i am an urban being by choice. i have never entertained the idea of moving to the countryside: aimless wondering in the forest bores me, fresh air does not thrill me, and i have only recently started to appreciate getting my hands dirty in the soil. i enjoy sporadic moments at the cottage if there is enough nourishment for the body and soul, that is, books and magazines and great food. the suburbs are as close to my ultimate nightmare as may be as living in an environment where i'd have to depend on a vehicle of some sort to get around strikes me as unfathomable: i want to be able to walk everywhere i need on a daily basis. moreover, i do not want a house nor do i need a lot of space around me.
there is an increasing amount of people like me, and obviously, we're found in the centers of the larger cities. many of us are single, but many are not. we (plan to) raise our (possible) (future) children in these centers and not because we have to, but because we choose to. many of us have never owned cars nor wish to, or could possibly share one with another like-minded family or person. we socialize daily over coffee and wine knowing that the price we pay per cup/glass is ridiculous considering the production cost, but we're willing to pitch in that extra euro/buck/quid for the atmosphere, service, freshly ground coffee beans, etc. additionally, we eat out a lot, appreciate and demand quality food and service even with the realization that we could probably cook the same dishes better in the comfort of our own homes. we take our kids to restaurants, galleries and shopping in small specialty stores as comfortably as we arrange playdates and park visits. we do not consider our consuming habits elitist, but rather normal because they result from giving up some of the perks suburban dwellers have, such as being close to nature, silence or having bigger houses.
herein resides the greatest defining factor when it comes to urbanites: while we appreciate the tranquility of our homes, the city is an extended home where we're not visitors but integral parts. no matter how great an apartment we may live in, it really does not matter without the exterior, buzzing world being right there at our doorstep. we take great pride in the blocks we live in, not because of property value (or lack thereof), but because as extensions of our homes they reflect who we are and, moreover, enable us to be who we want to be. we also worry about our surroundings and the changes that take place; we sometimes get anxious about the possibility of gentrification or falling off the income bracket which enables the choice to live where we want to. as unrealistic as we all understand it to be (because we obviously have all sorts of different occupations), a recurring topic of conversation are plans/dreams/hopes to start a small business of one's own to liven up the neighborhood just because something essential is still missing -- i don't think i've ever touched upon the subject with my suburban friends.
my own neighborhood is still one of the liveliest in helsinki: there are bars, restaurants, clothing stores, services, and all businesses are on the small side which alone supports variability and vibrancy -- around the corner, there is a small store selling just vacuum cleaner bags, i kid you not. nevertheless, the neighborhood is a far cry from a couple of decades ago, when almost every street was lined with small businesses from bakeries to butcher shops.
every day there are people walking the streets, popping in and out of galleries and stores, sipping coffee from a local deli, working on their laptops at small restaurants and bumping accidentally into friends and strolling off to some bar for a glass and some good old chit chat. for me, all of this is essential. the survival or, more optimistically, the progress of my neighborhood depends on the appreciation of urbanites and our choice of lifestyle. it isn't uncommon to hear that the way we live is unrealistic and a sign of extended adolescence; our reluctance to settle down (meaning, to move somewhere where the exciting temptations of nightlife are less predominant) is often considered immature. the most significant point of differentiation comes with children: sometimes we're harassed because we're unwilling to provide our children safety and ample room to play in. for many people, we're anomalous and symptomatic of a cultural change that overly appreciates youth and lack of responsibilities.
these basic premises, however, are wrong: an urban lifestyle does not imply resistance to accept life's realities. the preference may be novel in finland, but could be due to the lack of truly urban environment; preferring the city throughout one's lifespan is not unusual globally. the widespread acceptance of the premises is thoroughly damaging, though, because urban development is, undoubtedly, based on the flow of capital. therefore, pedestrian streets, bike pathways and encouragement of small businesses owe allegiance to cars and parking space, because the assumption is that the consuming population resides somewhere outside the borders of the city. while there's plenty of talk about decreasing traffic in the center for various reasons -- safety, pollution, etc. -- the person these changes are meant to please does not live here, but needs to be lured in from somewhere else.
but we are here, we're not students anymore, and we make a good living. our consumption is predominantly immaterial, and we spend so much time in the public space that we do make an economical (and ecological) difference. we should be taken seriously, not only as consumers (which seems like the biggest selling point politically these days) but as part of the adult population who make informed and mature choices. as long as we're considered as people who either need to "grow out of it" or stop living in denial (everyone wants a big house if they only had the means for it, right?), our living environment will not be addressed in our own terms. we deserve to take back the streets we want to consider home.
as an endnote, i want to stress that i am aware of the fact that i represent a rather well-off group of people and, moreover, that the ability to make the choices we make is based on relative wealth, health and education level/career success. lifestyle choices are meaningful only if one is able to choose -- which already implies being luckier than most people in this world.
the justification for writing and ranting about this is that regardless of being lucky our choices do not come without sacrifice, just like everybody else's, and feeling an absence of control over our surroundings can be quite frustrating. especially, if the basis for the lack of control seems unwarranted.
inspired by this rant of mine, i will start listing things which make my neighborhood great.