Anna Minton explains why we should steer clear of ‘malls without walls'
Privatising the public realm has, as I argue in my report published last month, two main results: that the trend towards privately owned and managed "malls without walls" creates strangely bland and sterile environments, and that they will polarise our cities.
I argue that these highly regulated places, policed by private security, create enclaves that are disconnected from the surrounding communities, businesses and culture, and are therefore unsustainable in the long term.
They also exclude certain activities, such as roller-blading, begging, cycling and political protesting.
On a more abstract but nonetheless important level, questions are raised about democracy as decisions about the public realm shift from councils to developers.
Although few have noticed as yet, this is the template for a huge amount of construction under way around the country, from King's Cross, Stratford City and Paddington Basin in London, to the centres of Liverpool, Sheffield and Hove. My contention is that once we do notice what we're creating, we're not going to like it.
In Liverpool, developer Grosvenor is to take control of 34 streets in the heart of the city, replacing traditional rights of way with "public realm arrangements" policed in a self-conscious echo of the USA by quartermasters or sheriffs, who will ensure that even eating can only take place in certain designated areas.
Highly regulated environments, policed by private security, create enclaves
What has been gratifying is that a great many people - from developers to senior policemen - seem to agree with my conclusions. Particularly pleasing has been the response of one senior developer who, initially riled by my research, conceded that he was "unable to dispatch" my argument.
Not everyone agrees however. Especially pertinent was the response from Dermot Finch, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research's Centre for Cities, who was until recently on the Treasury staff. Finch, who participated in the panel debate that launched the report, felt that I was criticising "retail-led regeneration" which is, he said, what people want. Dismissing the disquiet over the growing sterility and sameness of our cities he said people liked "Zara and Pizza Express" and questioned whether there was something "anti-private sector" about my report.
I find this response disappointing. Questioning the current approach to development does not indicate a failure to understand the private sector. It goes without saying that regeneration is underpinned by the private sector, as it has been for the past 20 years.
Of course economic viability is vital but the point I am trying to make is that if city change is going to stand the test of time it has to be about more than shopping. Otherwise the "malls without walls" we are creating will be no more successful than the tower blocks and arterial roads that characterised the last great wave of urban change of the 1950s and 1960s.