Just before Christmas – in keeping with the sentiments outlined in my ‘Bedford Falls’ blog post – I decided to go and do my shopping in our local town centre, Stockport.Admittedly it was a grey, wet morning and I knew in advance that in a recent survey of town centres it has the highest percentage of vacant shops in the UK.
Like many other northern UK towns and cities it once performed a vital function for its surrounding community and for some – the less mobile, the less well off and those employed locally – maybe it still does.But that cohort of people is clearly not enough to sustain it in good health and other social groups show no sign of returning or going to the town for the first time.
It is by and large unremarkable – scarred in places (the M60 orbital motorway cuts through it and the Sixties were unkind to it architecturally) ; but it also has a historic market and some anchor stores that are surprising for their endurance – HMV,Waterstones ,Body Shop for example.
But it was a nevertheless a bleak experience and – coming on the heels of the Portas report – the shops that seem to have close since my last visit were just the type that Mary P was advocating towns like Stockpot needed more of : the niche ski wear specialist, the musical instrument shop.
I intended alerting my readers to the fate of towns like Stockport before now, but by coincidence I was recently able through the course of my work to hear an eminent German academic speak about a new phenomenon – how the middle class are building virtual tunnels through cities and the consequence of their actions.And she did not mean narrow minded, devil may care turbo shoppers and hothouse parents – but people much you and me I suspect.
What is this tunnelling ? Well we get up and we have a route to school/nursery, then to work, then home , then to our favourite stores via the internet and from time to time at out of town centres or the larger city centres.Exhausted we make our way to our favourite restaurants and pubs where we meet and spend time with people just like us.And so it goes on.
What we don’t do is work/play/relate in our local community as such – we no longer need to for much of the time and so we don’t.Maybe at various times in our life cycle we have to – our children may go to the local primary school (though many more may may not) , parent and todddler groups are usually local and of course in old age one comes to rely on the community more than one could ever guess!
If you plot all the journeys we make (and in a negative way those we no longer take) then what we see is a large cohort of the most able/mobile/resource rich in our cities making their way down spatial tunnels across and through towns and cities.And guess what ?Not only do we abandon towns like Stockport virtually en masse, but we also become what my academic termed ‘blind’ to the spaces that surround our journeys (often poorer neighbourhoods).At its most negative we may no longer care or have any interest in what happens in them as such since they are no longer part of our lives.So we also lose touch with a traditional politics that assumes we are interested in the broader comunity we live in beyond the fulfillment of our own desires !
This is of course just a sketch and I can hear the ‘yes,buts’ lining up!
But it perhaps explains how hundreds and thousands of decisions made for very rational reasons by often very concerned and liberal individuals add up to the very social phenomena that lead to those same people all too often bemoaning the state of our towns and cites!
In line with my Jimmy Stewart riff, what I am trying to get at is that it isnt all about Tesco – it may be about as much about us!Freed from the constraints (at least for times in our lives) that previous generations faced (time/money/mobility), we begin to create a city that is segmented, if not gated in any literal sense.
In my bleaker moments I see us as the unwitting victims of forces that tap into our very hopes,desires and wishes for ourselves and our families and turn them into behaviours that we may be faintly appalled by if we sit back and reflect.
It may be that a very new and specific form of desire for individual fulfilment for us and our nearest and dearest is now so embedded into our psyche that we have to begin to imagine future states in which those behaviours are taken to their logical conclusion .Maybe we need one of our best authors or playwrights to show us that future as robustly as Orwell showed previous generations 1984.
Over Christmas I watched an old Doctor Who with the family in which the Daleks were attempting to intertwine the DNA of themselves with humans to create a new creature that would be part human/part Dalek.I now worry that we are becoming like those creatures in that the forces of commercialism and consumerism have linked themselves inextricably to perfectly reasonable desires for self self-fulfilment and created a new strand of DNA (at least for the middle classes) to the point where we no longer recall who we used to be.