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Life in the city vs life in the country


The case for living in the country

Big city glamor? Balderdash. Try big city cost. If you want to live like a king (or at least be your own landlord), move to the country.

1. It's cheap. You have to actively try to spend more than $20 on a meal, even a good one. A movie still costs single digits. No one has a clue or cares what brand of clothing you're wearing, let alone whether your shoes, purse or belt are this year's season or last. And did I mention housing? You can live in a real house with multiple bedrooms, multiple bathrooms and a garage. Maybe even a pool. And you can own it for under $200,000. Yup, you read that right. I didn't leave off any zeros.

NYC subway ad

2. There's space – for you, for your dog, for your kids, between you and your annoying neighbors. An ad on the NY subway sums up: "Raising a baby in an NYC apartment is like growing an oak tree in a thimble." In the city, you live on top of each other. Your kids and your dog barely know what grass is. In the country, you have something called a yard. You run around, kick a football and chase fireflies. You go sledding and build snowmen on fresh snow that hasn't been trodden by hundreds of others. You can actually identify constellations because you see lots of them each night. You are fascinated by a lot more interesting animals than squirrels, and your dog acts like a dog, you don't have to carry around bags for its poop.

3. There are no billionaires. And frankly, few millionaires. To put it another way, there's a lot less income inequality. Since the cost of living is much lower, even those on the median family income (about $50,000 in the US) can have a decent life. You don't feel poor as you do in big cities where even those earning six-figures still believe they're "just getting by". In the country, you aren't constantly aware of your socioeconomic status. You worry a lot more about the weather.

4. You aren't reliant on public transit. You don't have to push your way onto an overcrowded subway car only to find yourself squashed next to someone who smells or elbows you. You aren't late because there's been a delay and some robot-like voice has to tell you about it over and over on the speaker. You can drive yourself where you want, when you want. Even if there's traffic (and there isn't much outside of cities), you can usually find another way to go. You are in control, and there's plenty of (free) parking.

5. You don't get suspicious when people are nice to you. People say hello and "how are you" and generally mean it. You go to the grocery store and have a decent chance of seeing at least someone you know. Your doctor actually calls you back the same day you call with a concern. People don't size you up constantly based upon your job, social status or income. Volunteer work isn't something you do for your resume. You feel a part of a genuine community, not just one peon out of millions.

The case for living in the city

The countryside? It must be nice if you're retired … or dead. If you want to have a semblance of a social life and like to do wild things like, oh, going to the cinema on a Monday night, the city is for you.

1. Walking. It's a thing. Forget about having to spend a quarter of your paycheck on a car. Forget about feeding your second-hand beater gallons of earth-destroying gas on a weekly basis. And (unless you live in LA) forget about spending two hours a day stuck in traffic. Living in the city means that walking is often an option. And if it's not, commuting by public transport makes you feel like you're part of the world: you and others are on the same boat, so to speak, taking time to pause and read, or listen to music, before reaching work or going home. And, from London to Paris, Amsterdam to Vancouver, chances are you will be also be lucky enough to be able to bike everywhere – making you both fitter and happier.

2. You will never be the underdog. As Daria would tell you, it sucks to be the odd one out. If you're a goth, head to London's Camden Town, which will love to have you. You like playing in all-female netball teams? You'll find a club. Love mushroom-hunting? Start your own group. In Sydney, where I live, my local park alone is the home to joggers, skateboarders, tai chi lovers and tight-rope walkers. There's something for everyone. And kiss bigotry goodbye, too: if you're gay, you will easily find both a welcoming environment. And better dating prospects.

3. The entire world is (almost) on your doorstep. I don't know about you, but it would be a shame to die on the way to the hospital – or give birth on the side of a road. Which probably won't happen in the city. You can order anything from online stores and – miracle! – receive it the next day. Museums, galleries, libraries are easily accessible, a lot of them free. And food: enough said. Who likes to have the choice only between a grim pub serving dismal burgers or fish-and-chips and the local Subway branch at the back of a derelict mall? Not me.

