Cities Under Siege

In the pub last night I was reading Nicholas Lezard’s illuminating review  of Cities Under Siege by Stephen Graham. I’ve chalked this up on my ‘books to read (but probably will just read about)’ list.


The book is provocatively subtitled ‘The New Miltary Urbanism’ and aims to be an “exposé of how political violence operates through the spaces of urban life”. On the most basic level this is expressed by the intense surveillance that urban populations are placed under – and Londoner’s are some of the most watched over of any city dwellers in the world.
Lezard mentions the London Transport poster ‘Secure beneath watchful eyes’ that he ponders may have employed a 1940’s design style to invoke memories of Orwell and Big Brother.

That poster first appeared in 2003 when people were still in the grip of post-9/11 paranoia. But the increased level of CCTV did little to prevent the 7/7 bombers bringing carnage to London’s bus and tube network 2 years later. And it was noticeable that after the attack next to no CCTV images of any of the suspected bombers appeared even though they had passed along thoroughfares covered every inch by surveillance cameras. So who are the cameras really there to reassure?

Lezard’s review highlights Graham’s point that, “the powerful, particularly those in the Republican party in America, do not like cities. For a start, they’re ethnically diverse places full of liberals who don’t vote for them.”
As the recent UK riots demonstrated, cities are places of insurrection and dissent that can spread quickly and uncontrollably. It put me in mind (again) of a line from Patrick Keiller’s London where Robinson argues that:

“That the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities, a protestant fear of Popery and socialism, the fear of Europe, that had disenfranchised Londoners and undermined their society.
Like the idea in Graham’s book that the provincial Repulicans fear the inner city, Robinson/Keiller sees London as, “a city under siege from a suburban government which uses homelessness, pollution, crime and the most expensive and run down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.”

The other recent manifestation of urban disquiet that has given the ruling elite a rude awakening has been the Occupy movement, seeming to randomly spring out of the asphalt to reclaim prime strategic locations to assert the case of the “99%”.  Over the weekend I ‘stumbledupon’ two articles exploring the links between Situationism and the Occupy movement.

I suppose people were always going to see the parallels with Situationist-inspired events of 1968 and here on The Bureau of Public Secrets those theories are further drawn out.
On Cryptoforestry, Wilfried Hou Je Bek writes about ‘Occupy as psychogeographic urbanism’, “Psychogeographically speaking the idea of a tent Potemkin village has great appeal.”

I have to confess that when I headed down to Occupy LSX at St. Paul’s I was partly inspired by the significance of a tented village emerging on the ancient and significant site of Ludgate Hill. Of all the places in London to occupy, the protestors had claimed a geographic node point in the city’s history. A feature of the landscape that had been noted from the first Roman incursions right up to the building of the church on a site of great pagan ceremonial importance.

By the time I had left the encampment I could see the psychogeographical resonance would have to emerge at a later date. For now it is still about economic injustice and corporate greed.


Does London Exist?

the precincts of central London

Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity  2. The skin of an onion?  3. The geography of conflict  4. Journeys and sojourns  5. A strategy for identifying London  6. Town trails

types of housing tenure, 1966

Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.

the central spaces of importance for conservation

I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character  Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)

plan for the South East, 1967

Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.

strategic plan for the South East, 1970

The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?

maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966


Walking through Downtown Los Angeles

Downtown LA

“The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk — an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.
The walker, through her/his everyday practices of life, resists the organizing power of both the gaze and the map. The city is produced every day, inscribed with her/his journeys, journeys that create the city but ‘elud[e] legibility’. “
Michel de Certeau, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ (1984)

I wonder what de Certeau would make of Los Angeles, a city (or federation of cities) where walking is considered aberrant behaviour. Can a city be produced by daily car non-journeys. The contrast when I went to Downtown the other day was palpable – the fact of poverty, of diversity in body size, of people conducting the usual transactions of city life – walking from place-to-place, the possibility of random encounters, the ability to narrate your own transit through the space. These are things absent from the rest of the city that I have seen.

