I’ve finally got around to reading Anna Minton’s excellent new book on space, fear and happiness in British cities.
For a self-proclaimed polemic on the urban renaissance that puts the boot into just about everybody, it’s generated an amazing amount of agreement. At the ICA recently Anna, Liz Peace (Head of the British Property Federation), Nigel Coates (RCA) and Daniel Moylan (Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council) barely exchanged a cross word.
This is testament to the book itself. Minton takes aim at the privatisation of the urban public realm. She attacke the ‘pseudo-public space’ of big shopping centres like Liverpool One and the ‘pseudo-private space’ of Business Improvement Districts. Landlords increasingly run the public realm for profit, she claims. Instead of functioning spaces we have sterile deserts: Minton quotes one city centre manager who actually talks about ‘importing vitality’. Worse, pervasive CCTV and an obsession with safety actually make us feel less safe and more unhappy. Privatising public space ends up damaging everyday life.
What is to be done? Councils should open up ‘shared space’ at street level (as Kensington and Chelsea have done successfully), should allow flexible uses of abandoned buildings and urban places, and need to play a stronger ledership role. Meanwhile Whitehall should re-engineer our risk and litigation systems (in Sweden, if you cross the road and a car hits you it’s the driver’s fault) and review compulsory purchase rules.
Most of this is dead on target. The clue’s in the name, I think – public space can be managed like a commodity, but ultimately it belongs to us. We should have rights to it as citizens, not selective access as consumers. Private sector management of public spaces has to reflect this. Equally, shopping centres that look like streets will inevitably get treated as public property. Trying to police this out is clearly counterproductive.
I’m less convinced by some of the detail, though. Anna mainly relies on a few high-profile examples, and admits she can’t quantify the privatisation of public space. She then claims ‘a huge shift in land ownership has taken place’. But then we don’t know if this is true. And are design and space management really driving fear – rather than, say, media coverage of crime?
Does the recession allow us to rethink urban space, as Anna suggests? Perhaps. The HCA’s emerging regeneration strategy puts the public sector in the driving seat, masterplanning and – crucially – controlling land sales. But there’s almost no money: over 80 councils are competing for just 12 Accelerated Development Zone pilots and HCA budgets are tight. Fundamentally, authorities in deprived areas may have little leverage over developers – who can always walk away.
And the book is weak on the dynamics of urban change. Anna wants fluid cities which evolve and surprise. But sometimes she also wants to block change she doesn’t like. It’s hard to have it both ways.
When Liverpool One was built, the independent Quiggins Centre was demolished – sure, the building should have been saved, but the new L1 is clearly an improvement on what was there before. And is the creative core of Shoreditch really ‘under threat’ from rich incomers? Parts of the neighbourhood are changing. But the artists are simply moving up the road to Dalston and Hackney Wick. As a whole, London’s creative community is as active as ever. We do know that cheap workspace and social infrastructure – like restaurants, bars and clubs – can help support creative activity. But we can’t – and shouldn’t – be using these tools to freeze neighbourhoods in time. Cities are too rich and complex to be pinned down in this way.