Walls, Fences, Grilles and Intercoms

Andrew Saint

  • Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-Century City by Anna Minton
    Penguin, 240 pp, £9.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 14 103391 4

In the perpetual struggle between security and liberty, the city stands in the front line. From time immemorial people have found freedom in cities, yet urban coexistence can’t go on without countless checks and regulations. Lately these have been getting out of hand. All over the transport system disembodied voices boom out their futile admonitions; cameras track our every turning as we walk; city drivers are subject to ever stricter controls.

More sinister than these irritations and indignities is the creeping privatisation of the British public realm: so argues Anna Minton in this admirable but troubling book. Ground Control draws together years of investigation on Minton’s part into a mesh of urban policy issues: planning, housing, crime, local government, consumer behaviour, media responsibility and financial regulation. In all these she sees Britain as having taken a wrong turning, persisting down the same inexorable (and generally American) road since 1979. These mistakes, she claims, have contributed much to the well-attested finding that the British are now the least happy of Western European nations.

Minton’s inquiry starts with land ownership. Fifty years ago most urban shops and houses in Britain were accessible directly from public land. Behaviour up to the threshold was regulated by the law of the land, monitored, if at all, by the police. On the proliferating housing estates, laid out with naive disdain for street patterns, everyone could move freely inside as well as around blocks, paving the way for crime, vandalism and, much more, the fear of both. In reaction, public housing has been sold off under Thatcherism and since. It started piecemeal by the unit; later came wholesale delegation to trusts, which invariably cordon off as much territory as they can from public access.

Meanwhile the affluent, and now many moderate earners, have migrated to gated communities. These are controlled and panoptically spied on by companies whose rules – tucked away in subclauses – prescribe behaviour more tightly than would be permissible in the street. In the privately owned malls where many of us shop, watchful guards winnow out vagrants or eccentrics threatening the ethic of consumer conformity. Even Canary Wharf, symbol of London’s new capitalism, is located on private ground and similarly patrolled. The look of these places is enough to keep many people out. ‘I don’t like going there. It always gives me the fear,’ an Isle of Dogs housewife told Minton.

Segregation is carried out, of course, in the name of security. An irreducible minimum of both is needed for successful human interaction, particularly in urban environments. The hard questions have to do with how much safeguarding should take place, how extensive and carefully monitored it should be, and what ends it serves. Most ancient city walls were never tested. Their crushing expense dwarfed that of the cathedrals, but they allowed the authorities to police and tax those coming in and out, and created the confidence required for trade to thrive within them. In the case of modern ‘walls’, Minton shows that the main incentive for building them is profit. In the business of urban landownership the best returns come from exclusive, highly regulated environments. That is why the duke of Bedford and other great London landlord-developers gated their estates and gardens. Only at the end of the 19th century were they forced to dismantle these barriers, as the regulatory power of local authorities superseded that of the old private landlords, and the sense of a uniform public realm matured. That is what we are in danger of losing again, Minton warns.

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