The message has come through – it’s grim!

Below is a review of a book I read last week. It gave grist to my mill that Britain suffers from an anti-social built environment, a landscape composed of mundanely awful and divisive constructions like this snarling feature in the City of London, below. Such cityscapes exist, it turns out, because their creation has been positively encouraged, not just tolerated, by mainstream policies of both left and right.

anti-social space

Ground Control – Fear and Happiness in the twenty-first-century city by Anna Minton doesn’t shriek, it isn’t utopian and it certainly isn’t environmental determinism. But it is highly readable and thoroughly researched and it should be required reading for architects and planners.

Minton manages to cut right into the mismatch between the upbeat language of regeneration and the sense that our experience of the new urban environment is less than wonderful. She writes about soulless privately patrolled spaces that feed bigoted incuriosity and consumerism more than
they enhance civic responsibility or happiness. She points out that the social classes may be physically close to each other, but they remain separate, their lives unfolding in segregated and often fortified enclaves where encounters with strangers are rare.

Minton’s writing is vivid. She takes us to places where we see first-hand the impacts of the rich living behind science-fiction levels of security technology, planning fantasy lives where surprises aren’t supposed to happen. She outlines the urban policies that lead to fit-for-purpose
terraced houses being demolished and replaced by developments of questionable architectural quality. The book also gives shocking facts about military surveillance adapted for city-centre management. It makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone who was ever an enthusiast of New
Labour’s urban policies.

Divided into sections on The City, The Home and Civil Society, the book argues that the problems go back to a cocktail of misplaced beliefs and policies imported from America. These explain why Britain feels so different from the Continent. The French, the Germans, the Danes apparently enjoy an environment built for leisurely urban life and, by implication, truly civic public culture.

In today’s Britain Jane Jacobs’ happy shopkeepers and ubiquitous eyes on the street have no chance. Here we are caught in a vicious cycle of ever enhanced security technologies and growing paranoia which, echoed and amplified by the media, leaves us confused and angry as well as fearful. Gated communities are not, Minton writes, uniquely a luxury affair. High security living, as she calls it, produces segregated enclaves for the less rich too, not because people in Britain prefer it but because official enthusiasm for defensible space has put pressure on developers to
build it.

Those who see nothing to worry about in rolling out business improvement districts and giving priority to consumer culture, should read the book for its astute analysis of both the origins and probable outcomes of allowing private interests and private security to control public space
and behaviour. Minton gives depth to debates that easily get caught in shallow consumerist banalities.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that both Conservatives and New Labour have made concrete some frightening ideologies that separate people, control behaviour and institutionalise mistrust. And this has been done in the seductive language of urban renaissance and safety. The privatization of what was formerly public has been justified by the TINA-doctrine – ‘there is no alternative’. But the research and critiques that Minton reports demonstrate that complaints as well as alternatives
have been voiced for years and decades already.

The message of the book is not new. What is remarkable is that it has taken so long for critiques that have become boringly repetitive in academic and campaign literature, to find their way into such an accessible form. Minton is to be thanked for tackling the complicated relationships between people’s (and local government’s) desire for clean, safe and green environments and the rise of an economic orthodoxy where commercial logic penetrates areas where markets could never operate.
To argue her case, Minton repeatedly refers to Oliver James’ book Affluenza about how unhappy Britain and the USA are compared to Continental Europe and argues that Britain has frequently copied American urban policies. This is not quite persuasive. In terms of the health of civil society, the Continent has its troubles, and just like here, the ugliest results of social polarisation are rarely shown to visitors. On the other hand, Britain’s stubbornly persistent class system and the land-ownership patterns that go with it suggest that there is more to be explored here than a penchant for American fashions.

financial times 2Nonetheless, Minton has managed to weave together a readable story out of a situation that is complicated and complex, and where reality easily gets lost in a mix of manipulative market-speak and politicians’ claims to impotence. And it’s a story that architects and planners, as well as architectural journalists, are ethically bound to engage with. After all, in the last few decades we have predominantly built for the individualist, the winner, the consumer and the paranoiac. As Minton notes, now that we no longer live in Financial Times, it is a fantastic time to change all this.

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