Today's British cities are infected by the seeping control of private spaces beyond the democratic process to private landowners because central government has aggregated policy for the public realm to the private sector.
This was the main thrust of an interesting and engaging debate chaired by historian Tristram Hunt at London's ICA on Wednesday.
In his book Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, Hunt, a lecturer in urban history at Queen Mary, University of London, describes a visit to Manchester by Friedrich Engels 160 years ago. Hunt says Engels was appalled at the social segregation and spatial zoning between the working classes and the bourgeois that allowed the poor to live in poverty, out of sight and out of mind of the city's elders.
Under the provocative banner Cities in Crisis, the talk also drew on the work of Anna Minton, author of a new book, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City.
Minton portrayed cities as infected by gated communities, privatised streets, privatised security and surveillance. In the past 10 to 15 years, she said there has been a creeping trend of a new template for total private ownership of erstwhile public spaces. Whole areas of our cities are being run by private firms who can therefore dictate their own social codes and so-called regeneration zones have abolished ancient rights of ways and thoroughfares.
However there is still hope, maintained Minton. With the financial crisis and many development projects placed on hold, now is the time to stop and think.
We the public, can use this time to our advantage. Minton saw it as a time for opportunity for people who live in urban environments to shape their community by simply asking what type of city they want to live in.
Architect Nigel Coates said cities should stimulate citizens. He cited cyclists as an example of taking individual responsibility, weaving in and out of traffic using instinctive behaviour, such as travelling down one-way streets: co-existing with the infrastructure but not governed by it.
The neutered state of local authorities
The theme of the debate also looked at the role of the neutered state of local authorities, who were to blame for either not maintaining public spaces to a decent standard or being too easily seduced by private developers and allowing them to take total control of regeneration zones.
Also on the panel was councillor Daniel Moylan, deputy leader of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea and deputy chair of Transport for London. He said local authorities could not be blamed for greenlighting such schemes, particularly in rundown areas, where if the local authority says no to new development it could be five years or more until another proposal lands on the planning officer's desk.
He agreed that gated communities and shopping centres were not the way forward. Societies work well together when they are not segregated and people actually talk to each other, he said. Moylan's borough has removed barriers on crossings and carriageways to allow a more spontaneous flow of people and traffic, but he said that in these litigious times people cannot take total responsibility for their own safety. Moreover, people distrust change, he added, and are happy to live with the status quo most of the time.
Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Foundation, represented private developers in this debate. She agreed that local authorities have aggregated responsibility of public spaces to the private sector, simply because it's cheaper and easier for them to do so.
She said developers are not interested only in profit; better environments represent better value for all. In the King's Cross area in London, Europe's largest urban regeneration scheme, for example, it was easier and more practical for the developer to take control of the whole zone and create a 'public' space, because they can do it better; more often than not, said Peace, developers don't trust the local authority to manage public space well.
Peace also raised an interesting point that echoed Minton's. Due to the slump, she said, there is a big hole in Bradford city centre. Rather than build another shopping mall, why not incorporate some of the public money that goes into building schools and hospitals and together with commercial investments encourage more 'permeability' with buildings fitting in with a community, rather than alienating it? She called for a more holistic approach to urban design and better partnerships with local government.
Are cities in crisis? Yes was the general consensus from the panel, at least in this country – and we only have ourselves to blame, along with the politicians and developers.