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January 27, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The Fall of London: Enclosure, Privatization, Expulsion

In a series of 3 short articles, I want to look at what I see as the current dynamic happening in London: Enclosure, Privatization and Expulsion. These three processes combine together. It is a system of circumscription, transformation and then violation. Often this is done in the name of social benefit, as a way of preserving or regenerating the nature of ‘place’ or neighbourhood’. In effect, it is not different from the process of enclosure that haunted the 18th century.

I fear that we are starting to lose the things that make our cities such extraordinary places, places that bring out the best in ourselves and each other. London serves as one of the most observable test beds of the dilemmas in 21st century urbanism. 

It does not have to be this way. An unfair metropolis is not the price we have to pay for urban living. We must have the confidence to believe that change is possible, and it is in our hands.

Enclosure

At the beginning of the new millennium the chief planner of the City of London, Peter Wynne Rees, claimed that we were living through ‘a second Great Fire of London’. With this comment, he foresaw the transformation of the financial centre from a historical jumble of offices to a vertical city of skyscrapers. When the Gherkin topped out in 2004, London was still a low lying skyline; today there are plans for over 250 towers stretching from Greenwich to Croydon. Yet what kind of city is this? What have we gained as a world city, and what have we lost? This chapter looks at how London has become a city within a city: an enclave for the 1% who wish to enclose and privatize the metropolis around them.

One afternoon, for example, walking into Paternoster Square, a popular tourist spot next to St Paul’s Cathedral with cafes and shops, as well as the offices of the London Stock Exchange and Goldman Sachs, I encountered a placard that read:

unnamed

This is nothing new. In the early nineteenth century the Northamptonshire poet John Clare, son of a farm labourer, wrote a series of elegies ‘On the Enclosure of the Commons’, which mourned the damage by enclosure that had be done to the countryside as well as to the labouring poor:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall is

laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’.

We are currently seeing a full-scale enclosure of the twenty-first century city, with an impact as calamitous as that suffered by the eighteenth-century countryside. This new enclosure redefines not just the places that are privatised but also the behaviours that are and are not allowed there. This can be seen most obviously in the development of gated communities, ‘secured-by-design’ housing, and the rise of privatised public spaces.

This process of enclosure has a history that goes back to the office building boom of the 1960s, when developers were given rights on the ground around their buildings as a means to protect their investments. But this mechanism spread from plazas and ornamental flower beds linking the street to the foyer to whole sections of the city. The writer Anna Minton has identified the intentional silences in recent planning law that has lead to the enclosure of central parts of our city: streets, squares and now whole neighbourhoods. [see: http://howtoworktogether.org/wp-content/uploads/htwt-think_tank-anna_minton-common_goods.pdf]
 What happens when we are no longer allowed to be in our own cities? Last year the British parliament passed an Act that made Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) law, allowing local councils to designate certain areas under certain rules and regulations. Since the law was passed, for example, Dover council has enforced a rule that all dogs should be on a lead; in Oxford, anyone under twenty-one is banned from entering a specific tower block in Forest Hill. It is no longer possible to protest in the public square outside Croydon Town Hall. There were even recent attempts to ban all homeless people from the public areas of Hackney.

I recently argued this question in public of what makes public space with a group of leading developers, and feel strongly that this is a topic that is not being discussed enough. While one must acknowledge the developer’s consideration for the public realm: a commitment to community building and developing open spaces, and environmentally sound designs. Often, this vision is flawed, and short sighted. In a business where the long term is measured as between 5-7 years, we cannot hope to rely on the current status quo to provide good public spaces.

This raises the problems of ‘Place-making’, which has become the dominant mantra of contemporary urban design. The loss of public space threatens our abilities to be citizens and to engage with the city as a political space. The alternative is only too clear to see: The Garden Bridge (sponsored by notorious polluting company, Glencore), the Cable Car (Emirate Air), the new Crystal Palace (Zongrong Group) – and even the Olympics (Coca Cola, VISA, ArcelorMittel, etc) – are eye catching additions to the city, but offer little social nutrition. The development of these seemingly public projects have been conducted hand in hand with the enclosure of the city.

We must find new ways of building open spaces for all that doe not have to involve the process of enclosure, and in this we must be aware of who these spaces are for. In this, the process of how these places are created is as important as finished space itself. The question of ownership can only be developed through a rethinking of the value of use. 

 

 

 

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