Whose city is it anyway?

Submitted by Matthew on 8 October, 2009 - 12:26 Author: Bruce Robinson reviews 'Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City' by Anna Minton

A few years ago, some of us were leafletting for No Sweat outside the Doc Martens’ shop in the Triangle shopping centre in Manchester, which is pictured on the front of Anna Minton’s book.

After a few minutes, security guards emerged, pointed to metal studs in the pavement and told us we couldn’t stand inside that line as it was private property and part of the Triangle. What had previously been a normal piece of public pavement had been given to the owners of the Triangle as part of the “regeneration” of the area following the 1996 IRA bomb. Nothing which might affect business as usual was to be allowed there.

The privatisation of our city centre space, its commercialisation and subordination to the needs of profit and the consequent exclusion of protesters, the poor and anyone who supposedly threatens their “clean and safe” environment is one major theme of Anna Minton’s book. It is a policy that is implemented through surveillance and the removal of any democratic accountability for how the space is used.

She also deals more broadly with how urban, housing and crime policy have combined — especially under New Labour — to create fear, inequality, “social exclusion”, alienation and dystopia in British cities. Many of New Labour’s ideas such as “zero tolerance” for any minor offences such as dropping litter have been adopted uncritically from the US despite increasing evidence of their ineffectiveness there. Minton combines detailed research with visits to and interviews at the locations she describes and provides a forceful polemical account of the impact of these policies on working class lives and their role in degrading the physical and social environments they are supposed to improve.

What Minton finds fits well with the ideas of the Marxist theorist of space, Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, the domination of space is central to capital’s ability to reproduce itself. This has three effects on the nature of the space itself: capital homogenises, fragments and “hierarchialises” space. The resulting spatial relations both structure and are maintained by the practices of everyday life such as shopping or leisure activities.

Minton finds homogenisation in the shopping malls that increasingly dominate our city centres with only the occasional addition of kitsch decoration to distinguish them; fragmentation in a whole range of social, economic and psychological divisions of space that are bolstered by both government policy and the way the physical environment is changing; and a hierarchy of spaces in what Lefebvre calls “a collection of ghettos... that represents spatially the economic and social hierarchy” ranging from the gated communities of the rich down to council estates considered bastions of anti-social behaviour and in need of the “Respect Agenda”.

In Lefebvre’s account the state plays a central role in creating and maintaining forms of space and socio-spatial relations. Minton begins her account with the recent history of London’s Docklands which was a prototype for a new relationship between the state and capital in urban development in Britain the 80s. A Development Corporation was set up with powers to ignore the normal planning process in the creation of a financial and media city at Canary Wharf, pitched into the middle of long-established working class communities.

One justification was the idea that City wealth would “trickle down” to the locals. However there is little interchange between Canary Wharf and the surrounding area. Workers either commute in and and out or live on “secure” private estates. Local resident Pat, interviewed by Minton, commented that things were not affordable for the “locals” and that “local people don’t get a look in where jobs are concerned.” Asked whether she used the shops in Canary Wharf, she said: “I don’t like going there. It always gives me the fear.” The borders of a fragmented social space don’t always need to be strictly policed to exclude.

Docklands has become the model for the administration of city centres. Increasingly land, property and control over space in city centres are moving from public to private hands, which Minton sees as a regression to the early 19th century before there was accountable local government. Thirty-four streets in central Liverpool have been handed over to the private Liverpool One development while one street in Manchester pictured in the book has since totally disappeared under the expansion of the Arndale Shopping Centre. Control has passed to management companies such as “CityCo” in Manchester, chaired by developers.

Further down the hierarchy, control is with managers who are quite clear about their goals. One told Minton: “Bugger democracy. Customer focus is not democratic... The citizen is a customer and the aim is to respond best to the needs of the customer.” Another was explicit that this means exclusion of those who don’t fit this vision or come with money in their pockets: “High margins come with ABC1s [the rich, professionals and better-off sections of the working class], low margins with C2DEs. My job is to create an environment that will bring in more ABC1s.”

This is done by creating a “clean and safe” space in which certain people or activities are pushed out by private security guards backed up by the police and CCTV surveillance, and, on the other hand, by feelings that the shops are too expensive or that, like Pat in Docklands, her sort of people are not welcome.

