We are already exploited at work. Wages are as low as the bosses can get away with in order to maximise their profits. But we are exploited in other ways. Increasingly, all aspects of our non-working lives involve the spending of our wages on things that make profits for others: landlords, banks, and all the companies providing the goods and services that we buy. It wouldn’t matter if it was an equal exchange so that we worked 40 hours a week in exchange for goods and services that also took 40 hours a week to produce. But it doesn’t work that way; at every stage, whether in the act of producing or consuming, more surplus is creamed off our wages, creating profits and wealth for a few. The fight for the city is therefore a class struggle- a struggle against those who want to squeeze everything they can from us, to the point that individuals are nothing but a ‘resource’ or a Lego brick.
The Smart City
It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but the concept of the ‘smart’ city is one of the latest new ideas from companies like IBM and Cisco. Songdo in North Korea is a city built according to this concept. Using sophisticated technology, the whole city can be run by an impersonal ‘brain’. All buildings are climate controlled and have computerised access. Traffic, waste, accidents, electricity etc are all monitored centrally. Electronic sensors allow the city’s brain to respond to the movement of residents. The buzz words are efficiency, optimisation, predictability, convenience and safety. Everything ‘works’ as long as people are doing what they are meant to do- go to work, come home, shop and engage in some leisure activities that are acceptable- and that most likely cost money. If there is an accident or something unexpected happens, then the ‘brain’ can dispatch the relevant ‘services of order’. Is this the future?
Private, Public and the Commons
The UK may not have gone this far yet in the engineering of the city but there are a number of trends that indicate we are going in that direction. We are used to cities as places where people freely wander, meet up with people, have a rest on a bench and read, play games, explore new places, gather to protest and a host of other activities which may or may not involve spending money. The spaces where we do this are often referred to as ‘public’. However, we can also distinguish between what is public and what might be called the ‘Commons’. Public spaces are still regulated by the State, which is meant to represent the public. The Commons refers to areas which are more autonomous, which different groups of people may take over at different times and use the space for their own ends. The history of land has been the history of the gradual diminishing of anything that we would refer to as common land. The State has introduced a range of measures over the years to the extent that what we do on any piece of land is carefully regulated, even if it is considered public space.
Nevertheless, public land, is meant to be land used by the public and therefore should have free access and greater freedom of use than private land. Unfortunately, even public space is now passing into private hands. And, public space itself is being increasingly regulated and controlled. This makes the distinction between the ‘Commons’ and the ‘public’ even sharper.
The Walled City
When we think of a city in the Middle Ages we think of one enclosed by walls. Inside those walls is the seat of political power (the castle) and all the commercial activity. It is also where the well-off live. Outside the city walls are the peasants and the poor. If they want to come into the city, they have to line up outside the city gates and ask permission from the guards. Only if they have ‘business’ inside, are they allowed in. Our cities are becoming increasingly like these walled cities. Key public parts of the city are being handed over to private companies. Manhattan in New York has been turned into one vast gated community. Similar things are happening in Britain. There may not be one big wall, but a number of enclaves that are owned by private interests. Similar to the 19th century when London was divided up between various members of the aristocracy, not only London, but also Liverpool and Manchester, are being divided up amongst various private developers, whose main aim is to make money out of the property. It is hard to know how much of our cities is in private hands; Britain does not have a proper record of who owns what, unlike in other countries. The Forestry Commission and local authorities are still the biggest landowners as far as we can tell. But in the 21st century corporations have increased their share. Moreover, sale of local authority land is a major plank of government policy, so we can expect the share of land owned by corporations to dramatically increase.
The financial areas of London, Canary Wharf and Broadgate, were some of the first places to become privately owned. As their tentacles spread out, more and more space in being swallowed up. Canary Wharf is now owned by the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Thani. It already owns other London landmarks such as the Shard skyscraper and Harrods department store. Canary Wharf is worth billions to the owners, mainly for office rentals but increasingly for luxury residential towers.
