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.

Do urban security and segregation work? The question has no answer. The appearance of deterrence becomes its own justification, as in the old joke about the man who justified his loopy behaviour by maintaining it had proved effective in keeping the elephants away. What interests Minton more is whether barriers, guards and cameras make people feel safer. On this she is clear: they don’t. Indeed, there is much evidence to show that they make people more fearful. She cites the case of a woman living in a gated community who was terrified at hearing of an unidentified stranger inside the compound. Though the gates were there to relieve her craving for security, when it came to the test they did no such thing. Minton also reflects on one of the many side-effects of mobile phones. These, too, work as barriers of a kind. Now that most people have them, almost every visit to a friend or neighbour is preceded by a call, often a whole string of them. The unexpected rap on the door is rarer. For many it now conjures up instant fear of the criminal or confidence-trickster.

No matter how often and conclusively official figures set out the decline in urban crime, the public refuses to believe them. Imagining that they are being lied to, they carry on fortifying their houses. Minton’s conclusion, not a new one, is that in a media environment in which the link between emotive content and profit is thoroughly grasped, the true connection between crime figures and readers’ or viewers’ sense of security ranks low among editorial priorities. Here Minton’s usually acute feeling for the historical dimension, crucial if we’re to judge whether things really are getting worse, seems missing. The bloodthirstiness of popular journalism and the cult of the penny dreadful terrified many Victorian urban families. Perhaps the difference now is that we tend to believe we can call on a technical fix to counter fear. Older answers stressed a personal response: vigilance and aloofness in public places, and rigorously respectable behaviour. Both solutions are about closing off, not opening up. We seem to have a congenital disposition to find interaction with strangers more dangerous than it is.

The second main subject of Ground Control is the sorry state of current British housing policy and design, which Minton relates instructively to the security obsession. She begins by reviewing the history of the Pathfinder scheme, which, in an uncanny repetition of policies from the 1960s, has had the effect of condemning thousands of urban homes, particularly in the North-West of England. How many thousands Minton has found it hard to discover, as secretiveness shrouds such initiatives once they are subcontracted to the private sector, as almost all housing now is: the original target was 400,000, of which 57,000 had been scheduled to go in 2007. Most of these houses are still serviceable and many have been upgraded, so their demolition is an ecological scandal. This time around, it’s not the physical state of the homes that is seen as the main problem but the fact that they are in areas of high unemployment and low demand. By the ‘entirely obscure’ Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004, officials can now cause your home to be taken from you simply because they think it will improve ‘economic well-being’ – in other words raise values and make areas more marketable.

New housing in these difficult areas, and many others, tends to follow the precepts of ‘Secured by Design’, a tissue of rules endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers and, in its wake, by insurers and the security industry. Walls, fences, grilles and intercoms dominate; shared and indeterminate space is shrunk. As a result, Minton writes, we are ‘in the strange position of having police officers, rather than architects, responsible for the way places look and feel’. She mentions a Dutch architect, Hans van der Heijden, who worked closely with a Liverpool community to get away from this unsightly language and produce something friendlier, only to have his designs peremptorily rejected ‘in a mockery of democratic consultation’. Many housing architects could tell a similar tale.

Van der Heijden’s experience is a parable of the clash between continental European and American values over Britain’s built environment, recurrent in Ground Control. Minton has more to say about the American influences, no doubt because they wield so much power today. As long ago as 1961, Jane Jacobs in her Death and Life of Great American Cities presented the case for a free and open security system based on the mutual vigilance of the street. That was partly countered by Oscar Newman, whose Defensible Space of 1973 suggested design solutions to the rising tide of crime on public housing estates. The contrast between the two books owed much to the bitter American urban clashes of the late 1960s. If Jacobs’s liberal reputation still stands high today and is endorsed by Minton, it ought to be conceded that her ideas were often vague and romantic, fitter for Greenwich Village than Liverpool 8. Newman, no reactionary, offered a methodology and specific measures for improving tough places. The ‘defensible space’ idea was taken up more widely than he perhaps wished, because it was easy to apply. Mrs Thatcher’s housing guru Alice Coleman, for instance, picked up on Newman in her violent invective against public housing, Utopia on Trial (1985). She was given her head to revamp a few housing estates, but her success was short-lived. You don’t make a permanent social difference by shifting a wall here, chopping off a walkway there. There are limits to how much can be done by design.

