It’s well known that big cities have lots of problems. They tend to be overcrowded, dirty, noisy, and just basically nasty to live in.

The problems seem intractable. People are generally stubborn about urban living; they absolutely insist on living somewhere there is employment, entertainment, opportunities and other people to chum with. Go figure. 

These are not just minor inconveniences, either. There are a number of studies on the effects of urban living on humans, and most of them are not good. Stress, pollution, loneliness all have serious consequences for our mental health. We need to work out how to mitigate these issues. That is, before the rest of the planet moves into suburbia.

Part of the problem is that cities — especially North American cities — are concrete monstrosities. We’ve built out instead of up, and in most cases, given over far too much space to parking lots instead of parks. We don’t spend much time outside because outside is unpleasant and it takes too long to walk or bike anywhere.

As we rebuild older structures, we need to contract inward, replacing strip malls with smaller footprint buildings, making 3-6 floor apartment buildings instead of either looming towers or dismal fourplexes. And we need much, much, more green space. Electrifying our transit systems and working toward better public transit should help address that. In my book Echoes of Another, I posit a fleet of public, shared electric cars for the ‘last mile’ of public transit, but we also need electric buses and either electric or hydrogen trains.

We’ve also built anonymous, unfriendly places. The fix here might lie in changing our perceptions. For example, instead of looking at cities a single, sprawling complex, maybe should start thinking of it in terms of a bunch of small towns stuck together.

I say this because of an incident that happened in my town over one summer many years ago. It was hot of course, the nights were long, and the local teenagers were bored. The local park was quite vacant between midnight and 6 a.m., and so it was a perfect target for vandalism. Between burnt picnic tables, graffiti, and broken bottles in the swimming pool, the costs were adding up. Officials had tried staking out the park and calling the police, but the kids knew exactly when to scatter. For a while, it looked like the only solution was to shut down the park for good.

Then someone had the novel idea of approaching the teens to talk to them. The connection between the stuff they buy, taxes, and municipal budgets was explained. They were encouraged to think of how much more boredom they’d suffer from without the recreation facilities. Indeed, they were asked to think.

It worked. The older kids didn’t like the idea of a shutdown, so they agreed to try to prevent vandalism. The eldest one even began asking questions about municipal government, and the election process. 

From gang leader to town father? It could happen.

Obviously, it’s not as simple as all that. The “rational discussions” were helped a great deal by the fact that every one knew who the trouble makers were, and more importantly, where their parents lived. Not every kid is approachable either, and there are still incidents of vandalism — but not nearly as many as before.

The point is though, while you may not know who the problem people are fifteen blocks away — you likely have a good idea who they are in your own neighbourhood. Or to put it another way, your small town.

You see, small towns work because everyone knows everyone else. While 75% of the population might not give a darn about the welfare of the community, the top 25% do, and the size of the town is just enough for them to handle.

Cities meanwhile, suffer from anonymity. It’s not unusual for people to spend years in one place and not know a single neighbour. Nobody cares.

Certainly, we don’t want to develop some sort of Big Brother society, but there has got to be a compromise. Maybe there’s a good reason why you don’t want to associate with some of your neighbours; but even if just a few of you on each street get together to form those committees, the urban renewal groups, and the Optimist Clubs — that’s better than watching your community dissolve around you. 

Small town people sometimes complain that everyone knows their business, and that the rumours travel faster than they can in the car. However, small town people almost always say that their communities are the best places to live. Now you know why.

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