Simplicity: The big city - or the small town?
June 10, 2008 5:16 PM   Subscribe

Simplicity means different things to different people. In general, do you think it is easier to live a simple life in the city - or the country? An urban environment - or a small town? Does anyone know of any studies done on how stress is raised - or lowered - by simple living in the city versus small town life?
posted by Gerard Sorme to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
As you noted, simplicity means different things to different people. If you clarify what you mean by 'a simple life,' the first part of your question might be easier to answer.
posted by box at 5:18 PM on June 10, 2008

Simplicity in the sense of fewer material things is probably easier, quite frankly, in the city, particularly a large city. You can dispense with a car and all its hassles, expenses, maintenance, etc. because you have public transportation readily available. You will have greater knowledge resources closer at hand (libraries, theater, etc..) and also a greater choice of entertainment when you're not feeling quite so brainiac. It's also much, much easier to become anonymous in the city, which can be part of simplicity, too.

On the other hand, the rural/small town does offer easier/cheaper options for becoming self-sufficient in the Thoreau/Walden sense of the word, housing is cheaper and generally more spacious and easier to obtain space for gardening, wandering, hiking, etc... Living in a small town/rural area makes anything different about you stick out like a sore thumb and believe me, you will be noticed and talked about. Listen to any Garrison Keillor PrairieHome Companion monologue and you'll know what I mean.

I've lived and experienced both of these environments. I think the answer is that you gravitate toward different locales depending on your stage of life. Young, single, out of college and looking for a simple lifestyle - I'd go urban. Older, married, with a child to think about, but still want to have simple living, I'd go smaller town/rural. Of course, minimizing $5/gallon gas is starting to heavily influence my thinking on this subject.

Writing this, I can honestly say that I really would be hard pressed to choose one over the other if I had but one, permanent choice to make. I'd probably choose any Scandanavian capital if I had to - best of both worlds. But that's my bias (and my preference for Aquavit).
posted by webhund at 5:41 PM on June 10, 2008

@box: That's why I said, "in general." Recognizing that simplicity might mean something different to you than to me, I'm wondering if mefites see living a 'simple life' (however they perceive it) to be easier to accomplish in an urban environment - or in a small rural area. I'm also curious about any academic studies regarding the issue.

@webhund: Very thought provoking. This is what I'm looking for.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 5:49 PM on June 10, 2008

I think it's easier to live simply in a city. Like Webhund said, it's far easier to get around without a car, and there is simply more of everything - used items, inexpensive but healthy groceries, group living arrangements. You can pretty much live any way you want to in a city and find others who share your values. I grew up in the country and small towns, and now I live in a city - there is so much more flexibility in an urban environment - you generally can't walk to work if you live in a rural area.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:12 PM on June 10, 2008

I'd go with neither. I'd say simplicity in living is best achieved in something like the American college town, such as Lawrence, KS or Madison, WI or in smaller European cities - ones not always recognizable to Americans, such as Szeged, Hungary or Krakow, Poland. In most of these places, things like wilderness, great outdoor activities and viable food sources are just a hike away. But they still have music scenes, cinema, young people, academic and intellectual activities, differing viewpoints and so on. And in most of these places, a car isn't a necessity - some of these towns have pretty good (or at least more reliable) public transportation than the big cities do. Housing is often cheaper than in the bigger places, while jobs are more available than in rural places.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:19 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

In my experience, it has been much easier to live simply in the city. I can rent things if I need them, or borrow from my many neighbours. It's also a lot easier to find quality goods instead of disposable, and the transportation situation works a lot better for me in the city. In smaller cities, we could grow some of our own food, but that was pretty much the only benefit.
In general, high-density living demands less resources, no?
posted by OLechat at 7:18 PM on June 10, 2008

I would agree with Dee X above....I think a middle ground is probably the way to go, or would be if I was designing the ideal simple existence. In my mid-sized college town, I could buy a house in town with land enough to grow much of my food, something not possible in a big city. I could get around on public transportation most of the time, or on my bike, something not possible in really rural settings. It is easy for me to get to inexpensive grocery stores with lots of good produce and bulk food without a great deal of travel or hassle, something I believe can be challenging in big cities (Julie Powell's book Julie/Julia Project focused a lot on the hassle of getting all her ingredients in NYC-yeah, she could find everything, but it involved a lot of travel around town).

Apparently, simple living for me focuses a lot on food! Another plus to rural or smaller city living is the easy access to local farms and farmers-most cities have farmer's markets, but I have many organic u-pick options within five minutes of town, and since we like to can and freeze a lot of our own produce, that is a big plus (and it's much, much cheaper than buying produce at a farmer's market).

Cities and good university towns tend to have fabulous libraries, which I think is essential for simple living, esp if you cut out your television. I also value lots of free or low cost activities for families, so things like concerts in the park are really a plus.

Interesting question!
posted by purenitrous at 7:45 PM on June 10, 2008

I'm not sure if this relates to your question, but tons of studies have found that contact with "nature" is good for you. Nature is generally defined as greenery, as opposed to buildings, so you can get it in the city or the country.