Shopping centres are another example of privatised space. The new Australian–owned Westfield Shopping Mall in Stratford is the biggest in Europe. Liverpool 1, full of up-scale shops catering for well-off suburbanites, dominates the centre, covering 34 streets. Manchester city centre has also been turned over to a private company. The centre has now been transferred into a giant shopping complex and luxury apartments. The Free Trade Hall, an important part of different stages of the city’s history, is now part of a hotel chain. This trend came about under Labour legislation that introduced Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). This meant that a private company could take over the running of an area with the sole purpose of making it as profitable as possible for businesses. The company who has control will tax local businesses and use the revenue to create a ‘trading environment’. This policy was copied from the US and implemented uncritically in Britain.
The gated residential community is another example of an internal wall in the city. The Bow Quarter in East London in what was once the Bryant May match factory (site of the famous ‘match girl’ strike) was the first one, opened in 1988. We discussed how these communities are designed to isolate the well-off from the working class in the area in the last issue (eg the Poor Doors campaign). However, we are seeing not just gated residential areas, but whole towns created within the city. One example is the Shard in London. Its architect called it a ‘vertical city’ because of the mixture of different uses. Eight thousand people work there but there are also flats and restaurants. Westferry Circus in Canary Wharf, set to be Britain’s second tallest building, has a gym, a library, shops and even a play area for children. Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia will have 35,000 people and be three times the height of the Shard. These developments, as well as being exclusive, are completely inward-looking and cut off from the community. Shopkeepers near the Shard have commented that no one from the Shard shops locally. There is a direct corridor from London Bridge station to the Shard. Workers will come off the train and go straight into the Shard, and then back again at the end of the day.
The growing privatisation of space in the city has a number of serious consequences, both for what happens on the private space itself and the general attitude towards public space. The first obvious consequence is the fact that as these spaces are private, they have the right to exclude who they want from their ‘property’. Like with the ‘Smart City’, technology in the form of CCTV cameras are used to ensure that the only people who are in a private space are those that belong there, which effectively means that you can only be there if you work there or if you are spending money. Manchester gained the title of ASBO capital of the UK because of all the people it was excluding from the city centre. This is because the main aim of the BIDs is to make the space ‘safe and clean’. In the US BIDs have meant the exclusion of the homeless from city centres. In New York, where the BID concept was first introduced, there have been stories of BID employees beating up the homeless. This attitude towards the homeless is now spreading in Britain. Walking around Liverpool city centre, there are no homeless to be seen in the Liverpool 1 area. It is like crossing an invisible line- on one side there are still signs of the homeless begging and then all of a sudden there are none.
The latest initiative designed to protect the so-called majority against an undesirable minority is the new Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). This shows that measures to control and exclude are not confined to private property. This was part of a patchwork of measures that came from the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act which became law last year. Because the spaces are officially ‘public’ they cannot exclude people but they can ban certain forms of behaviour. Councils can decide what behaviours they will ban depending on local circumstances. Some examples include:
- Making it a crime to have an open alcohol container in Cambridge
- A ban on the consumption of alcohol and legal highs in public spaces in the city centre by Lincoln Council
- Making it a crime to beg for money in certain areas of Poole, Dorset
- Hackney’s attempt to ban begging and sleeping rough (the inclusion of rough sleepers has now been withdrawn after a big campaign)
- Other proposals include, use of amplified music, busking, pigeon feeding and the sale of lucky charms
The law is so broad that councils could ban just about anything. This means that even so-called public space is now being taken over. The aim is supposedly to improve the quality of life of the majority but the end result is the building of another wall that has far-reaching implications for not only the poor, the young and the vulnerable but for political activity.