Minton’s pages are full of later American wheezes slavishly seized on by British politicians and officials. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are behind privatised environments like Broadgate or Canary Wharf. The ‘Broken Windows’ policy of the 1980s and 1990s, enjoining police to target minor offences and endorsed by Mayor Giuliani in New York, was eagerly taken up here by Jack Straw but has failed to make a lasting impact on crime in either country. Minton also looks into the Asbo system, dominant until recently in the social policing of Manchester and some other cities. The legislation which brought in Asbos, she explains, came out of a New Labour reading of the American ‘Communitarian’ movement that encouraged ministers to believe they could deliver good public behaviour. She describes the cowed and restrictive culture which resulted in Salford, where the least street gathering of teenagers was likely to be disrupted by the police. However ‘phobic’ policies and laws may be in the United States, constitutional rights there would make such intervention illegal. Minton also points out that every legislative restraint to public freedom is fiercely contested in the States. Here restrictions have often been slipped in with minimal debate or notice.

One question Ground Control raises, as might almost any thorough study of current British social policy, is whether America is more listened to and copied than European countries are because of our shared language, or because Americans are smarter at policy promotion. For the rest, it is to Europe that Minton looks to cheer us up at the end of her discouraging report. Happily, she shuns the cliché of European pavement-café society, so often wheeled out as a model for enhancing public life. If the explosion over the past twenty years of British pavement cafés – no less a symptom of consumerism than shopping malls – were a sufficient guarantee that things were getting better, this book would not have been needed. Instead, Minton offers the ideal of an urban environment planned with freedom consciously in mind. We are back here to Jane Jacobs, but with the technical twist she lacked.

To illustrate this, Minton starts out her last chapter with another Dutchman, improbably a traffic engineer. The late Hans Monderman decided to get rid of traffic signs, barriers, railings and kerbs in various towns and village of his native Friesland and see how everyone got on. They got on so well that other places followed suit, including Kensington High Street and Seven Dials in London and Blackett Street in Newcastle. No increase of accidents has been reported. But as with security measures, the figures are not the main point. Monderman’s idea symbolises something larger. It returns responsibility and initiative to the individual driver and pedestrian, but within the framework of the law. The rules of the road remain. Freedom as the prerogative of the individual coexists with planning as the expression of the common weal.

Put like that, the crucial role of planning becomes clear. The planning committees of British local authorities are still the ones that command most public engagement and controversy, but they are increasingly drawn into economic, and therefore confidential, agendas. Planning must stop being directive economic planning, Minton argues, and encourage spontaneity and openness. To an extent, we have been here before. Physical planning became something of a dirty word in this country, she explains, after Peter Hall and the other freedom-loving authors of ‘Non-Plan’ tried to prise Britain out of the rigidities of the postwar planning system at the end of the 1960s. But the results were not what they intended, propelling us down the free-market path and producing places that ‘give us the fear’ every bit as much as the old housing estates.

The task now, Minton thinks, is to resuscitate the idea of a uniform urban realm in which freedom and resourcefulness are given their due role without being confused with the dictates of the market. That means making public spaces, streets and housing open to all rather than cutting them up into pieces, making them inviting, not a deterrent, and policing them in the old way by the law of the land, community watchfulness and commonsensical forbearance, not with cameras and guards. Minton gives a few instances of places where this has worked, like Trinity Buoy Wharf, the one corner of Docklands to have had its character enhanced rather than diminished by development. But she also warns of others, like Hoxton in London and central Manchester, where vigour and creativity have seeped away as property values rose and the marketing men moved in.

The truth, and Minton knows it, is that it’s hard to make the types of place she is after stick. Creating permanently better environments entails not just spontaneity but a better system. Imaginative architects and even enlightened developers are not that hard to find. More to the point are a planning system and planners who combine authority and respect with responsiveness and flexibility. That is a tall order for a profession that has been beaten down over the years into believing that it is good for little more than urban forecasting, monitoring development or drawing turning circles. Yet better planners and better planning are going to be needed if, along with Minton, we hope to start dismantling the stark, irrational edifice of urban fear.