Where we live matters. Whether you live in a democratic nation matters. Whether you live in a community that cares about the well-being of others matters.
Social indicators research on well-being confirms that even in poverty-ridden communities, who your neighbours are matters a great deal in determining how satisfied you are with your life. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that you could not live a completely morally good life if you didn’t live in a morally good community.
Whether you choose to live in a big city or a small city sometimes is just a matter of contingency — where you happened to have been born or where you moved to take up a job. But how you live in that community is, to a large extent, your choice.
Brandon happens to be a community with a high level of volunteerism, or what we sometimes refer to as social capital. Communities require high levels of social capital to make them more caring, more giving and more rewarding places to live. If you don’t have that kind of community through volunteerism, you need a great deal of redistributed wealth through high levels of taxation and state-imposed care. While Canada has some of that, we live in a democracy that guards against too much state-controlled social intervention. And, we have witnessed nation states that failed because of the limitation of freedom of choice through social engineering.
Today I want to talk about the city of Brandon. This week I begin my fourth year of living here and a month ago, my husband and I decided that this would continue to be our home after we are both retired. A number of factors contributed to that decision.
When I moved to Brandon, I spent the first month arriving 10 minutes early for every meeting that I had with folks. It just took that long to figure out that I could get to most meetings in five to 10 minutes. Last week, my husband and I were heading to the Corral Centre to shop and we were sitting at the corner of Princess and 18th turning right. He said, "Look at all the traffic," to which I replied, "Yes, it may take us a whole minute and a half longer to get to where we are going."
This is just one of the joys of living in a small city. A month ago when we took a few days of holidays, I remember sitting on Highway 401, trying to get out of Toronto and inching ahead and then stopping for the better part of an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
When I was young, I thought that the best life to live was in big urban cities. There were just so many things to see and do. What I discovered in the interim is that I can see and do a lot in big cities — like attend live theatre, go to sports games, go to art galleries and eat in great restaurants —when I have a reason to be in those cities or when I go there for vacation. Visiting big cities without living in them means you don’t have to expend extraordinary amounts of money on housing and you don’t have to spend half of your life in commuter traffic, either coming or going to work or to do the ordinary tasks of life, like grocery shopping. Besides, if you live in Brandon, you have ample opportunities to see first-rate live entertainment at Brandon University and elsewhere in the city. You can go to Wheat Kings and Bobcats games, and you can go to the terrific little Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. You can also go to Canada’s national artillery museum in Shilo, which is an exceptional jewel in our area.
Everywhere I go in Brandon, I know people. I was sitting in a concert not long ago and thought, three years ago I didn’t know a soul in Brandon and now I look around this room and I know half the people in the audience as well as the musicians who are performing. And that felt pretty good.
Human beings are social beings and most of us need community to be healthy and well. This is a community in which you can achieve and sustain a high quality of life because of the people who live here and the city that they continue to build. It has both a university and a community college that add to the diversity of options for education and culture that many small cities lack.
As I noted earlier, it also has a large volunteer base of people who serve in order to improve life in Brandon in various ways. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to grow and change. Diversifying our community, in terms of economic base, population base and educational and cultural opportunities will make this a better place in which to live and work. But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t got plenty of good things here already.
Sometimes people in small cities have an inferiority complex thinking that their big-city cousins are more urbane and sophisticated. I’ve lived in both and each has its strengths and weaknesses. But I’ll pass on the dense pollution, the traffic as well as the alienation that I sometimes feel when I am in a totally crowded place where I don’t know a single person. I would rather see my friends and neighbours everywhere I go.
Big cities are nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 4, 2012