4. It teaches you tolerance. The world is a diverse place – and in the city, you learn that fast. There's a reason New Yorkers are considered to be the most thick-skinned people on earth: nothing fazes them, because no one has time to be fazed and they've seen it all anyway. Someone is rude to on the subway? Move along. Someone cuts you while queuing in the supermarket? Get ahead and get even. But cities also teach patience and empathy because, after all, you're all in this together. Compromise is in the very fabric of city living. Neighbours complaining about your Saturday party? You have to reach an agreement. People who don't act, think, or speak like you do? Kids who annoy you by listening to rap music in the bus? They share your space, too. And you, theirs. It's an imperfect and fragile microcosm, which, no matter its many drawbacks, seems to work. Almost like magic.

5. The countryside is not like living in Gilmore Girls. If you think the countryside is like living on the idyllic Gilmore Girls' set, you're mistaken. Nor are you likely to live the Good Life, a la Helen and Scott Nearing, who fed themselves thanks to their homestead until they both died. True country-living means backbreaking work, including thankless chores performed before dawn. Here in Sydney, I pop to the corner shop to get eggs at midnight if I want. And if you're not a true back-to-the-lander living on a 120-acre farm in the middle of nowhere, you then have to live in a community where everything you do will be scrutinised. Privacy will be hard to maintain. No such thing will happen in the city, where people couldn't care less whether you like to walk around with your pet snake, like to wear mini-skirts in sub-freezing weather, or sing Bryan Adams' Everything I Do I Do It For You out loud while on your way to buy a baguette. Short of becoming a hermit, if you're a private individual or an introvert, city life is for you.



Country life is richer than city living, whatever your age

A new campaign warns older people against the 'dangers' of retiring to the countryside. But for Rob Penn, who moved from London to the Black Mountains, rural sights, sounds and, above all, communities beat the city any day

Rob Penn in the hills of south Wales

Rob Penn in the hills of south Wales. Photograph: Stephen Shepherd for the Observer

Rob Penn

I stood in a field this week, listening to the first sounds of spring. The birds sang ardently, mocking the winter. Lambs were bleating in the sunshine. The earth was stirring with a tissue of inaudible sounds, the whispers of leaves uncurling and vegetation growing.

To observe the seasonal rhythm so closely is deeply comforting. It's also one of the pleasures of living in rural Britain. This winter has been mild, but the earliest hint of spring, and the resurrection of the land it promises, is a key moment in the year. It is a time when our hearts fill with hope, a time when our faith in the British countryside is renewed once again.

I was surprised then to read about the launch, last Wednesday, of Over the Hill?, a national campaign to warn retirees against moving from the city to the country. Mavis Cheek, prolific author and countryside dweller, is the mouthpiece of this campaign against chasing Arcadia. She described rural life as "tough, a little bit dangerous and not for wimps". Apparently she'll be returning to live in the city before she becomes too "feeble". Too feeble for what? Riding a bull or pressing flowers?

The campaign attempts to dispel myths about the countryside that few people who live there would recognise. The idyll containing the village green, hollyhocks and roses spilling out of a cottage garden, dancing around the maypole and a time-ripened landlord pulling pints of foaming ale ceased being a common reality long ago.

It probably was all pastoral bliss once. In her seminal book about the British landscape, A Land, published in 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes wrote: "Recalling in tranquillity the slow possession of Britain by its people, I cannot resist the conclusion that the relationship reached its greatest intimacy, its most sensitive pitch, about two hundred years ago." Since then the Industrial Revolution, the modern agricultural revolution and the automobile have eaten up much of Eden. Today, large tracts of the "countryside" are covered in factories, motorways, retail parks and light industrial sites. Still, I wouldn't live anywhere else.

