The past decade has seen more construction in Britain than at any time since the post-war period, when the tower blocks and arterial roads of the 1950s and 1960s sliced through cities and communities, giving planning a bad name forever after.
Today, More London, Regents Place, Kings Place and what promises to be the biggest of all, Westfield Stratford City, are just a few of the landmark projects characterising the urban landscape in London. This was the architecture of post-industrial New Labour, which has witnessed regeneration projects, large and small, take over every town and city in Britain. Outside London, Liverpool One, Cabot Circus in Bristol and Highcross in Leicester put their indelible mark on those cities.
As the foundations for these schemes were laid, what passed almost without notice is that these places would also begin to change our public life and public culture, removing large parts of the city, including the streets, from a genuinely public realm and handing them over to private companies. These would own and control the entire area, policing it with private security and round-the-clock surveillance. The consequence has been the creation of a new environment characterised by high security, ‘defensible’ gated architecture and strict rules and regulations governing behaviour.
The point of all these regulations and high security is, apparently, to make places cleaner and safer and to address the problem of soaring fear of crime, which is among the highest in Europe. Despite continuous statistics showing that crime, including violent crime, is falling, people simply don’t believe it, with 80 per cent of Britons fearing crime is on the up.
In my book, Ground Control, I argue that it is this new city, with its security, controls and ultimately undemocratic nature that is the problem rather than the solution, undermining trust between people and increasing fear. It is also creating sterile, strangely similar places devoid of local character, where even innocent activities such as taking photographs are forbidden, not to mention handing out political leaflets, busking without permission or selling the Big Issue.
During the 1980s, Canary Wharf and the Broadgate Centre, the two emerging finance centres in east London, were virtually the only high security, privately owned and privately controlled places that functioned like this. They were also exceptional places – financial districts, created in response to the deregulation of the financial markets and ‘big bang’ of 1986, with its demands for big banks and large trading floors. Now, a generation later, what began specifically to serve the needs of business has become the standard model for the creation of every new place in towns and cities across the country.
Alongside the ‘big bang’ architecture of Canary Wharf and Broadgate, out-of-town shopping centres such as Meadowhall, just outside Sheffield, and the MetroCentre in Gateshead were the architectural signature of the 1980s. They were encouraged by Thatcher’s loosening of the planning system – a policy that was later reversed because of the damaging effect it had on high streets. What has happened over the past decade is that, to find a way around planning restrictions, shopping centres moved wholesale into the centre of cities, creating open-air property complexes that also own and control the streets, squares and open spaces of the city.
In fact, the streets of London, and other cities, have not always been public. During the early 19th century, before the advent of local government and local democracy, cities such as London were parcelled up and owned by a small group of private landlords. These included the Earl of Bedford, who controlled Covent Garden, and the Duke of Westminster, who ran the whole of northern Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico.
These places include some of the finest Georgian and early Victorian squares, but what we don’t see today are the hundreds of gates, bars and posts, along with the private security forces that were employed by the estates to keep out those who did not belong there. Following growing public outrage, which paralleled the rise in local democracy and was reflected by two major parliamentary inquiries, control over the streets was passed over to local authorities and gates removed. Since then it has been common for local authorities to ‘adopt’ the streets and public spaces of the city which means that whether or not they actually own them, they control and run them.
Now this process is being reversed, alongside a huge shift in land ownership, away from public places and buildings in public ownership and towards the creation of these new estates. The London mayor’s guidance, published last year and supporting public places remaining public, is a first step in halting this process. But it is uncertain how much impact it will have, particularly as Westfield Stratford City and the Olympic complex – which received planning permission before the guidance was out – will be privately owned estates.
While more security is supposed to make us safer, it removes our personal and collective responsibility for our own safety. It replaces ‘natural surveillance’ – the ordinary interaction between strangers that keeps places safe – with a more authoritarian environment, which only increases fear and dilutes trust between people. Fear and trust correlate directly with happiness, which is perhaps one reason why levels of unhappiness in the UK are double those in continental Europe, where the culture of security is far less developed and cities remain more open, free and democratic.
Denmark has a similar crime level to Britain, attributed to a binge drinking culture, urbanisation and a large population of young people, which both countries have in common. That’s where the similarities end because Denmark is also the happiest country in the world, according to the World Values Survey, with high levels of trust and low levels of fear. The security conscious, defensible enclaves taking over our cities and our streets are anathema.
But while Stratford City will go ahead, bailed out by the government, the property market model that fuelled the creation of these places has collapsed. Although the Olympic developments have been saved, a great many other large schemes have halted. In Bradford, for example, Westfield planned another large privatised part of the city but the site is now just a hole in the ground. This is one of many such around the country.
While the ‘boom-bust’ economics of the model have been hard hit, ideas from Europe around the use of ‘shared space’, which has much in common with ‘natural surveillance’, have begun to take off in London. And another question increasingly heard is whether in today’s resource constrained environment we can afford all the costly security that goes hand in hand with the expansion of privately-owned places. In that context the mayor’s guidance seems ever more relevant.
At the same time less showy schemes, which remain genuinely public, have begun to come on-stream in London. Windrush Square in Brixton in South London is just one such example where it has needed no heavy handed security presence to transform central Brixton, an area long-notorious for drugs and crime, into a thriving public square.
In Edinburgh community groups are fighting to establish the Canongate Literature Centre on a site that is no longer being developed. The proposals, for a publishing, literacy and writers’ centre, would include communal meeting, exhibition and performance space and affordable offices for community enterprises. But despite overwhelming local support the local authority remains reluctant to sanction a scheme that places community at its heart, holding out instead for a return to ‘business as usual’ and the creation of yet another privatised consumer space. Saddest of all is that in the stalemate between community and council the place lies empty and unused.
But at least alternatives are now under discussion. A few years ago it seemed certain that the private provision of public space, calling to mind a pre-democratic approach to the city, was the only option on the table for all regeneration around the country. Worse, it appeared to be taking place almost by stealth with few people aware of what was happening, literally beneath their feet. Today there is at last a debate and some real alternatives on the table. It is not just a question of public versus private but of the democratic nature of the city.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History