One concern running through “Ground Control” is that the sort of policies being adopted to increase people’s feelings of safety and security are having the opposite effect of increasing fear of crime, even when the statistics show crime is actually falling.

Minton, following the American urbanist Jane Jacobs, attributes this to the gradual disappearence of organic communities in which the natural flow of people through streets creates a safe social environment.

She writes that “the link between security and segregation is most pronounced at the extremes of the social spectrum, in very wealthy or very deprived areas.” One expression of this is the spread of gated communities where the well off use physical means to banish the supposed danger. But ideas such as “Secured by Design” and “Defensible Space”, based on the idea of reducing crime by marking out clearly the ownership of space and building security features into housing designs, are now ubiquitous and insisted on by police and insurers. They serve to fragment space further, increase suspicion of others, especially outsiders, and make homes look like fortresses.

At the same time, the government’s Pathfinder programme consists of using compulsory purchase to buy up and pull down perfectly good, largely Victorian terraced houses on grounds of “market failure”. There is pressure on those who wish to remain to leave so what were previously working-class communities now consist of streets of boarded-up houses due to be demolished.

While there are some areas where people no longer wish to live due to general industrial or urban decline, the motivation behind Pathfinder is largely economic. Thus in some parts of Liverpool, where the council has given responsibility for development of the Pathfinder areas to private building firms, the locations chosen are thought to be highly desirable.

As the housing market has crashed, the economic motivation for Pathfinder has waned. Minton comments that “The problem with a policy which displays an excessive reliance on the market is not only that it disregards people’s lives but that when the market is down, it all but grinds to a halt.” This has happened throughout our cities where speculative development during the boom has ground to a halt leaving silent construction sites, empty built properties or homes being repossessed by mortgage lenders. Minton concludes that the emphasis on private housing and individual ownership has led to a housing crisis and to many people being forced to live in unacceptable conditions.

So what does happen to the C2DEs, the people excluded from buying their own house or enjoying the consumerism of our city centres? One Edinburgh children’s worker told Minton “It’s strange where the boundaries are... it’s complete apartheid... there’s 20% of the population who have a completely different life and that percentage is growing all the time.” Minton adds: “Although those who live nearby will be dimly aware of these enclaves, fast turning into ghettoes, they will avoid them at all costs and live a life as separate from these places as the ‘different planets’ in Disraeli’s Sybil... When I visited places with hardly any shops or buses, let alone a pub or bank, I saw the kind of poverty I had never seen before in Britain.”

Minton also describes how these policies are “creating a physical environment which reflects the stark divisions of the city, creating homogeneous enclaves, which undermine trust between people, heightening fear.” New Labour, aided by the media, prey on this sense of fear even as they claim to undermine it by introducing measures to control behaviour such as ASBOs, the “Respect Agenda” and dispersal orders. The “behaviour modification” approach neglects the root causes and therefore fails to work while in turn creating more fear.

So what are the alternatives? Minton’s proposals are at a number of different levels. Her suggestions include the micro-management of space to create “shared spaces” more amenable to the sort of street activity envisaged by Jacobs; encouraging the sort of unplanned use of spaces by artists and others without the ability to pay the market price that has happened in areas such as Hoxton; and the reclaiming of space to create the sort of public places such as found in the piazzas of European cities.

These proposals however are marginal to addressing the basic issues the book raises and often problematic themselves — for example, fashionable “alternative” bit-by-bit development can often be the prelude to gentrification. Minton does however also raise the broader political issues. She sees, as a prerequisite, the reassertion of the public as against private capitalist interests as the basis for deciding on the future of our cities.

“The only way the privatisation of every aspect of the city can be halted is by slowing the transfer of land and property to large private landlords.”

"Ground Control" raises many issues to which the left needs to give a response. With the exception of local campaigns against particular planning decisions and “Defend Council Housing”, it has not taken many of them up in practice. Nor has it translated the theoretical insights of Marxists such as Lefebvre and David Harvey into concrete political demands.

Resistance and the appropriation of “counterspaces” advocated by Lefebvre — as practiced by the Goths, skateboarders and various teenagers who, despite much hassle from officialdom, socialise on Saturdays behind the Triangle in Manchester — needs to be supplemented by a strategy that deals with the more long term issues such as the sorts of urban spaces and housing we want to see. A movement to assert our “right to the city” (Lefebvre) is much needed. "Ground Control" provides much of the ammunition such a movement needs.

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