museums and galleries, and all the other things that make a city more than just a collection of people living slightly too close to one another – are something they value more than the extra space they could have if they moved to the suburbs. For many of us, living in a city means opting for a smaller home on the assumption that most of the things we want out of life take place outside it.

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Having grown up in suburbia but opted to move to central-ish London as soon as I could, this trade-off always seemed like a good one to me – right up until the point three weeks ago when the government announced that all bars, restaurants, galleries and so on were to close, and the entire country was in lockdown for the foreseeable future. At which point I was suddenly just living in a small, expensive space very close to other people, with all the advantages to doing so taken away from me, and without even a balcony to hang out on.

There are millions a lot worse off than me, their lives narrowed to small bedrooms in shared flats. In cities like New York, where space is at a premium, a growing number of homes no longer offer kitchens. Meanwhile “co-living” spaces offer what are essentially student halls of residence for grown-ups, with all but the most basic of amenities shared with your neighbours. Such schemes once made sense to the property developers hoping to squeeze ever more people into ever smaller spaces, and to those who rented them, who told themselves they were hardly ever home anyway. Whether they still feel that way in the age of coronavirus is an open question. Some homes are simply not big enough to live an entire life inside. 

This, one imagines, is one reason why many people could still be seen enjoying the sunshine in the parks and open spaces of Britain’s cities this week. It isn’t simply selfishness, it’s that not everyone has the sort of home it’s psychologically possible to remain inside for an indefinite period.

The hour a day I am dedicating to long bike rides around the now empty streets of east London has assumed a critical importance to my emotional well-being. As someone who has visibly never valued exercise, I now find myself genuinely terrified that this, too, will be taken away from me by another, tighter lockdown. Perhaps that will be necessary. But please don’t smugly tweet from your home offices or garden chairs, expecting us to find it easy.

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