Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city
The Observer, Sunday 5 July 2009
They sold our streets and nobody noticed
This timely and powerful study argues that a flawed urban-planning strategy has turned our cities into unfriendly, suspicious places, writes Rafael Behr
The important thing about a castle is not that it is comfortable, but that it is secure, which makes the Englishman’s proverbial urge to live in one rather bleak. Against whom are we fortifying our homes, if not one another? We pretend that our property obsession is a lifestyle choice, but it could just be misanthropy: worshipping the private retreat out of distaste for being in public. If so, the problem stems from bad policy as much as national character. The British approach to managing urban space is utterly wrong, according to Anna Minton in Ground Control. Successive governments have conspired, Minton argues, to create environments that make people suspicious of one another. That makes them miserable. We are one of the saddest, loneliest peoples of Europe. It is a persuasive case, methodically built.
The story starts in London’s Docklands. The transformation, in the 1980s and 90s, of shabby old wharfs into snazzy new marinas became a policy template for “urban regeneration” around the country. But as a model it was badly flawed. For a start, it did not regenerate anything, in the sense that nothing old was revived or restored. New buildings housed people in perfect insulation from the environment onto which they had been transposed. Locals who lived in Docklands before the concrete and glass colonisation tell Minton that the new facilities – shops, gyms, cafes – are “not for them”. The area was physically transformed, but wealth did not “trickle down” the social ladder, as conservative economic theory suggested it ought.
As urban development the Docklands model is merely ineffective; as social policy it is a catastrophe. It leads to the enclosure of wealth behind gates, surveilled by cameras and guarded by private bouncers. It entrenches a blinkered view of public space as a retail playground, and of the poor as trespassers within it.
That perception is reinforced by a statutory edifice that Minton skilfully scales despite its daunting complexity. Some laws that have changed the way public space is governed are well known. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 entered everyday language via the Asbo. Less conspicuous was the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. This made it easier for local authorities, working with developers, to force the sale of properties on land earmarked for “regeneration”, evicting people from their homes and building new homes for richer people. Often the entire territory of a regeneration zone is owned by the developer, effectively abolishing ancient rights of way. Throughout Britain, town centres and shopping arcades have been discreetly privatised in this way. They look at first sight like public thoroughfares, but they are run by private firms that can enforce their own social codes: no hoodies; no homeless; no protests. As a trick for making urban environments look respectable it is effective. But it represents the subordination of all social concerns to the aesthetic preferences of the wealthy consumer.
The template comes from the US, where it is deployed more widely but where it is also more controversial. While Americans are generally enthusiastic about market forces, they are also jealous guardians of civil liberties. Britain, in Minton’s account, is complacent about both. The fact of our quiescence as public spaces are fenced off, bulldozed and bleached of any cultural distinctiveness is one of the most interesting themes in Ground Control; but, sadly, it is underdeveloped. Minton’s narrative is meticulous when dealing with Britain’s failings, to the point of being repetitive. But then it succumbs to strange spasms of romanticism when drawing comparison with other countries. Her rigour gives way to a kind of tourist rapture over Venetian canalside cafes and Riga’s higgledy-piggledy medieval centre. But Venice is a ghost town soon to be submerged, and on the outskirts of Riga, socially excluded Latvians drink themselves to death in Soviet-era concrete monstrosities. These places don’t tell us much about how to fix our own broken cities.
Minton does have some prescriptions. Specifically she urges an end to the absurd private-sector monopoly in house building, which has led to chronic undersupply of affordable family homes and simultaneously a glut of expensive yuppie flats. More generally, she calls on public and private sectors to consider more than the bottom line when evaluating the merits of a new development. She promotes the idea of public spaces whose explicit purpose is to allow people to “do nothing”. Shops, she says, should not be the only reason for going into town.
Ground Control is no anti-capitalist rant, but it does contain a heavy bias against commerce. That feels in keeping with the current recessionary mood. But retail was not invented by Thatcherism or New Labour. The heart of towns throughout history has been their marketplace. The difference today, and what makes Minton’s account revelatory, is that the space in which the public meets to trade or just browse has itself been turned into a commodity and sold, and that this happened with so little consultation. Privatising the streets was never in any manifesto. But then politics, as one manager of a retail zone tells Minton, is bad for business: “The citizen is a customer and the aim is to respond best to the needs of the customer. The second it becomes involved with politics, it becomes diluted down and the pure vision of the customer is lost.” Or, as the same interviewee puts it more succinctly, “Bugger democracy.”