Whether it be a privatised shopping mall or a closely regulated public space, it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in any public protest. One example was when the Occupy movement wanted to protest against the financial activities of the City of London. They found that protests were illegal throughout the area, by decree of the Corporation of London, the local authority responsible for the ‘Square Mile’. They ended up camping outside St Paul’s which is just outside, and even then the government made it clear that they wanted them removed for upsetting the tourists who are a major source of income for companies. So even though the City has supposed ‘public’ spaces, they are privately managed and therefore access can be controlled, making it impossible to organise any protest against those who caused the austerity we are now facing. The same goes for Canary Wharf and Broadgate. When a group of activists wanted to organise a protest in Canary Wharf, they were contacted by an advertising company which told them that the space was an ‘experimental advertising space’ and the daily rate was £4,750. It is clear that space is being used as a place to make money and not as an open space where people can exercise any rights we have to protest.
Street stalls are one of the main ways that people get a chance to talk, share, and exchange ideas, publicise campaigns and give out or sell publications that challenge the system. However, it has become increasingly difficult to do so. Any political group who has tried to set up a stall in Liverpool 1, Manchester city centre or by Stratford Westfield will know what it is like. They will soon be approached by security guards and asked to leave, told it is private property and that they have no right to be there. With the new PSPOs, so-called public spaces could also be forbidden. One could easily imagine local authorities, fed up with protests and pickets aimed at their own policies, deciding that any stalls were detracting from the quality of life for the majority (eg Robin Wales in Newham, London who can’t be too happy about the weekly stall organised by the Focus E15 campaign!).
Transformation of Parks
Parks have always been a place for people to gather. All sorts of people come to walk, picnic or just sit, getting away from all the other places that are dominated by traffic or consumption. However, this is also changing. The new Olympic ‘park’ is one example of a new style of park. There is hardly any space to actually sit and have a picnic on grass and the ‘wild’ parts are confined to a narrow strip along the channelled and controlled river. Most of the park is taken up with huge sport facilities (eg the West Ham stadium) and cafes. And, the easiest way of getting to the park is through Westfield shopping centre. Most of the space that the Olympics once occupied is being turned into offices and apartment blocks- none within reach of the average local. But the tendency to use parks as a money-maker is not confined to this one example. With the cuts in government funding those who run the parks are looking for ways to make money. A report just published called Rethinking Parks, produced by Nesta, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund (http://www.nesta.org.uk/project/rethinking-parks) aims to find “new business models” for the nation’s parks in order to ‘create a more sustainable future’. Due to drastic cuts in funding from national government, more and more parks are looking to such a model. The report suggests various ‘income-generating’ models.
Generating income through:
- Concessions and events
- Eco-system development
- Commercial development
We have already seen our parks turned into venues for high-priced music festivals and fun-fairs. But this model is being extended to a range of activities. For example, Hackney is proposing the idea of ‘pop-up meeting spaces’ which will be offered to local businesses.
Parks have also been used as places for people to gather in assemblies or political rallies. It is still possible to do this as long as the gatherings are not too big. However, with the trend in control of public spaces, it is likely that there will be attempts to limit such gatherings. Instead, priority will be given to those who will pay money for the use of the park. And of course, everyone will be affected if park authorities decide to ‘tax’ people or even charge people for the use of the park. One way this is happening already is by charging for the use of toilet facilities.
We have all been tourists somewhere so it may seem unfair to criticise tourists for what is happening to our cities. However, the massive growth in tourism is having a significant effect on places all over the world. People travelling to places because they are remote ensure that the place is no longer remote, affecting the culture of many once-isolated tribes. People travel to the world’s most famous cities because of their history and culture. But with so many coming, the place itself is no longer a repository of that history and culture- but takes on a new identity as a place where there are tourists and no one else. For example, tourists rushed to see Prague and other beautiful cities of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. These cities were interesting because they had been ‘untouched’. But it didn’t take long for those places to become something else. The centre of Prague was essentially bought up by foreigners and has become the mecca for stag and hen parties, with drunken foreigners making fools of themselves in what was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The locals who used to flock to the centre, now remain in the outer neighbourhoods, only venturing into the centre if they have visitors who want to be shown around.
