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Out of our space!

We need to reclaim public spaces, writes Anna Minton

July 4, 2011
7 min read


Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at www.annaminton.com


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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.

Private ownership

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.

Authoritarian environments

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.

Shared space

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.

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Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at www.annaminton.com


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