|My local beach in Santa Monica, CA, crowded even back in 1910
By Not given [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The last place I lived in England before moving back to Los Angeles was a rural Cotswold village. Like many before me, I had retreated there from London to, well, retreat. I wanted to escape the crowds, a particularly noisy neighbor, and the general hassle of navigating big city life in an inclement climate. I moved to the Cotswolds to be left alone.
Of course as anyone who has ever lived in a village will tell you, a village is the worst place to move if you want to be left alone. I learned this early on when I made the mistake of assuming I could slip out undetected to the local shop early in the morning with unbrushed teeth and barely decent clothing. Our village shop was only about a block away from our cottage, just off the market square, so it seemed plausible I could make the trip incognito. I quickly learned I was wrong. You always see someone you know in the market square. But it didn’t take long for this experience to transform from a nuisance into one of my favorite rituals of the day. This, I realized,
was what being part of a community felt like.
I make my living in digital mapping where I hear stats every day about the urbanization of our world. As of 2010, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas. From Lagos to Los Angeles, mega cities are on the rise, with Shanghai leading the pack at a population of nearly 24 million. Much of our organizational brain space is committed to figuring out how to serve this demographic reality. What are the application mapping experiences these urbanites will need to navigate their uber-urban lives? But the longer I’ve been back in Los Angeles, the more convinced I am that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Having had the experience of village versus city in close succession, I’m fairly certain that cities just don’t work.
Despite the fact that my husband and I returned to Los Angeles with an inbuilt community of friends from the thirteen years we had previously lived there, our social life is a mere shadow of what we had in the Cotswolds. There evenings revolved around the local wine bar, located—you guessed it—right on the market square. On any given night of the week you could wander in, equally comfortably accompanied or alone, and be guaranteed a natter. We would see most of our circle of friends and a large circle of acquaintances, whether planned or not, once or twice a week. In Los Angeles, we see friends about once a quarter and usually only with considerable effort to arrange dates and times and sitters and reservations that suit all needs.
I suspect the feeling that everything is an awful lot more effort here stems from two things. First, people are more insular in L.A. Despite the relentless good weather, it can be hard and expensive to live here if, for instance, your commute and your school district are bad. Such factors conspire to make it particularly challenging for people to care much about what’s happening beyond their picket fence (in the unlikely event you can afford to live somewhere in LA with a picket fence). Second, the infrastructure just isn’t set up to make it easy for people to meet. In the 4,752 square mile expanse that comprises L.A. County, the old joke goes that you never go east or west of your side of the 405. It turns out there’s a good reason for this, as I learned on a recent Friday evening when I attempted to traverse 6.2 miles of L.A. road to see two of my oldest friends sing at a charity event in Hollywood. The journey took me an hour and 40 minutes. If it hadn’t been for a good cause, I would have been hard pressed to go.
The challenges don’t end with friends. Making good neighbors is harder in cities, too, thanks to the density of housing. The simple fact of proximity means you’re more likely to get on your neighbor’s nerves, and vice versa. And, of course, nobody talks to strangers. To interrupt the nose-in-phone reverie of a fellow diner at a café or restaurant for an impromptu chat is a sure way to be mistaken for a nut. Turns out the lack of a strong cellular signal in our Cotswold town had its advantages. People talked to each other.
Perhaps the grandest irony of all is the reason people often end up in cities: to find work. In a death spiral of chicken and egg logic, companies set up in cities to have access to talent, causing more people to move to cities, which in turn make those cities so unworkable that talent no longer wants to live there. My husband and I are not immune to this conundrum, and as we begin to plot our exit from the city for our middle-aged years, what we will do for income remains the question at the top of the list. Where we will move does not. Our Cotswold village beckons.