It's Christmas Day and it seems that we two are the only ones left in City Heights. The block is deserted - as are the blocks in the adjoining streets. City-centre living around here is a relatively new phenomenon and most residents are transient - either foreign academics or young, single people. My theory is that they have all gone "home". My other theory is that it won't always be this way.
Our situation highlights the question of what to make of Christmastime if you are not amenable to the ‘traditional’ forms of celebration. Purists bemoan the fact that it has become too secular, too commercialised and excessive in its manifestations but the fact of its continuing popularity, even in our increasingly diverse society, is testament to its multi-faceted appeal. Christmas is becoming more inclusive. Prior to extensive post-war immigration, non-Christians in Britain might have felt inclined to keep a low profile on the grounds that it had nothing to do with them. But the loosening of religion's monopoly on the event has enabled the pagan aspects to flourish and for it to become more of a general holiday in celebration of mid-winter and the roll-over to the new year. Some, at least, of the festive activities can be enjoyed by those of any faith or none at all.
This is clearly reflected in the variety of greeting-card designs, which can be found to suit every sensibility: nativity scenes for the traditionally religious; Santa on a sleigh for those who prefer gifts and jolliness; snowy winter scenes for those whose focus is on the seasonal aesthetic; or non-specific, stylish graphics for those who do not acknowledge any of this stuff. Of course, any greeting card is welcome in one's letterbox, no matter what the style, but there is a type that will soon become quaintly, impossibly outdated: that most traditional of English scenes, the picture of a secluded, snow-covered country cottage with Santa, reindeer and sleigh perched magically on the roof. The carbon footprint of such a rural idyll is too heavy for it to be sustainable.
Most of the world's population now lives in cities and the trend is for that to increase. In less developed economies, moving to a city is the only hope that billions of people have of escaping rural poverty - cities are places where they can find opportunities for employment. In developed countries such as the U.K. the problem is not so acute, although it does exist. The case for city living here is predicated more on the efficient use of resources such as land, less reliance on carbon-producing cars and the fact that successful cities are crucial to the economic well-being of the whole population.
In order to be successful they need copious, affordable housing, efficient services and infrastructure, plentiful, diverse employment opportunities and pleasant, walkable streets by which to get to work. Examples include Vancouver and Singapore, neither of which has been hampered by historical precedent. In the 'old world' New York and London are economically successful but have continuing struggles with housing supply, the maintenance of old infrastructure and the balancing of historical conservation with new development.
There are many cities in decline because the industries they were built upon became extinct. The key to their rejuvenation is new industries - not the big factories of yesteryear, but a multiplicity of enterprises fostered by the energy of a thriving population. And how do we get a thriving population? Provide plentiful housing and a high-quality education system within a relatively small geographic area, light the touch-paper, stand back and watch it take off.
Next Christmas send me not your images of logs burning ineffectually in the hearths of draughty old houses. A high-rise condo topped with tinsel will do it for me.