The other morning, two very tenuously related items crossed my desk. Any journalist will tell you that, in a season when news can be sparse, this qualifies as a compelling new trend and insists on being written about.
One item was a message from those fiscal scamps at Amazon UK. For much of this blighted year, and despite one's best intentions, Amazon has often felt like the only retailer still functioning. We tend to use Amazon UK in preference to Amazon France, because the latter is generally more expensive (even for French products), less well-stocked and dopier. Over these interminable months, the familiar packaging has crammed recycle bins, here in Montpellier as everywhere else.
But as expats, we may soon need to rethink. This message was about how sales from Amazon UK to continental Europe are going to be affected by the end of the Brexit transition on 31 December. In summary, it's going to cost us more and the terms are going to get worse. One more reminder that nothing, but nothing, has been made better by Brexit.
The second item was a feature in the New Statesman
by social historian Ken Worpole about changing town centres. Worpole observes that towns have often been shaped by a public health response to disease: for example, tuberculosis and polio taught us the benefits of open space, clean water and hygienic sewerage. He argues that the Covid pandemic has demonstrated the dangers of crowding into confined buildings and vehicles to go about our recreation, work and provisioning: and should therefore encourage us to rethink radically the configuration of our cities.
Actually, it seems to me that you can expand this thought, by blending the imperatives of climate change with the devastation wrought on our high streets by, first, austerity; second, digital shopping; third, the pandemic. Does it not add up to a uniquely cathartic cue to rethink from first principles the way we organise our urban lives? A perfect storm, as the cliché has it?
I should confess to an atavistic interest in the transformative changes that have overtaken retail. Big shops were a big part of my childhood. A grandparent from both sides of my family worked at the same Edinburgh store – Binns, later Frasers, now some sort of tourism 'experience' – at what is still known locally as Binns Corner on Princes Street. My maternal grandfather was a (probably terrifying) foreman in the store's removals business. My paternal grandmother served all her days on the buttons counter. Yes, department stores had buttons counters back then, along with a major-domo on the door, frock-coated floorwalkers, a glacial tearoom, overhead message tubes, and lift operators who manipulated a mysterious clock-like drive mechanism and recited each floor's wares.
Binns was just one in a majestic parade of department stores along Princes Street and the Bridges, of which just one – Jenners – survives. What they did is still done, just not by them. It migrated, first, to hulking town centre malls full of chainstores, then to peripheral retail parks, and finally to massive online warehouses serviced by hungry-looking youths with scooters or little white vans. As it went, it took with it post offices, banks, printworks, police stations, travel agents, and the office staff whose lunchtime shopping had sustained them, but who were now in open-plan boxes on the edge of town. With the commerce went any coherent or common concept of what town centres are for.
When I say 'our' here, I mostly mean Britain's. France too has lost the grand department stores that were once the mainstay of its town centres, but there the paths diverge. The configuration of cities, familiar to us all, where people live out on the fringes and commute inwards for their economic activties is not unique to Britain. But neither is it as universal as Brits tend to suppose.
Paris has long been a famous example of the alternative 'continental' model, whereby people live in the city centre and commute outwards. Where people live, little shops and local services survive. Many French cities follow this pattern: the lovely old pink sandstone streets of central Toulouse give no hint of the surrounding aerospace megalopolis. And something of that same pattern can be found across Europe: in Munich, Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
Nor is it just European. America may have inflicted the weeping sore of the strip mall on the rest of us, but the old town centres beyond the parking lots can still sometimes be surprisingly vibrant, pleasant places. A case in point is Alexandria in Virginia, where I stayed some years back. Its elegant centre sprang to life of an evening, with people strolling among restaurants, bars, little parks and bookshops. Come the morning, they climbed into their cars and headed out of town.
So there are already alternative models to ponder, and another one that has lately emanated from France has given the perpetual global debate over the future of urban living its number one buzz-phrase of the moment. The phrase is: 'The 15-Minute City'.
It is generally credited to Carlos Moreno, a Colombian-born systems professor at the Sorbonne, though it echoes ideas already in gestation around the globe. At its simplest, it encompasses a package of policies designed to break cities down into commercially self-sufficient neighbourhoods, in which work, shopping, services and leisure for most people can be accessed within a 15-minute walk or cycle journey.
The concept came to general notice when it was adopted by Paris's audacious mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Hidalgo has embraced it with characteristic commitment, closing major thoroughfares to motorised traffic, designating cycle lanes in others, pedestrianising great swathes of the central city, shutting car parks and creating school holiday 'children streets' given over to play. To the amazement of some, her green agenda – detested by Parisian motorists – secured her re-election earlier this year.
Hidalgo has argued that Paris's proud inner city arrondissements lend themselves exceptionally to this urban federalism, yet other French towns would seem at least as well placed to take the concept forward. Like cities everywhere, they have absorbed villages over time as they have grown and spread. But unlike elsewhere, these faubourgs often retain both their village feel and their commercial core.
Ours here in Montpellier is typical. The village of Boutonnet was swallowed up by the city many decades ago, but its winding main street still offers a rich diversity of small shops, together with food takeaways, dentists, doctors, repair workshops, pharmacies and an excellent café/microbrewery.
I draw the inescapable contrast with Colinton, the Edinburgh suburban village where we lived for 30 years before moving here. In that time, we watched a lively cluster of cherished and useful village shops – butcher, ironmonger, greengrocer, delicatessen, travel agent, florist, school outfitter, banks – expire one by one, ruthlessly suffocated by the arrival nearby of supermarkets.
Today, their premises stand mostly empty, awaiting transformation into flats. And what was palpably a living, breathing, companionable village has become just another dormitory suburb. Ms Hidalgo, M Moreno and a growing number of thinkers around the world reckon that a sustainable future lies in the opposite direction. It seems a good time to wonder whether they are right.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster