I KNOW that it’s been a year of surprises, and all that, but I thought that the decades that I have spent steeped in speculative fiction had given me some slight edge in handling the unexpected. Global pandemic? Videocalls? Everyone in masks? Governments paying people not to work and stay at home? Locking up the elderly? A reality entirely filtered through computer-based misinformation? A billionaire simpleton in the White House?

All this was stale potatoes by the 1970s. But no amount of immersion in JG Ballard, Philip K Dick and William Gibson could have prepared me for 2020’s latest bombshell: the news that Giffnock has just squeezed out Kirkintilloch as the UK’s most desirable place to live.

“Come off it,” as I’m sure John W Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, would have said. “Shape-shifting telepathic poker-playing vugs from Titan invading the Earth, fair enough. Giffnock? No one would believe that.”

READ MORE: Kirkintilloch and Giffnock named best commuter places to live

I don’t intend to malign Giffnock (Kirkintilloch is a different matter). I would have been almost as surprised if the result had been Clarkston or Newton Mearns. But the coronavirus crisis has shifted perceptions and priorities and, according to the property firm behind this study, previously desirable attributes such as air quality, open spaces and residents’ happiness have now to be measured against broadband speed and ease of home working.

According to those who said that lockdown had changed their priorities, 37 per cent were more likely to want a garden. That’s maybe not very surprising, especially after a period when many people could go out only briefly to exercise or shop, and later, could meet limited numbers of people, but only outside.

To take another example, one barbecue manufacturer reports recent sales increases of 350 per cent, which suggests that those who have gardens are using them more, while Amazon recently had to recall a barbecue sold for use on the balconies of blocks of flats over safety concerns, which indicates the limitations of more cramped outdoor space.

As with so many property fantasies, I suspect that the participants in this survey are romanticising the idea of a garden, or Giffnock. Growing your own vegetables, building a pizza oven, installing a trampoline or keeping hens are certainly all things that can be done in a garden, but are more of a challenge up a wally close. But they’re all also things that require work and effort and which a lot of people get tired of fairly quickly.

The experience of those who have been working from home, rather than going into an office in a city centre or on an urban business park, may have sparked the idea that they’d like to commute a bit less, but it doesn’t seem to have persuaded them that it’s possible to work entirely from home.

If there were a genuine conviction, among either employees or employers, that working from home were to become the norm, surveys such as this one would not focus on commutable areas, still less find their top spots occupied by suburbs. Giffnock may technically be a town, but it functions as a suburb (the sign saying Welcome to Glasgow is on Kilmarnock Road and fewer than two dozen stops on the 38 will get you to St Vincent Street).

Like the suburbs themselves, working from home may not be as transformative as all that, but rather a sort of halfway house. The question is whether, in the aftermath of coronavirus, being in easy reach of a city centre, but in a nice house with a fair-sized garden, in a quiet area with good schools and excellent broadband, will offer as many advantages as people currently seem to think it will.

If office workers can work almost as easily from their own dining rooms, they’ve also discovered that they can do their shopping just as easily from there. Online sales across Europe were growing by 129 per cent in April; even after the reopening of some shops, they remained up 79 per cent on the same time in the previous year. And if you don’t have to commute to a city to work, why would you need to live all that near one at all?

The answer might have been shops, or restaurants, or leisure facilities, or entertainment venues. But these are the very things that, if they are not already closed down for health reasons, are gravely endangered for economic ones.

Cities, which have historically been the mark of civilisation and increased wealth, are still overwhelmingly the destination for that portion of the global population seeking to improve their circumstances. Forty years ago, less than 20 per cent of China’s population lived in urban areas; it’s now more than 60 per cent, and that period exactly matches the country’s economic growth.

But in the developed world, or perhaps the digital world, the traditional purpose of the city is less clear, especially with the decline of labour-intensive manufacturing in the West. Automation in factories and the fact that service industries are largely conducted inside computer networks leave retail and hospitality businesses, cultural sites and entertainment as their main assets.

Until now, suburbia’s main contribution to those fields has been to supply a steady stream of young people so bored by their (relatively trivial) distance from the action that they can’t wait to get into the big city.

Now that the UK’s cities are emptying, and the bright lights are found on YouTube, Instagram or Spotify, it’s hard to see why you’d want to be in a city, let alone just quite near one. If it offers no good pleasure, as Mrs Brutus put it, why be reduced to dwelling even in its suburbs?

It’s possible, if for most of us unrealistic, to see the appeal of a rural smallholding. It’s easy, for the dynamic, to see the appeal of a bustling metropolis. But if the metropolis is empty and there’s no broadband in the wilderness, the suburbs may not be the best of both worlds, but merely the least terrible option. Perhaps Giffnock’s triumph is a sign that our future homes will be, like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland suburbs, in places where there’s no “there” there.

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