San Gimignano is a beautiful old hilltop walled town on the standard tourist route for visitors to Tuscany. Its claim to fame is the towers that predominate which competing families built in Mediaeval times, whilst the town itself was in frequent conflict with other towns and cities around it. Today it is a tourist curiosity.
I was reminded of this over the last couple of days as I stayed in leafy Surrey with friends. It is a beautiful if heavily overcrowded part of the world, full of costly houses characterised by security fences and gated communities, built around a town centre that looks like many others – cheap supermarkets, charity shops, and boarded up businesses. The dynamics become apparent in the morning as people move from their gated and guarded communities to their gated and guarded offices in London, bypassing the town centre. It reminded me of San Gimignano.
When we make money the lowest common denominator, we judge everything on its ability to offer a competitive return. That includes communities, education, healthcare and many others.
The problem is that gated communities do not cope with change well. They are designed to keep realities outside and comfortable myths inside. They are defensive, predominantly defensive in nature. They congratulate themselves on their superiority while outside the walls, the source of their privilege slowly crumbles.
Beyond the gates and outside the walls, the climate is changing, biodiversity is declining, and deprivation is increasing nationally and internationally. Eventually, not so far away, there will be no winners.
This situation requires serious conversation, not inside the walls of business, the gated communities of the wealthy, and party politics, but locally between those who notice what is happening, because those inside the walls will only notice when they cannot ignore the level of conversation outside them.
Traditionally, these have not been conversations, but partisan conflict as each side blames the other for their predicament, but I think the reality is more nuanced. The people behind the walls and inside the gates are not necessarily bad, just blind. They can make up stories about those outside the walls that make them responsible for their own misfortunes.
They become infected with what John Kuzava talked about in a post today – what the North American Indians called Wendigo – a mythical ravenous beast that grew in proportion to what it ate, so remained always ravenous. Anything that stands in the way of its hunger is destroyed.
The real lesson, of course, is that gated communities are dangerous. They hide us from the truth but can’t make it go away.
The best way to open the gates is not to knock them down but to ask why they are there.
That requires local regenerative conversations. And they start with us.