I have been reading the opening chapter of The Child in the Country by my favourite modern anarchist Colin Ward. In it, Ward looks at the consensus among so many theorists that city life was unhealthy for children and that the country was the place for them to grow up:
Not only public schools and preparatory schools but borstals, reformatories and approved schools were deliberately situated in the country, far from the temptations and stimulations of the city, for rural childhood was especially valued.
"Rousseau's 'Emile,' wrote Herbert Read, "seems to have been taught in a well-furnished country house, surrounded by a well-cultivated garden with all variety of natural phenomena within easy reach. That may be the ideal environment for the unfolding sensibility of the child - personally I believe that it is.That may be what thinkers of the right and left have said about childhood - particularly in the early twentieth century with its eugenicist concern for national efficiency - but it is not how they have generally behaved.
As Ward points out:
The rich, in bringing up their children, have always been able to mingle urban and rural experiences. The possession of a town house as well as a rural estate, whether we are thinking of Imperial Rome, eighteenth-century England or nineteenth-century Russia, ensured that the children of the family gained experience of both, as well as of the drama of the transition between the two.
It was expedient for the patricians that their children, or at least their sons, should gain the experience of negotiating with gamekeeper and bailiff as well as with gaming-house keeper and tailor. It was expedient that their daughters should achieve marriageability and the avoid the attributes of hoydens or tomboys by being 'finished' in town before 'coming out'.I remember falling into conversation with a retired architect in a pub in Rye. (Rye is the kind of town where you find yourself falling into conversation with retired architects.) He pointed out that the terraces of Bath, which we so admire today, were inhabitable in part because the owners had a place in the country to go to as well. So we should not draw easy conclusions from them about the degree of urban density that is compatible with pleasant living.
We cannot all live like eighteenth-century gentlemen, but we can avoid adopting an unthinking polarity between town life and country life.