Urban man hankers after rural 'idyll': David Nicholson-Lord examines a study which claims cities have sacrificed quality of life in a rush for economic growth

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CITIES have sacrificed their quality of life in a rush for economic growth, according to a study published yesterday. Their future is threatened by worries about crime and pollution, the loss of 'user friendliness' and deep-rooted 'anti-urban' yearnings for the supposedly quieter life of villages and small towns.

A review of urban research by the British Library and the London Research Centre says many planners are belatedly trying to recreate the 'humane city' but despite the appearance of crime, congestion, unemployment and pollution in rural areas, the pull of the countryside remains strong.

Although highly urbanised, Britain has failed to develop a coherent sense of big city life and rural nostalgia remains endemic. Research shows most people want to live in the countryside because they believe it is cleaner, quieter and more spacious. After several decades of population flight from urban areas, a 'cities are good for us' school of thought has recently emerged, but the 'idyllic' image of rural life persists.

'Many people put a far greater value on natural than constructed environments and associate cities with the form of enforced sensory deprivation which experience of the 'real' world is denied them,' the report says. 'They cannot see the horizon, smell fresh air, or mark the change of the seasons; their daily lives are spent in artificially lit and artificially ventilated buildings; and they cannot stand back from the cluttered urban world and see it in context.

'Smaller towns . . . can satisfy the human need for control and identity - they allow us to see the wood for the trees - but big cities often serve only to diminish and disempower the individual.'

The destruction of the user- friendly city has been carried out in the interests of economic growth, the study adds, but there is now an increasing recognition that the economic renaissance of cities depends upon their attractiveness and the quality of their public services.

The study says quality of life will be an increasingly important consideration for people when planning where to live and work and singles out research done by units such as the Quality of Life group at Strathclyde University in rating different places.

Such research suggests that the most important factor is crime, followed by health provision, pollution, the cost of living, shopping facilities, racial harmony and access to 'scenic' countryside. Larger cities tend to do badly against these criteria. The places at the top of the rankings have been peripheral and 'Celtic fringe' cities such as Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Plymouth and Cardiff.

In an analysis of 145 district council areas with populations between 100,000 and 200,000, Perth and Kinross emerged as the best area to live because of its excellent health and education facilities, low housing and living costs, short travel to work times and easy access to beautiful countryside. Districts in northern and western Britain provided a better quality of life than those in the South-east.

The report's authors, Professor Ken Young, of London University, and Lesley Grayson, a British Library editor, say that the rankings might look different if they were based purely on people's preferences - Bournemouth would outrank Glasgow, for example, and Bristol would overtake Portsmouth and Stoke-on-Trent. People surveyed on which of 115 local government areas they would prefer to live in placed Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Avon and Cumbria at the top, with Barking, Walsall, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Wolverhampton at the bottom.

Quality of Life in Cities, from Turpin Distribution Services, Blackhorse Road, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, SG6 1HN; pounds 39.