We’re nearly a year into a global pandemic. It was just before Christmas in 2019 that news reports were suggesting that a mysterious new virus was starting to spread around China.
By March 2020 we were in lockdown. Suddenly we came to realise just how temporary the status quo would be.
A couple of years ago we kinda went off on one, lamenting the cultural deserts and battery-homes that our car-centric societies have built.
In 2020 we came to realise that when you can’t travel, you start to rely on your local communities far more. This is great if you have one, but many of us outside the older villages simply do not.
In its desire for “more”, Cardiff is still planning for a car-centric city. Sprawling housing estates devoid of a cultural centre or focal point and strip malls with the same chain stores you’ll find in any other city in the UK.
Since the post-war boom we’ve been building suburban housing with little to bind them together. No main street; no third place; nowhere to be when you are neither at home or at work. There is little space to be free, but what little there is is just somewhere they haven’t built on yet.
This is why people have been driving in numbers to the nearest large hill, usually in one of the national parks to spend their day walking up it. It costs little and it’ll take up a few hours at a time when many of the “other” places have been forced to close.
The gyms have been shut, the cinemas, pubs and restaurants have been shut, many will not reopen. What will we do then? What can we learn from this?
I consider myself fortunate to live somewhere older…somewhere with a village. It has a Co-op for the groceries, a Post Office, a church, a doctor’s surgery and a pharmacy, plus half a dozen hairdressers and barber shops. Seriously, we have the best kept hair in South Wales around here.
Cardiff has a number of villages that will have become the focal points of lockdown life. Whitchurch, Tongwynlais, Llandaff North, Rhiwbina, Llanishen and Birchgrove are fairly traditional villages centred around a single main street.
They are the places we go when it snows, the places we go when travelling out of our local area is discouraged. However, I would argue that they are the places where we should be going during the good times as well.
By staying near home there are a number of benefits, both practical and social. For a start we get to know our neighbours, even if it is just for idle chat about the weather. You may well see the same faces at the local shop a number of times during the week. However, familiar faces open the door for the sorts of social interaction many of us have been starved of during lockdown.
Secondly, we remove the need to travel. Travel is both expensive for us and our planet, whether we are talking about the debt many people take on to keep a car on the road, or the pollution that is inevitably created as we climb aboard largely oil-powered public transit, or a car.
Placing the jobs, amenities and community resources in our villages may fall under the banner of “new urbanism”, but this appears to be an Americanism. As you may well know, the USA is further down the road of building soulless cultural deserts than we are. It has been building giant, identikit housing estates with no amenities since the end of World War 2, before discovering that they were horrible places to live around the 1980s or so.
Whilst I don’t want to re-tread old ground already covered in the linked article up top, I’d like to reflect on the villages we have now and how important they have been during this pandemic. In truth, we’ve had these villages under our noses for longer than most of us have been alive. Our friends at Tongwynlais.com have a great collection of old photos from Tongwynlais on their history page. There’s also a Whitchurch and Llandaff page with some great slideshows of images. There’s also Radyr, Grangetown, Roath and no doubt others too.
We have been using cars as a crutch to excuse questionable planning. We don’t have to provide amenities or third places because we’ll just expect everyone to travel (Read: Drive) if they need anything outside their home. These villages were conceived at a time in history when this wasn’t an option and they are all the better for it.
Whether it is nostalgia doing the talking or just a longing for something else, thriving villages may just be what we need to build stronger communities as we head into 2021 and beyond. When everything is on our doorsteps, there’s little need to go anywhere else.
Question for you…
Do you have a village near you? Are there any vacant shops there? What could your village do with, if you have one?