The same thing is happening to British cities. London is rapidly changing its character. What is happening to Soho is a case in point. The originally bars and music venues are being shut down to make way for both Cross-rail and the creation of a shinier new Soho, one that will have completely lost the bohemian atmosphere that people come to Soho for. There will soon be new hotels, restaurants and clubs, claiming to be keeping the old traditions but in fact being a lifeless copy of the original. This is what excessive tourism means- the changing of a place into something that has lost its character that was developed from centuries of people interacting in a specific place. That character cannot be artificially engineered- but that is in fact what developers want to do. The aim of course is to make a place into something that can be consumed and therefore be a source of profit.
In order for a city to make money out of its history and culture, it has to package it in such a way that it creates symbolic capital. In other words, it is seen as having something special that attracts people in order to experience whatever it is that is seen as special. Some cities such as London and New York have always been places that people have wanted to visit. However, other cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, have had to work at it. Liverpool has transformed itself in the past decade, with the new, shiny city centre. Derelict areas are now shopping centres or ‘heritage’ sites, such as the Liverpool Docks. Tourists wander the area, visiting the museums and sometimes catching glimpses through a hole in the ground, of the actual docks themselves. Quiggins, a cultural icon was demolished, as part of the Liverpool 1 development, obviously not enough of one to attract the tourists. But the city repackaged their sordid history of involvement in the slave trade and created a museum of slavery. There is nothing wrong with having such a museum to reveal the horrors of that period but it is the way the target audience seems to be the tourists. Slavery thus becomes part of Liverpool’s symbolic capital- another way for the city to profit from the traffic in human beings.
Films have also had a role in remaking a place. Notting Hill Gate and the Portobello market was largely a market for Londoners but is now a major stop on the tourist itinerary since the release of the popular film. One example of the extent that a place can be made into something to be consumed is what happened to the ‘blue door’ that was meant to be the house of the main character. The actual owner of the house was constantly pestered by people knocking on his door and wanting to take photos. In the end, he took up the offer of an American tourist and sold his door for an incredibly high price. The tourist can now look at the door whenever they want and the owner of the house has solved his problem, making sure his new door was any colour but blue! A more extreme example of the commodification of aspects of city life is the film City of God which was filmed in Rio’s shanty towns. There are now tours of slums, both in Rio but also in the slums of Mumbai in India. Even poverty is something that someone can make money out of, selling the city to the tourists.
What do we want the future of cities to be?
Difficult question. Cities are constantly changing and different groups of people come and go and with the movement of people comes changes in culture and in the character of the city. There have been many attempts to control what happens in the city. The whole concept of city ‘planning’ is about this. Many of the initiatives appear to have been for good reasons. We cannot argue with trying to make a place more pleasant to live in, to improve the environment, to have a functioning transport system and to make sure everyone has a place to live. However, something is also lost when there is too much planning. The idea of the completely sanitised and perfectly engineered city would be one that has lost its soul. In addition, planning might appear to be about what is best for everyone, but in fact it is not a neutral tool, but one that is firmly in the hands of the ruling class. In 19th century Paris, Haussman demolished whole neighbourhoods and drove through huge boulevards, the aim being to make it easier to control a restive population. Planning therefore is one of the many tools used as a way of increasing the surplus that can be extracted from the city by making it a place money-making can safely take place, without the interference of the potentially rebellious and discontented masses. Therefore, however we answer the above question, the future of the city must come from us, the working class. The future of the city is therefore a key component of the class struggle.
David Harvey (2013) Rebel Cities. London: Verso.
Mike Davis (2006) Planet of the Slums. London: Verso.
Anna Minton (2009) Ground Control. London: Penguin.
Ben Campkin (2013) Remaking London. London: IB Tauris.