There has been more construction in Britain in the last decade than at any time since the 1950s and 1960s, when tower blocks, flyovers and arterial roads sliced through cities and communities.
Today, Liverpool One, Bristol’s Cabot Circus, Highcross in Leicester and what promises to be the biggest of all, Stratford City in London, are just a few of the huge mixed-use projects that are reshaping our cities.
But just as the centralised planning of the post-war era failed to stand the test of time, the consequences of this new generation of schemes are also disturbing.
What has passed almost without notice is that these places are changing our public life and public culture, removing large parts of the city, including the streets, from a genuinely public realm. These new developments are in the hands of private companies, which own and control the entire area, policing them with private security companies and round the clock CCTV surveillance. The result is high security, ‘defensible’ architecture – imported from America – and strict rules and regulations governing behaviour. Even innocent activities such as taking photographs are forbidden, not to mention handing out leaflets or busking without permission.
The point of the regulations and security is, apparently, to make places cleaner and safer and to address the problem of rising fear of crime, which is among the highest in Europe. Despite continuous statistics showing that crime, including violent crime, is falling, people simply don’t believe it – 80% of Britons, in fact, fear that crime is on the up. Paradoxically, it is this new city, with its security and controls, which is the problem rather than the solution, undermining trust between people and increasing fear.
The paradox is that while more security is supposed to make us safer, counter-intuitively it only makes us more scared. Too much security removes our personal and collective responsibility for our own safety, replacing ‘natural surveillance’ – the natural interaction between strangers which keeps places safe – with a more authoritarian environment, which only increases fear and dilutes trust between people.
While more security is supposed to make us safer, it only makes us more scared
But as a result of the credit crunch, the property market that fuelled the creation of these high-security environments has collapsed. A few developments – Stratford City, next to the Olympic site, for example – are going ahead, but many others are on hold indefinitely.
The stalling of the private development sector gives everyone involved in regeneration – including construction companies – a chance to think again about the environments we build for the future. Public sector agencies that control land and sites, from the Homes and Communities Agency to Network Rail, now have an opportunity to take centre stage again and work with designers and contractors to develop new schemes that keep the public realm genuinely public.
Because new ways of thinking are emerging. On the continent, ideas around the use of ‘shared space’, which has much in common with ‘natural surveillance’, are taking off. The first examples here have been built in Brighton and Ashford, Kent, where over-protective barriers and warning signs have been removed and motorists and pedestrians are trusted to keep each other safe. And new models for property trusts in cities, where publically-owned sites are leased to developers or community groups for the public good, are being discussed.
The financial crisis has brought with it an unexpected opportunity to ask ourselves: what kind of places and what public life and public culture do we want from our cities?
Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City, published by Penguin