You may not have noticed, but our cities are changing. As Anna Minton shows in her excellent new study, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-century City, the development of Canary Wharf in the 1990s blazed a trail that is now being followed in cities across the UK, creating privatized, personality-free zones stripped of any historical or cultural uniqueness. These hi-tech “defensible spaces” are promoted as being “clean and safe”. But they are also sterile and soulless. Pat, a hairdresser who has lived on the Isle of Dogs for 37 years, says of Canary Wharf today: “I don’t like going there. It always gives me the fear.”
Sections of our city centres are being sold off to private developers to create shopping monocultures such as Westfield London or "malls without walls" like Stratford City, which is being built for the 2012 Olympics and is one of the largest retail-led developments in Europe. It is, says Minton, "a private city within a city" and represents a return to the early 19th century when aristocrats owned great swathes of London, fortifying their estates of up-market housing with gates and private security forces.
Now, “land and property which has been in public hands for 150 years or more is moving back into private hands”. Minton argues that today’s privatised city centres and gated communities are fostering "a new culture of authoritarianism and control". Private security guards watch and record our every move with CCTV: the UK now has more surveillance cameras than the rest of Europe combined. The small city of Coventry will soon have 700. At Stratford City they intend to use unmanned aerial drones to watch the streets. In these privatized zones, security guards routinely move on beggars and the homeless, and they can even ban groups of young people and prevent the taking of photographs.
Our modern houses and streets may be "secured by design" (to quote the jargon), but Minton’s compelling argument is that "we are making the city a far more fearful place". The obsession with security and the privatisation of public space is also “a challenge to a type of public life, public culture and democracy in British cities” that has existed since at least the nineteenth century. Instead of local councils "owning" the city for us, now our streets and buildings (for example, Manchester’s Free Trade Hall) are being bought by investors. According to Minton, “today the ‘public good’ is what makes the most money”. It is government policy to sell off local authority assets worth £30 billion by 2010. The manager of one “Business Improvement District” controlling a city centre tells her: “Bugger democracy. Customer focus is not democratic.”
Clearly, it is important that cities should have vibrant economies. But in Britain the pursuit of profit threatens to undermine the quality of urban life. Minton’s book is a powerful indictment of urban planning in the UK under both Conservative and New Labour governments. It is essential reading for anyone concerned about how our cities will feel and function in the future.