I moved to a small farmhouse in the Black Mountains, south Wales, eight years ago. It wasn't a seamless integration. The fact that I ride a bicycle every day aroused suspicion. In the countryside you only use a bike if, well, something is wrong. The local hill farmers watched me pedal in and out of Abergavenny every day, and wondered.

Five months after moving in, I was in the pub high up on a hillside, not far from home, on a Friday night. An old boy I knew only by the name of his farm cupped my elbow and led me gently to a corner of the bar. He fixed me with a stern gaze and tapped the end of his nose with a crooked finger: "I see you on the bike, boy," he said. "How long you lost your licence for then?"

Before the move, I lived in London for a decade. There are many things I still miss about metropolitan life. If I ever had to follow Mavis Cheek back to the city, though, I'd miss the countryside more: significantly, there are things I couldn't now live without – carrying logs into the house; the sound of wind in the woods; the continuous, incremental change in the landscape; buying meat from a local smallholder; the ampleness of time; the antique peace; the sweet-drugging scent of high summer; walking the dogs down the track at night, listening to tawny owls; the moonlight's silver illuminating the stream beneath the house; the community.

In the city, you choose your community. It may be through work, your football team, a book club, the allotment group, your kids' school or your peers. It's unlikely, however, to include your neighbours. You may weave in and out of three or four different communities in the course of a weekend, and still not know the name of a single person who lives on your street. In the countryside, your neighbours are your only community.

I'm lucky. I live in a place with a strong sense of community. My local pub is an active part of that. There are celebrations on key days in the calendar; children and dogs are welcome; the landlord accepts home deliveries on our behalf when we're out, and the beer is well kept and cheap. We have two village halls. Between them, there are activities or meetings every night of the week – singing workshops, the garden club, line dancing, keep-fit classes and the WI – as well as monthly films ("flicks in the sticks"), occasional quiz nights and the odd touring play. Every two years, Cwmyoy Hall stages a pantomime. It's always a sellout. You can be a cultural snob and cock a snook at all this – and urban people often do – but the point is that no one need feel excluded. To misquote Adlai Stevenson, "people get the type of community they deserve" – it's why I'm on the community council. The Over the Hill? campaign warns against old people becoming isolated in the countryside: you'd have to consciously choose to be, round here.

My friend Jim Keates runs Cwmyoy Hall as a volunteer. He moved to the country 12 years ago, aged 61, "knowing virtually no one," he said. "Now I know everyone. It's a much more social place. People are far more prepared to share their lives, with honesty."

This winter, I've spent a lot of time on my own in a wood near home, filming the video diary for a BBC4 series about British woodlands. When my father died recently, these sessions working alone in the wood were an anchor of my stability. The emotional buoyancy of a few solitary hours is something most people in the countryside would see as the norm. In the city, it's a luxury.

The wood is on a steep bank of old red sandstone above the River Honddu at the entrance to the Vale of Ewyas. It is likely that trees – mainly ash, oak, alder, hazel, birch and hawthorn – have stood continuously here for some 8,000 years, managed throughout by man. It struck me recently that my experience working this wood, albeit with different tools, is similar to that of the Neolithic man who first sharpened a heavy flint axe and tentatively set about felling a tree 5,000 years or 200 generations ago.

I find this connection to the human matrix profoundly moving: it's something city life cannot provide. Standing beneath the dome of St Paul's Cathedral or in front of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery might be great experiences, but they don't match standing still in an ancient wood.

Of course, retirees are unlikely to be managing woods, but the point is that you have to put your hands to work to get an inkling of the "intimacy" with the countryside that Hawkes wrote of. It is still there.

To extract meaning and significance from the countryside, you have to dig the earth, grow vegetables and flowers, plant trees, pick sloes and blackberries, fashion a walking stick, cut the grass and make jam. There's a task for every age. "First the tool, then the book," the writer and ecologist John Stewart Collis wrote. Perhaps Mavis Cheek is heading back to the city because she got this the wrong way round.