If you're interested, check out the research of Sullivan & Kuo about Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. They have linked the amount of greenery around people's apartment buildings with their "attentional ability" (ability to concentrate, but also the ability to hold back impulses, to think and plan ahead) and from there to many other outcomes, including family violence.

Hartig et al 1991 compared backpackers to other people taking non-backpacking vacations. Backpackers improved their proofreading (ie, "attentional") abilities significantly between the pre- and post-test, while the others did not. Interestingly, a 6 week (?) follow-up found the backpackers still did significantly better, leading the researchers to conclude that time spent in nature might have some sort of forward-acting benefits.

R Kaplan & S Kaplan have been studying this for years. I believe Sullivan & Kuo were their students. There's no single study by them I'd recommend as a "best of," but this is one good summary that also discusses the next guy, Ulrich.

Ulrich took a different angle. He's less about attention and more about physical symptoms of stress. You definitely should check out these two amazing articles. The second is the one always cited: people with a hospital view of fields recovered faster from surgery than people with a hospital view of a brick wall. IIRC, they also complained less, had fewer complications, and used fewer pain-killers. The first, to me, is more interesting in relation to your question. People were asked to watch a video of workplace accidents with simulated blood (! stress !), and then people watched a recovery video, either of nature or of a city plaza. Emotions were surveyed pre- and post-test, and physical indicators of stress were monitored throughout. The nature video people not only had their physical symptoms of stress go away faster, but they left feeling better than when they arrived, leading Ulrich to wonder whether urban dwellers are constantly suffering from physical stress reactions. He cites other stress-related research, including one from 1985 (?). A square prison has a courtyard in the middle. All prisoners have a window. Those prisoners whose window looked outward to the fields had fewer infirmary visits that could be linked to stress (headaches and stomach-aches, if I remember right) than those whose view looked inward to the courtyard.

I myself prefer to live in a place where I don't have to drive much, be it the city or a small town.
posted by salvia at 8:11 PM on June 10, 2008

I've been following this thread tonight and I have to agree completely with Dee Xtrovert. During my drive home tonight (from downtown to the acreage 20 miles out - how's that for irony), the very same ideal community popped into my head: a small/medium sized town with a liberal arts college or university in it. My own alma mater, Grinnell College, fits the bill pretty much - although I think it's a little far from the closest transportation hubs for the times when you need to get away. On this line of thinking, there are probably close to a hundred or more communities across the U.S. alone that would fit the bill.

Great question and thread!
posted by webhund at 8:57 PM on June 10, 2008

Excellent answers!

I had never considered the American college town as being a kind of in-between environment with the big city on one end of the scale and the country life on the other. However, it seems so obvious to me now after reading some of these excellent responses. The simplicity of transportation systems that cater to the college students and faculty, the availability of retail/restaurant/entertainment options that go far beyond a town without a college (but with similar populations) -- it all makes so much sense.

I appreciate the studies cited concerning "the green," versus "the brick," effect on stress levels. I will read those now as they sound very interesting and exactly like the kind of thing I am looking for.

Thanks to all. I am always astounded when I see the hive mind in action and see the creative thinking that can make things seem so obvious!

Much appreciated.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:43 PM on June 10, 2008

The shared values of a geographic area speak volumes. To determine the shared values, you need only examine the edges of the social graph. What is it that ties these people together? It is, therefore, the nature of relationships to reveal the degree to which simplicity finds respect. To me, simple relationships are also the most compelling and rewarding kind, overshadowing both extremes of the materialistic spectrum.

I've lived in cities and suburbs, and in my experience, simple relationships are much easier to forge in the 'burbs (can't speak for rurality). In the city, it's not uncommon for folks to have moved there to feed on the higher order bits of Maslow's hierarchy, often to the detriment of its bases. Making meaningful connections in a city where most people are trying to become something they're not already is a complex challenge.

Sometimes I relate my experience in Cleveland to my friends here in San Francisco, and they seldom understand why I'd live in or defend a city so void of culture, weather, and productivity. My answer is that it's precisely the absence of those high-level things, the absence of "things to do," that facilitates the way people stick together, forming great (read simple) friendships and families. Before Cleveland, I grew up in a suburb of North East Ohio, whose affinity for simplicity was even greater.

I love my theaters and libraries and being at the epicenter of my industry, but I don't for one second believe the ethos of the city dovetails with the love of the simple.
posted by kurtiss at 12:09 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the middle ground of a college town with nearby nature. I live in the woods biking distance from a college town that has a lot of culture. I've lived in a big city and a mid-sized city as well. Being surrounded by trees rather than pavement and people has made a subtle but powerful difference in my stress level.

From a practical standpoint, some of the things I associate with "simple" living are still outlawed in many cities, such as raising chickens or building sheds and such out of whatever you have on hand. Also, hanging your laundry out on the line was an invitation to thieves in the last urban place I lived.

It's also easier to heat with wood if necessary when you live in the woods. The increasing availability of broadband internet outside of town makes access to a library less of an issue.

At the same time, I continue to wonder if I should move to a small city in Europe where the infrastructure is more developed. You can't get out of my American town without a car.
posted by PatoPata at 6:40 AM on June 11, 2008

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