Review: Ground Control 16.10.09

words William Wiles

When the Stirling Prize nominations were announced at the end of July, they included a surprise. One of the projects was not a building: it was BDP’s masterplan for part of central Liverpool, a scheme that included a number of different buildings by a variety of leading firms. Liverpool One, as the BDP project is called, is an exemplar of a new form of urbanism that has stealthily spread across the UK in the past two decades. It is an entirely private city district, built, owned, maintained and operated by the developer Grosvenor. Walking through its streets, you might feel that you are in the public realm, but you are in fact on private land and subject to Grosvenor’s rules.

This privatisation of British city streets is one of the main subjects of Anna Minton’s book Ground Control – it also covers housing policy and the so-called “Respect Agenda”, a variety of initiatives against petty crime and antisocial behaviour. This might sound like a rather diverse brief, and it is, but the uniting idea of the book is that the way we build and organise our cities is hurting our society. Although most crime is objectively falling, fear of crime continues to rise, as do rates of depression and anxiety. And places like Liverpool One are, Minton argues, at least partly responsible.

In privatised urban precincts like Liverpool One –the centres of Manchester and Newcastle and the Paddington Basin and Canary Wharf areas of London are other examples – rights ancient enough to be instinctive are overturned. Leafleting or taking photographs are restricted, and even being there might be frowned upon if one is young or does not plan on spending any money. The very idea of the street as a “public” place, in the full meaning of that word, is assaulted; what was the agora becomes part of the shop floor. These places are explicitly, cynically anti-urban. They sell themselves as being “clean and safe”, and in the process malign the rest of the city as being dirty and dangerous. They are engines of exclusion.

A similar story can be found in housing, as Minton reveals. New housing developments are increasingly walled and gated, and subject to an absurd system of police meddling under the name “Secured by Design”. “Secured by Design” limits the amount of shared public space and argues against having more than a single entry and exit point to a development. It’s a policy that creates residential fortresses, barricaded by “defensible space”, removed from the city. But, as Minton discovers, they are a spectacular failure – their residents not only feel more at risk of crime, it is possible that this manner of building can in some way aid criminals. Again, these developments constitute an attack on the idea of the city and remove what the late American urban theorist Jane Jacobs saw as the only effective crime-prevention device: street life. They are making British cities more divided and more fearful.

There’s much else in Ground Control, including an examination of the government's maddening Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders (which flatten whole districts of terraced housing to little useful effect) and a stomach-churning description of the “Respect Agenda”, the war on “hoodies” and youths in general. This last topic might sound as if it has less relevance to urban design, but Minton is right to include it. Instruments such as ASBOs, curfews, dispersal orders and the “Mosquito” – a gadget that emits a high-frequency noise inaudible to adults but distracting to young people, used to deter groups from loitering outside shops – are spatial in effect, driving certain sections of the population out of certain parts of the city.

Ground Control will make anyone who cares about the future of British cities very angry indeed. We are told – and this is certain to be repeated as New Labour wearily squares up for a confrontation with the electorate that it is near-certain to lose – that there has been an urban renaissance, a phenomenon with near-spiritual qualities. This book is an essential rejoinder to that particular lie. Behind the facade of regeneration is a frontal assault on the fabric and idea of the city, coupled with the bleeding death of civic democracy. As this attack is certain to be taken up with zeal under the next government, Ground Control also serves as a warning of things to come.

Ground Control, by Anna Minton, Penguin, £9.99

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