Ground Control

Anna Minton, 19th August 2009ce

Ground Control
The last decade has seen more construction in Britain than at any time since the 1950s and 60s, when tower blocks 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 new landmark projects characterising our cities.

This is the architecture of post-industrial New Labour, which has witnessed regeneration projects, large and small, take over every town and city in Britain. But just as the centralised planning of the industrial era failed to stand the test of time, the consequences of many of these grand schemes are also disturbing.

What has passed almost without notice is that these places are also changing our public life and public culture, removing large parts of the city, including the streets, from a genuinely public realm and handing them over to private companies, who own and control the entire area, policing it with private security and round the clock surveillance. The consequence is high security, ‘defensible’ gated architecture and strict rules and regulations governing behaviour.

Even innocent activities such as taking photographs are forbidden, not to mention handing out political leaflets, skateboarding, rollerblading, busking without permission or selling the Big Issue.

This new security conscious architecture is based on a principle called ‘defensible space’, imported from America. Often it favours fortress style enclaves, with guards monitoring who comes in and out of the development. Some of the private places are more open than others but rules, guards and CCTV are always present. The result is the creation of strangely similar, sterile environments, described by critics as ‘malls without walls’. Disconnected from the surrounding environment and local character of places they feel like they could be anywhere.

Alongside these new private estates, companies now run ‘Business Improvement Districts’ in more and more of our town centres, which operate along similar lines, with private security enforcing strict rules and regulations. ‘CityCo’, for example, is the name of the company in charge of central Manchester and it is no coincidence that this part of Britain also hands out the highest number of ASBOs.

The point of all these regulations and high security is, apparently, to make places cleaner and safer and to address the problem of soaring fear of crime, which is among the highest in Europe. Despite figures showing that crime, including violent crime, is falling people simply don’t believe it, with 80 per of Britons fearing crime is on the up.

What I found researching my book, ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city’, is that it is today’s obsession with security which is part of the problem rather than the solution. Denmark has a similar crime rate to Britain, which the European Crime and Safety Survey puts down to a binge drinking culture, urbanisation and a large population of young people. But, despite this, fear of crime in Denmark is low and trust between people is high. Levels of trust are directly linked to happiness and this is why Denmark is the happiest country in the world according to the World Values Survey. Open street CCTV is also banned in Denmark and the security culture is undeveloped.

In their defence, supporters say many people like these places and flock to shop there. But many others do not like the sterile sameness. And many, who do not wish to shop, but merely want to wonder around – the young, the old, families with children, the less well-off – simply feel these places are not for them. Others, such as beggars and the homeless are more forcibly excluded by the guards.

At the same time, our homes are also becoming high security environments. The stereotype of gated communities is of luxury homes for the super rich but in many parts of the country the majority of new homes – from starter homes to social housing - are built in a complex-style surrounded by gates and round the clock surveillance. This is the architecture of fear and it is bringing high security, gated enclaves into all our towns and cities.

The paradox is that while more security is supposed to make us safer it 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.

As security takes over the places we live in the result is not to keep fear of crime at bay. Instead it continues to rise. In Liverpool, ‘Drones’ – the unmanned spyplanes used in Iraq – fly over parts of the city and security experts predict they will fly over Stratford City and other parts of London in the run-up to the Olympics. The effect of military hardware of this kind is not reassuring. Fear of crime is very high in Liverpool and so is security, from the guards patrolling Liverpool One to the Drones on the outskirts. But the reality is that, despite the perception that Liverpool is a high crime city, crime is actually the second lowest in the region and significantly lower than in comparable size cities like Leeds or Manchester. This is a place where fear of crime, rather than crime itself, is the problem and the architecture of fear is one of the reasons why.

But while a few developments, for example Stratford City, will still go ahead, bailed out by the government, the property market model which fuelled the creation of these places has collapsed. At the same time, unexpected ideas from Europe around the use ‘shared space’, which has much in common with ‘natural surveillance’, are taking off. And new models for trusts in cities, keeping streets and public buildings in the public realm, are being discussed. When I began writing this book I thought its message would be a gloomy one. Far from it: now the financial crisis has brought with it an unexpected opportunity to ask ourselves, what kind of public life and public culture do we want from our cities?

Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city’ is published by Penguin.

Details of the book are on Anna Minton’s site

An excerpt from the book can be read here.

You can buy ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century' from

This article originally appeared in the Big Issue in The North and is reproduced at U-Know with the author’s kind permission.