‘The Serendipity of a Chance Encounter’: Advantages of living in a city
A phrase continually levelled at London during 2020 and 2021, and subsequently wrongly established as a brand-spanking new axiom of the post-pandemic era, is that the city has been in ’suspended animation’. It’s a tempting image, one in which a global powerhouse normally abuzz with movement stands frozen in time, but is it anywhere near the truth? While strict measures affected public transport, education and the like during national Coronavirus spikes, the city is still fecund with universities that are returning to full-time in-person teaching, centuries-old architecture imbued with history, an ever-evolving cultural scene producing global talent, and world-leading transport links. Here are just some of the advantages of living in a city, with a particular focus on London.
For many, university is the first reason to exchange home comforts for independent living. While the UK certainly isn’t lacking in some of the world’s best spread across multiple amazing cities - Manchester boasts such notable alumni as Brian Cox, Anthony Burgess and Mark Kermode, for example. and York was just shortlisted for the Times Higher Education University of the Year - some London universities attract the finest staff and resources in the world. UCL, which boasts more subjects on offer than any other UK university, is number 1, 2, and 3 in the world for Education, Archaeology and Physiology respectively.
And, while Oxford and Cambridge still stand their ground outside of the capital, UCL’s newly-appointed provost Michael Spence said it best with a tongue-in-cheek remark to the Guardian in September of this year: “If you’re 18, you might want to go to a small market town in the Fens or a former industrial town in the Thames Valley. Or you might want to go to the big city, and have a real life. London is one of the most exciting places to live in the world. And we can give you the opportunity to live right at the centre in quiet Bloomsbury, but a quick walk away from Trafalgar Square. I mean, there’s nothing more exciting than that.”
He believes that nowhere is better than London for what he calls ‘the serendipity of the chance encounter’.
“We are deeply committed to the notion that the university is an embodied community, a place where students learn from one another,” says Spence.
Falling hugely in favour of London Universities too is the city’s prestige as a global financial hub, meaning that employment prospects are high. Graduate prospects for students of the London-based LSE are scored at 91% by The Complete University Guide. For comparison, the much more rural University of Kent scored just 61%.
Many report a wonderful phenomenon when they first move to a city, which is the sudden noticing of their new home in songs. The Beatles are an obvious example of a band whose lyrics, for many new Liverpudlians, suddenly take on a tangible nature when they discover that Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane are real places, not just lyrics in a fantastical patchwork. Nowhere though (with the possible exception of New York) has been a greater muse to some of the last century’s greatest musicians than London - The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street, The Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park. Beyond an indication of the cultural scenes that have always germinated in London (more on those below – see ‘Thriving Cultural Scene’), these songs serve as a reminder of London’s rich history.
A huge draw of the city, and certainly capitals, is the ability to share the same sights and walk in the same footsteps of generations before you. Nowhere is this more obvious than in London’s breath-taking architecture. Obvious landmarks spring to mind: Buckingham Palace, The British Museum, Big Ben. But even in its smallest of adornments lies a whole story to unravel. An example is Elephant & Castle’s historic statue depicting its very name, which recently returned to Castle Square following a regeneration of the area. The unusual name derives from a coaching inn that defined the area in the 18th Century, which itself may have even been named after an allusion to the area in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. You can read more about its origins here, but suffice it to say that so much of London contains a never-ending story.
Sadly, the same simply isn’t true of rural areas. Even in the realms of ancient history, for which more rural medieval towns like West Sussex’s Fishbourne can be a goldmine, London holds its own. The Romans founded London as Londinium as far back as 47 AD, so the city even has an unexpected hidden Roman history.
Another of the advantages of city living is that, across the UK, cities have established themselves as proud meccas of popular music. From the Beatles in Liverpool to the Hacienda and Factory Records in Manchester, there’s certainly no shortage of talent running through the country’s bones. And of course, as hinted at above, nowhere has bred more hits than London. But the city’s West End is also a global hub of theatre and comedy, as well as a gastronomic delight.
Partly, this is down to Artists’ Collectives that arise in cities and draw some of the world’s greatest talent together, reminiscent of Paris’s Montmartre in the 20th Century. Today, that same spirit can be found today in Manchester, courtesy of the West Art Collective, and in South London with Flat 70 who recently teamed up with JCDecaux for a ground-breaking campaign.
As for food, the UK has 157 Michelin-starred restaurants in the 2021 Michelin Guide, including seven 3-star establishments, for those wanting to experience the highest standards in the industry. Yet the beating heart of UK city food scenes are undoubtedly their street vendors, pop ups and market stalls, manned by a diverse mix of retailers each bringing the cuisine of their home countries to the fore. Borough Market is full of world-leading examples, as is Elephant Park.
Did you know that the London Underground is the world’s oldest subway system? Opened in 1863, it beats both Budapest (1896) and, unexpectedly, Glasgow (1896) to the title. While Northern cities like Edinburgh, Sheffield and Manchester boast impressive tram connections, London’s public transport system is often voted the world’s best, as well as in the top 5 in the world for cleanliness.
In conjunction with buses, black cabs and affordable rideshare apps (which boast unbelievable numbers of drivers in cities compared to rural areas), there’s always an easy, low-cost way to get around London without a car. As a result, many Londoners don’t own one, saving thousands a year in insurance, fuel and congestion charge costs. Many also massively reduce their carbon footprint by investing in (or renting) a bike and making use of London’s impressive cycleways.
Moving to the city? Then gone are the days of trying to get your shopping in before 5.30pm. In shopping centres, one of the advantages of living in a city is that some of the world’s biggest brand outlets open as late as 8pm daily, and even as late as 11pm during the Christmas period. Meanwhile, frequent 24-hour supermarkets mean your errands can fit around work, play, and everything in between. But better still are the city’s continental influences - be they French, Turkish, Polish, or Lebanese - at work on high streets within a relatively small radius of your front door. Artisanal bread, pastries, crafts and organic produce are never easier to find than at the heart of a major city.