“We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us”
Winston Churchill addressing the Commons in the chamber of the House of Lords on October 28, 1943.
I have always been interested in how we affect our physical surroundings – not just the appearance but the processes at work. Some of that explains I suppose my fascination with the work of Christopher Alexander.
The world in the 21st century is overwhelmingly urban and it behoves us to make that world one in which our children and grandchildren will want to live. On 17th October I went to a conference at the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. The topic was “The Politics of Place” – more particularly why even when there is agreement about the sorts of places we like to see, we are apparently still incapable of building them. Of course the answer to this one will depend on where you start. The ‘right libertarian’ will argue it is all because we have too much interference in private property rights by the planning system. Get rid of that and all will be well.
One of the speakers on the day, Benjamin Barber, had some interesting things to say on that theme, in the context of an analysis of the spatial implications of democracy – and vice versa. His analysis is much more than a nuanced version of the simplistic cause and effect link espoused by the likes of Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman. He sees public space as an indispensable requirement of democracy, going back to the agora of the Greeks. According to Barber, the corruption of public space can be linked to the deterioration of democratic process and to the growing restrictions we can see on free speech itself.
He identifies five forces/trends at work – suburbanisation, commercialisation, privatisation, bureaucratisation and simulation. Of course references to commercialisation and privatisation will give those who believe the answer always lies in private property rights apoplexy, but bear with me.
Barber’s arguments about suburbanisation are I think the weakest – at least in a UK context. The US suburb is more likely to be totally dominated by private car use, many will have no footway/sidewalk and very few will have any amenities. Any sense of neighbourhood in the historic sense is lost and since all journeys are by car, the chances of random encounters are much reduced. The idea that people fled the city at least in part because of its isolation is belied by the fact that in most of the suburban US, the same isolation now exists but without the city amenities.
These characteristics do exist in UK suburbs, but not to the same extent and probably developed over a more limited time period. Places like Swindon, which grew rapidly on the back of appeal decisions that allowed massive housing without associated amenities are not typical of British suburban housing. In London for example most prewar suburbs were built around the railway and the tube system – Betjeman’s beloved Metroland. Even so there are still large areas of housing in the UK, often built by the public sector rather than the private, where the same lack of economic and cultural diversity prevails.
Barber also cites what he calls commercialisation. To an extent this seems to fall from the US system of zoning which very precisely delineates the nature of the uses allowed in a given area, but without attempting as the UK system does to allocate numbers or control growth levels. As a consequence, US cities and metropolitan areas a surrounded by vast tracts of housing zoned purely for a single house type on given plot sizes, usually much bigger than would prevail in the UK. The zoning system segregates uses much more comprehensively than the UK system does with the outcome a dispersal of uses across geographically large areas. Where people do come together it is largely in malls which are private and where the owners often seek to limit access by those commercially undesirable. Teenagers and the elderly have been excluded or moved on by mall owners since they simply don’t spend money and take up valuable space that could be given over to consumers.
Where cafes exist, they are in vast food courts, with false variety and set up for rapid turnover. Lingering over a cup of coffee while chatting up the local girls/boys is positively discouraged in such places. Commercialisation of the public space on this scale destroys the opportunity for public life. The paseo or promenade, the Sunday stroll, isn’t allowed to happen in a private mall since it serves no commercial purpose. Indeed many of the activities in Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language‘ that he places at the centre of living in neighbourhoods, would be impossible or likely to be prohibited. In some malls even sitting is prohibited except in approved spaces.
This leads to Barber’s third trend, that of privatisation. The growth in gated communities in the US is spreading to the UK[i]. Where access is not directly closed, housing is often designed to exclude not include the casual visitor. Gated communities make real our secession from the public space that begins with the use of mobile phones/iPods/Blackberries. These tools, valuable in themselves, encourage us to treat public spaces as if they were private, impoverishing public life in the process. There is the story, probably apocryphal but describing an essential truth, of a group of teenagers chattering happily as they sit on a wall in the street. It is only when drawing closer that we can see they are all talking not to each other but on their mobiles. Commercialisation and privatisation also privatise us – we begin to see ourselves not as citizens, as inhabitants of a polis, but as consumers.
The process of bureaucratisation is I suppose self explanatory – professional judgment begins to cut into democratic life. Health and Safety concerns are for example entirely professionalised. As a consequence the citizen again becomes a consumer – this time of professional services - not someone exercising judgement on their own behalf and in their own right.
Finally Barber described a process he called simulation largely arising from frustrated attempts to counter the other trends, but leading for example in the urban environment to the faux variety seen at places like the Disney Corporation’s Celebration and in much new housing development, where perceived variety is no more than wallpaper.
According to Barber the outcome is that the idea of a democratic public realm vanishes; the very idea of being a citizen vanishes; replaced by consumers and consumerism. These forces may operate in the name of liberty but in the end are destroying it by destroying the important distinction between public and private liberty.
Commercialism, supported it must be said by tax breaks and concessions from government, may give us an almost unlimited choice of car for example but cannot give us the same choice - often any choice - of public transport. Our choices when we have them are often themselves destructive – ‘Sophie’s Choice’. We don’t have a chance to set agendas; they are handed down by the political or the corporate state. Nor do we have the chance to open up lateral communication. While talking to each other is after all the stuff of civic life, the limits placed on speech and communication by these trends make this increasingly difficult. The exercise of free speech and the opportunities for dissent are closed down. Free speech is only possible in public spaces and when space is privatised free speech is thereby diminished and damaged. In the US judges have already decided that the local neighbourhood mall is not a public space and allowed mall owners to prohibit distribution of literature, protest or other forms of behaviour they decide they do not want to allow. As Barber put it “there is no Speakers’ Corner in the Malls of America”.
This link between the growth in private spaces and the declining opportunities for dissent that creates is not often so explicitly stated. It seems obvious of course but so long as opponents of state power limit their opposition to a simplistic call for more private ownership – don’t reclaim the streets, sell them – it seems unlikely to be properly recognised. In any event even the public spaces are being closed down. State ‘ownership’ of the street is being used as a device to prevent and suppress public dissent – and not just about the war in Iraq. Under section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 it is an offence to organise or take part in a demonstration in a public place within the “designated area” (up to 1 km around Parliament) if authorisation has not been given by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. When so-called public ownership still leads to the suppression of dissent, it become that much more difficult to argue against the alternatives. Even so we must find ways to do so.
(As far as I can tell much of Barber’s argument was drawn from his new book ‘Consumed’.)
[i] It would appear that gated communities are not self-evidently attractive places to live. Existing research showed that motivations for living in a gated community are primarily driven by the need for security and a more generalised fear of crime. Importantly there was no apparent desire to come into contact with the ‘community’ within the gated or walled area. With regard to the specific impacts on crime only two studies could be identified. However, these indicate that sense of community is lower in gated ‘communities’ but perceived sense of safety is higher. While property crime went down violent crime was not affected. In some gated communities there was a greater fear of crime and outsiders more generally. – from Gated Communities: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence