non-places: Rowan Moore and Anna Minton on Business Improvement Districts

This week's Observer featured an article by Rowan Moore on the London River Park shopping development. He builds his argument around Anna Minton’s study of Business Improvement Districts such as Liverpool One, Paddington basin, and Spitalfields market. 

The fashion now is for 'malls without walls', that is, large areas of shopping streets that remain uncovered and have the appearance of being open public spaces, but which have every aspect of them privately run and controlled.

Both Moore and Minton highlight how the private multinational conglomerates who own these shopping developments have changed the meaning of public space, surreptitiously and deliberately. These spaces appear to be public because they are in the open air, have some public amenities such as seats, sculptures and fountains, perhaps toilets, but they are only pretending to be public spaces. Activities which we assume are allowed in public space - such as photography with a tripod, picnics, chaining up a bicycle, and important for our case, handing out leaflets or making a political protest or meeting – are prohibited. Such activities are policed and prevented by private security forces rather than the police. 

These are not public spaces because their definition of the 'public' are ABC1 consumers. Minton notes on p. 45 of her book that the 'list of undesirables' spans far more than the usual suspects of beggars 'to include groups of young people, old people, political protesters, photographers, really anyone who is not there to go shopping'. This reminds me of the Improvement acts passed for many towns in the early nineteenth century, which attempted to prohibit loitering and other (as we would call it now) anti-social behaviour. After the 1828 police act passed for Manchester, the committee expressed concern over popular street culture, among other activities, playing bat, ‘singing ballads and songs or uttering obscene language in the streets or delivering or posting indecent placards or handbills’. (Francis Dodsworth, ‘Mobility and Civility: Police and the Formation of the Modern City’, in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds., The New Blackwell Companion to the City (Oxford, 2011), chapter 20.

The  duties of police officers included ‘that idle persons, porters and others, do not stand in crowds at the corners of streets or on any of the pavements to the interruption of passengers’. (Manchester Archives, M9/30/9/1, Reports of Manchester Police Commissioners, 1828) Particular attention was paid to street corners as gathering places.

Urban improvement (see Patrick Joyce's Rule of Freedom on nineteenth-century Manchester) was concerned with a nineteenth century equivalent of the 'Clean and Safe' programmes identified by Minton. A desire for Benthamite economy and efficiency fuelled changes to street design, sewerage and lighting, and policing. But improvers were also influenced by a revived Reformation of Manners movement against vice and immoral behaviour, a middle-class clamp down on plebeian customs and culture such as cock fighting and bear-bating, and the last days of the old poor law, with its Malthusian fear of vagrants and beggars loitering on the streets.

Minton argues that the parallels lie with the early nineteenth century, when the private estates built up their railings round their leafy squares and hired their own security to watch over them, as at the Duke of Westminster’s estate in Mayfair and Belgravia. See Jason Kelly's recent History Workshop Online article on how, in 1852, the Prince of Wales moved to make Kennington Common into a regulated public park in order to prevent its previous uses as the major site of Chartist monster meetings, as well as being a common and used for executions and popular recreations. See also John Roberts' article on Hyde Park. Such restrictions met with popular resistance from the 1860s, a process that followed the rise of local democracy as ordinary inhabitants gained more control and participation in local government, and local authorities gained more control over property. By 1865, after 2 major parliamentary inquiries, 163 miles of road were passed over to local authority control and 140 tollbars removed.[1] 

Minton claims that the process is now reversing – multinational property conglomerates are now the most likely owners of large chunks of British cities – as in Manchester, where CityCo runs much of Manchester city centre (Minton argues this marks ‘the beginning of private government and the decline of local democracy’). Ironically, the Duke of Westminster runs Grosvenor, the property company which owns and controls the Liverpool One development.[2]

The Free Trade Hall was the first major sign of a wave of enclosure of formerly iconic sites in Manchester. During the later Victorian period, the Free Trade Hall was a major venue for political meetings and rallies for Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, and the suffragettes. It also became a centre for Manchester’s cultural heritage, housing the Hallé orchestra. The lesser Free Trade Hall was also the venue for arguably crucially significant turning points in popular music, including Bob Dylan’s infamous ‘Judas’ concert in 1966, and two Sex Pistols gigs in 1977 that inspired Manchester musicians to create a ground-breaking independent music scene. Manchester continually mythologises both those events as a core part of its cultural identity, as testified by the images of its indie bands and ‘Madchester’ plastered across temporary hoardings covering renovation on Cross Street this year. The self-mythologising of the Manchester music scene of the 1980s is a distinctive and persistent feature of contemporary Mancunian identity. Nevertheless, one of its iconic buildings, the Haçienda, was demolished and replaced by residential flats that took on the name but not the character of the venue.

Yet in 1997, despite fierce resistance from Manchester Civic Society, the city council sold the Free Trade Hall to property developers. The building is now part of a major hotel chain, and is therefore, Minton contends, ‘removed from the public life of the city’. Minton highlights Piccadilly Gardens as another example. In 1755 the Mosley family had given Piccadilly Gardens to Manchester’s inhabitants ‘in perpetuity’ as an open space for recreation. Although the sunken gardens had been criticised as a gathering place for street drinkers and the homeless when I was growing up in the 1980s, it remained a genuinely public space in the heart of the city. Remodelled in 2001, however, a large part of the gardens was encroached upon by an office block, which houses the Bank of New York. A grey concrete transport exchange dominates the remaining open air space, while the statues of Queen Victoria and other local notables have been sidelined to the edges of the communal areas, overlooking the road.   

We’ve always had buildings that are private but that have semi-public functions – museums, art galleries, theatres, restaurants, etc. But we know their rules and behave accordingly, and they don’t pretend to be anything else. 

But in the case of the Business Improvement Districts (and their associated ‘Clean and Safe’ policy of security), what annoys Moore and Minton are that they pretend to be public spaces when they are not, and therefore the public are unclear of the rules. Moore associates outdoor public space with the civic realm and Minton links it with local democracy – i.e. council owned and run, and therefore somewhat accountable to local rate payers. As Moore comments: 
‘If a space is private, it should not be called public…This matters because if we are kidded into thinking that there is a civic realm that is not actually there, we will suddenly find that there is less space than we had thought for such essential public actions as protest. This is what the Occupy movement found when it looked for a location to make its point in the City of London’.
Another element of such developments is what Anna Minton describes as their deliberate lack of historical reference. There is little sense of place because the owners use glass and bland architecture avoiding their historical surroundings. Or, as Owen Hatherley has pointed out in his book on PFI architecture, buildings are pastiches of historical features, which could be anywhere and nowhere, blurring and effacing real historical references. In the case of Liverpool One, this is because the developers wished to appeal to the wider region (the Cheshire 'set' of ABC1 consumers) rather than making the area Liverpool-particularist. But in doing so, the non-places therefore deliberately make it much more difficult for local inhabitants and users to affix symbolic or political meanings onto the spaces. They are therefore non-places.

[1] Anna Minton, Ground Control (Penguin, 2009), 20. JM. Roberts,  'Spatial Governance and Working Class Public Spheres: The Case of a Chartist Demonstration at Hyde Park', Journal of Historical Sociology 14 (3) (2001) : 308- 333
[2] Minton, Ground Control, 19, 39-40.


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