For a while now I’ve struggled with Britain, or more specifically, London. I know it’s an iconic city with millions of great museums and parks and more history than most nations, but sometimes just living here feels like such hard work. Having had the fortune to visit some of the worlds’ other great cities I’ve been able to make comparisons between here and elsewhere. I’m not certain that this is the right way to judge a city, but it’s the only way I can. For example, having landed in Geneva airport, finding myself in the city centre within 10 minutes by train was staggering when compared to the arduous trek into London that awaits anybody who relies on public transport from Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted airports. Or having arrived in New York City on a Sunday night to find that most shops on the Upper West Side were open until midnight, when even Oxford Street, the most money-hungry of streets in all of Britain, is deserted by 7.00pm on a Sunday.
In different cities in different countries I’ve always felt that life there is easier because the cities make life easier, but I’d always struggled to work out why I felt like this. I usually put it down to the fact that I was on holiday in these other cities and not in the daily grind of the routine of commuting to work and then back home as I would be if I were back in London. But a few weeks ago I discovered a book called Ground Control by Anna Minton and I suddenly realised what made me feel the way I do about London.
Ground Control describes how the growing tendency in Britain is to create places for profit. Due to various laws that have been passed by governments of different political persuasions since the 1970s the emphasis in modern city development is to get the most economic value out of the land and what goes on it, rather than to create something that simply benefits the place for the sake of improving it. Using the development of London’s docklands and Canary Wharf as her starting point, Minton goes on to illustrate the numerous examples of how Britain’s cities are being milked for (and then protected to sustain) economic gain by housing associations, property developers and private landlords.
New developments in Britain almost always feature offices and apartments (which guarantees income by renting out the office space and the sale of the apartments) and retail space that are usually taken up by nationwide chains. Any local or unique atmosphere the place may have once had is lost once it has a Starbucks, a Tesco Metro, a Pret/Eat, a Boots and a Pizza Express, just like everywhere else in the country.
It is the sections of Ground Control about private spaces in public areas that made me realise Minton had managed to articulate the feelings of restriction and repression I’d felt in London, and that the different attitudes I’d seen and felt when abroad I hadn’t imagined. I’m sure many photographers in London can give an example of a time that they’ve been stopped by private security guards when taking photos in private space in London. This recent video made by Shoot Experience highlights perfectly how private property seems to consider itself of a higher importance than the citizens of a nation and the law of the land. The amount of private space has rocketed in past few decades, and there seems no way to oppose it nevermind try and stop it. The line between what is public and what is private space is always blurred and the private space is always policed by private security guards with a raft of rules and legislation to enforce, usually using anti-terrorism as a catch-all excuse in order to get their way.
The UK as a whole can be a very prohibitive place to live. Minton argues that legislating for bad behaviour (through ASBOs, for example) and the rise of CCTV and gated communities contributes to a rise in fear and the fear of crime (even when statistics show that crime has been falling for years) rather than increasing a sense of personal safety. When this is added to the large swathes of private space in the middle of public cities that restrict what can or can’t be done the feeling is that the city, which has developed relatively organically for centuries, is now somebody else’s property. Minton argues that this approach towards regulating the city has been influenced by policies that have come from America and that the openness and the freedom to do nothing in a city that is still enjoyed in most of Europe is being driven out of the UK. In the book Minton writes:
“This is a very European way to enjoy life, window shopping, wandering around, doing nothing, going to the market, taking in the cafe society of the continental squares and piazzas. Our politicians claim this is the type of city they want to see, but the obsession with the micro management of the environment, geared only to making the maximum profit out of places, is not the way to achieve it. Rather than spending our way out of recession, we need to look at real alternatives, based on a more European rather than an American model, which will moderate the architecture of extreme capitalism, contemplate ways of doing things which do not always depend on the market, and create happier and healthier places in the process.”
I’m sure that there are many counter-arguments to those put forward in Ground Control, but I’ve been lucky enough to stroll aimlessly around cities like Lisbon, Oslo, Venice and Berlin and feel like there are no restrictions on where I could go (or what I can photograph), that there is no feeling of suspicion biting at my heals. As long as the development of a city has as it’s sole purpose to be as profitable as possible it is less and less likely to be a place that can be enjoyed freely. As Minton points out, in the UK “today the ‘public good’ is what makes the most money.” Very rarely is what makes the most money ever in the public good but usually in the interests of a small elite of already rich people. That this is having an effect on the quality of life in our cities is something that needs to be addressed.