Ground Control: Fear and Happiness

Anna Minton’s book ‘Ground Control: Fear and Happiness’ is very timely as the Blair/Brown era draws to a close and a further period of rampant privatisation dawns. The privatisation of public space is one of Blair’s great gifts to the nation – anodyne, soulless windswept malls and gentrified post-industrial zones where the urban walker is nicked on suspicion of terrorist offences.
Here’s a great summary of the book from the New Statesman
What we have here is the first serious account since the crash of what happened to our public spaces and private homes during the boom, and how New Labour reneged on its early promises of an “urban renaissance”, swapping European sophistication for a kind of mean-spirited, bad-weather version of exurban America. Stepping adroitly from detailed research into local government to sharp architectural criticism, and from rigorous sociology to anecdote, Ground Control serves as a horrible bestiary of Blairism’s jargon-laden thuggery and its manifestations in everyday space. Whether through the demolition of the very “communities” that Labour purported to represent (“Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders”), or an unprecedented expansion of harassment and surveillance (“the Respect agenda”), or the obliteration of public space (the introduction of totally private “business improvement districts”), all was done in the name of the “many” and not the “few”. The careful sobriety of Anna Minton’s writing makes the damage all the more shocking.

We start with the Big Bang. To “regenerate” the former docks and warehouse districts, the Thatcher government imposed on certain designated areas (usually over the opposition of Labour councils, which later applied the same methods) a combination of control-obsessed statism and anarchic capitalism, in the shape of enterprise zones such as Broadgate and Canary Wharf. These spaces, though not gated, were emphat­ically private. Certain activities – protesting, loitering, generally being unsightly – were expressly prohibited. New Labour expanded these places, but it did so in a far more sophis­ticated manner. The new private districts – Paddington Waterside in London, Liverpool One – were organised as much around streets as wind-blasted towers and plazas, with the dual aim of welcoming shoppers and deterring undesirables.

Yet their difference from actual streets became apparent when – as happened in Liverpool One – protesters against the developments found themselves criminalised for leafleting. Minton’s descriptions of these places are set against journeys through their contrasting surroundings – a conversation in a grim Millwall pub overlooked by Canary Wharf, the juxtaposition of regenerated inner Manchester with the blighted estates of Salford. Meanwhile, areas up and down the country were designated business improvement districts. In practice, this meant that private companies were employed to police these areas to keep them “clean and safe” from anything surprising: from politicos, the homeless, the very young or very old, the odd lost flâneur. In the case of Manchester, the entire city centre is “secured” as privately controlled yet publicly owned space.

This obsession with security does not stop on the edges of the financial districts and malls. Minton finds that “Secured by Design” policies have turned the remnants of social housing into prison-like enclaves, as heavily gated as the outposts of the rich. Her central argument is that the obsession with eliminating chance through absurdly heavy surveillance, or by surrounding housing developments with ramparts, helps create insidious fear. Hence the fear of crime rising in direct correlation with a fall in the crime rate.

Enclaves rich and poor are caught in a terrible symbiosis. Greater Manchester, described in this book as a kind of capital of Blairism, is a place where – at least in Salford – more is spent on issuing antisocial behaviour orders than on youth services, and where the “transformed” centre and docks barricade themselves against an outskirts of criminalised poverty.

Swaths of (usually public) housing in “regenerating” northern cities such as Newcastle or Sheffield faced their own transformation in the form of the appalling Pathfinders – essentially slum clearances without rehousing in order to “renew”, or rather artificially stimulate, a housing market. The story here is almost unbelievable: from government sponsorship of entirely unregulated Rachmanite slumlords to the destruction of council housing, presented as a matter of (heavily managed) “choice”, all amounted to a de facto policy of slum creation, and created a council waiting list of more than a million.

However, Ground Control can often resemble the lament of a disillusioned believer in New Labour’s Urban Renaissance. Minton’s alternative is a European continental urbanism of piazzas and shared space, with mixed council, private and co-operative housing. Yet, although Zurich or Palermo might not be as grotesquely paranoid and unequal as London or Manchester, she fails to see the comparative virtues of Britain. The endemic racism of public life so common in Switzerland and Italy has only recently begun to creep into our politics.

Minton’s advocacy of a tamed capitalism, in the shape of artistic reuse and creative property development, seems like mere rearranging of furniture. The end of the boom gives her account a vertiginous sense of possibility that she never quite translates into proposals to match the scale of destruction. Nonetheless, Ground Control is a book that needs to be read, both in the gated communities, by way of explanation, and in those places at the receiving end of Asbos, Secured by Design or Pathfinder – as ammunition.

Owen Hatherley is the author of “Militant Modernism” (Zero Books, £9.99)