The new slow city: one man's mission to live the simple life in downtown Manhattan

Can you live a life of rural simplicity even in New York? Image: Getty.

In 2007, I lived for a season in an off-grid permaculture cabin in North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through a lush forest, and I befriended the eclectic neighbors – organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers. I discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life, and wrote about in my memoir Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.

Alas, the book triggered angry questions. “It’s easy,” one Twelve by Twelve reader wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?” This question was the genesis of my new book: New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.

I received, in fact, a hundred variations of this question after lectures and on radio interviews, and always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values... but in Queens, New York, the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.

But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own. Overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature – “civilization,” in short – brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.


Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City. I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 – about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply – and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.

In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” – roughly two 12 x 12s – in downtown Manhattan.

Melissa and I approached our thimble of an apartment through the ideas of philosopher Thomas Merton, who called his stark monk’s chambers “the four walls of my new freedom”. We stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seems to expand with each tweak.

We began to feel our well-being rise in proportion to what’s been shed. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomes the cutting board; jackets laze on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggle in their micro-shoe-apartment beside the door.

Beyond this minimalist freedom, I discovered that being “Slow” is not at all Luddite. Slow means cultivating positive qualities – receptive, intuitive, reflective – instead of the fast qualities so common today: busy, agitated, acquisitive.

I began living and working smarter instead of faster. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, I 80/20ed my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams – consulting, writing, speaking – that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.


Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into just two.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two- days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, recently called for a 3-day work week, and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Melissa and I discovered other Slow City tools in our year-long experiment.

  • Urban sanctuaries: We began spending more and more time in natural and reflective places right in Manhattan, like Central Park’s Ramble and the tip of Pier 45.
  • “Living at the third story”: I discovered I only need half my attention on the street level. As the rest of my focus rises up, I notice nut-brown oak branches and green leaves fluttering with white butterflies. An off-turquoise sky. Stretchy clouds. Ciao stress.
  • Technology fastin: We “fasted” from our gadgets for stints, diabling our phones and setting email to vacation mode. This helped quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other.
  • Silent meals. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d sometimes eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner.

Though not everyone can live in this way, all of us can ask: What’s my twelve by twelve? We can find the elusive contours of enough, and live there.

Enough is the sweet spot between too little and too much. It starts with each of us creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? And how can we incubate a New Slow City that’s saner now and fit for the future?

William Powers is author of New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, which is published this week.

 
 
 
 

How learning to navigate London on crutches revealed a new side to the city

The world’s tallest man, Sultan Kosen, on a trip to London in 2009. Image: Getty.

When I was in primary school, crutches were not mobility aids but an interesting new toy to be borrowed at lunch time while their sedentary owner rested on a bench alone. I used to think swinging through the air on your arms looked “fun”. To children, in the context of a concrete playground, perhaps it is.  

A severe sprain recently left me completely without the use of my right leg. As a generally sprightly 20-something, usually able to go wherever I wanted easily and quickly, learning to navigate London on one leg was both exhausting and fascinating.

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Let me set the scene. It is midnight on Sunday. Two or three people are consistently tumbling into the Royal Free Hospital reception. One lies sideways across the slimy vinyl chairs as an elderly lady is ushered quickly through the system by tired nurses who somehow maintain a bedside manner.

I am not an urgent case and so I wait as the hours drag by and people run in and out of the bathroom to vomit, watching the numbers tail off until people are slowly dripping in and out of reception.

Some of these Londoners have clearly never been to an NHS hospital before. Instead of arriving armed with a large bottle of water, two books, a sheet of painkillers, and a phone charger – not to mention large measures of patience – people sporadically and loudly abuse the junior night-shift staff for their hours-long waits at the remnants of our publicly-funded health institutions.

Headache-rousing arguments at 3:00am, tired triage nurses, receptionists whose bored responses to being threatened suggest they have to deal with this shit every day. Security are called frequently and burly men arrive to repeat “sorry, you can’t talk to our staff like this.”

Some patients leave before they are even treated, surely a testament to the urgency with which their injuries actually needed to be dealt.

A creepy man, aged at least 50, shuffles past my room to stare at me every two minutes. It is probably envy, I tell myself, as I actually have a room. I actually have somebody seeing me. At six in the morning, a 20-something junior doctor teaches me how to use my crutches. Shoulder width apart, don’t use them going downstairs, how are you getting home?

Crutches are hard, it transpires. My palms are red and bruised, my shoulders stiff. The hospital taxi driver charges me an extra 50p to stop at a cash machine for the inconvenience of paying him. Two months in, I’m sure I’ll have developed buff abs, arms and shoulders, while my legs will have become completely asymmetric.

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Aside from learning just how infuriating its inhabitants find long hospital waiting hours, my perception of the capital has shifted exponentially in the past week. My path is now defined by questions I had never previously considered. Which tube stations have stairs? At home I can happily slide down the carpeted stairs on my butt, but on the tube it’s time consuming, inconvenient for others and frankly gross.

This means all tube stations without disabled access are now out of bounds. Even bus journeys are difficult; getting between stops takes so long that I am forced to allow for an extra two-hours of travel time.

What’s more, I find everybody sits in the reduced mobility seats, whether or not they need them.

One mobile-looking man in his early 40s stares at me from his reduced mobility seat, and doesn’t move. Another in his 70s, who is actually physically disabled, refuses to move his bag from the seat next to him; although for this it’s hard to feel too annoyed – bending down to pick up a bag is hard when you don’t have full mobility. A comparatively healthy woman gives me her seat a little way up. I feel bad because she is twice my age. 


As my strength increases I start “walking” more. Traffic lights are not green for more than 15 seconds. By the time the countdown reaches its closing seconds I am only a third of the way across. I panic.

The pavements are uneven and slippery when it rains, which makes life even slower because I do not want to fall and injure myself further. I have to wait at the middle part of the crossing to ensure it’s safe for me to cross the second half. It takes between three times and six times as long to get anywhere if I don’t want to pay for taxis every day.

But people actually talk to you. It’s like having a dog, only without the endorphins from being loved and depended on.

“I broke my leg 20 years ago. We didn’t have backpacks then – you’re almost lucky! You can carry everything yourself.” “Can I get the door? You must be tired!”

Sure, having reduced mobility sucks, but you make far more connections with traditionally hostile London strangers. A woman in a red car named Zoe offers me a ride, seeing me struggling not to slide on the still-damp streets. We talk about her children jovially for the five-minute journey. 

In another leg (hah!) of my journey, I have to stop every 15 seconds to shake my arms and hands. But then I become more optimistic. The busy inconsiderate hordes of commuters and kids on skateboards used to seem threatening, carrying me station-wards in their undertow. But instead of swamping me, they let me pause to rest, they circumnavigate, they ask if they can help, they appreciate my position. However, their consideration appears location-dependent; while passengers at Waterloo are friendly, for some inexplicable reason, nobody gives a shit about you at Victoria. Gatwick Express, perhaps?

Eventually I build enough strength to take the stairs: a crutch on one side, handrail on the other. London is still sorely underequipped for people with limited mobility, and it must be unrelentingly worse for those in wheelchairs or without my new physical strength.

But the refreshing compassion of its public restores the buzzing, faceless city’s humanity and, at times, certainly compensates for the physical hardships, and lack of facilities and funding that make you despair. The people make the city.