Sorry hayseeds, my big city beats your green pasture

The idea that country folk live a better, happier existence than we benighted slaves to the metropolis is a persistent myth of modern life.

Marcus Gee
Globe and Mail
October 16, 2009

Ah, for the country life.

When a new study this week said that people in small towns were happier with their quality of life than city dwellers, the big-city guy sipping his cappuccino at Bar Italia would not even have raised a sleek eyebrow. He would have thought, “But of course.”

Urban Canadians have a highly romanticized view of life in the country. Caught up in the hurly-burly of city life, they paint themselves a gauzy picture of little towns full of apple-cheeked children, smiling neighbours and lush fields. While cities are big, dirty, cold and dangerous, small towns are cozy, clean, friendly and safe.

As our rural brethren might put it, horse hockey. The idea that country folk live a better, happier existence than we benighted slaves to the metropolis is one of the most persistent myths of modern life.

The Toronto urban thinker Lawrence Solomon blames Thomas Jefferson, the philosopher and U.S. president who extolled the honesty and moral integrity of rural folk and condemned the licentious cities. Before Jefferson, he says, people of status were drawn to the big lights of the city, where things happened. The countryside, on the other hand, was for peasants. How right they were.

Not only are cities the creative engines of the country, they are better places to live. By almost every measure, urban Canadians are better off than their rural cousins. To start with the obvious, incomes are lower in the hinterlands.

So are levels of education. In 2001, 23 per cent of rural adults from age 20 to 34 had not completed high school, compared to 14 per cent for city dwellers.

Country folk also have worse health outcomes. A 2006 study showed higher rates of smoking, obesity, respiratory and circulatory problems, workplace injury, suicide and motor vehicle accidents.

As a group, they are aging faster, too, as young people leave the country for jobs in the city. In 2006, there were 4.3 working-age people for every senior in rural regions, compared with 5.6 per senior in the cities. With fewer physicians to serve them, the result of a chronic shortage of rural doctors, elderly Canadians outside the cities face a bigger challenge staying well.

Small towns aren’t always as safe as we imagine, either. Victoria Stafford was abducted in a small town: Woodstock, Ont. A Senate report warned last year that drug trafficking and marijuana grow-ops were spreading to communities as bucolic as Nicolet, a town of 7,000 in the heart of rural, agricultural Quebec.

Even the idea that small towns are always more neighbourly than big cities is dubious. A Statistics Canada study in 2003 found that while rural people were more likely to know and trust their neighbours, city dwellers were just as likely to help people they know. Trust of people in general was equally high in rural and urban settings. The study found no evidence that city dwellers were more liable to fall victim to social isolation – estrangement from friends and relatives.

Findings like that may come as a surprise. We tend to think of cities as cold, often alienating places. But in cities like Toronto – despised across the country for its lack of warmth – you find extraordinary examples of neighborliness. When my uncle died last week, my cousin’s neighbours in the Annex pitched in to help with offers of meals and beds for visiting relatives. On his street, the neighbours wander in and out of each other’s houses, kids dodge from door to door and they play ball hockey together in the road out front.

It’s not only leafy neighbourhoods that enjoy such fellow feeling. I got an e-mail the other day from a woman who lives in a waterfront condo. In a community of 600 homes, they have bridge, book, poker and film clubs, language classes, exercise classes, lectures, art shows, music jams and weekly teas in the lounge. “Granted, we don’t talk over a hedge,” she wrote, “but we talk everywhere else. This building is far livelier than my old neighbourhood in Seaton Village.” Far livelier than most small towns too, I’ll bet.

Whatever the origins of our prejudice against cities, we need to get over it. The vast majority of Canadians live in cities, and the flood of new immigrants has only accelerated our urbanization. Canada has lots of great small towns, but in the 21st century the city is the place to be – richer, healthier, younger, livelier, heck, maybe even happier than that perfect little town of your dreams.

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