The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics describes civil society as the 'arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values'.
In today's individuated world, however, the notion that civil society is defined by its independence from the state is sadly lacking.
The London Civic Forum is perhaps more in vogue, with its vague-sounding concern for promoting 'civic literacy, civic space, civic cohesion, civic leadership and civic pride' - phrases that slip easily from the mouths of ministers attempting to 'connect' with voters.
'Civil renewal is at the heart of the Home Office's vision of life in our 21stcentury communities, ' or so says its website. And so the Home Office has invited local authorities to volunteer themselves as 'civic pioneers', and Birmingham was the first to be granted the title 'civil renewal city'.
Significantly, it was the industrialist and mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, who transformed the city from a mercantile to a municipal city - the first of its kind, according to historian Tristram Hunt, writing in BBC History Magazine. The contemporary idea that new municipal authorities should concern themselves with the welfare of their citizens represents a profound political shift.
But today's public spirit goes under the guise of the law-and-order agenda. The Home Office recently announced its White Paper, 'Building Communities, Beating Crime', with the emphasis on neighbourhood policing, local teams of police and community support officers, and a commitment to customer service. Soon after came the National Policing Plan 2005-08: 'Safer, Stronger Communities', prioritising the creation of a 'citizen-focused' service intent on reducing fear of crime.
Campaign group Rethinking Crime and Punishment has taken issue with some of the more authoritarian measures and has argued for new ways of involving communities with criminal justice. The group's recently published report, Crime, Courts and Confidence, advocates 'community involvement in community-based sentences'. Typical of this new wave of grass-roots intervention are 'restorative justice'schemes, where the public are involved in sentencing and offenders make amends directly to the community.
Cleaner, greener, meaner At the last Urban Summit in 2002, prime minister Tony Blair spoke of his desire that his term in office would herald the new 'urban renaissance'. But as the AJ pointed out at the time, instead of a vision of boulevards, cafés and warehouse lofts, delegates were treated to a sneak preview of the 'crime and grime' agenda of abandoned cars, litter and the 'blight of graffiti'. Admittedly things have moved on considerably since then. Then it was something of a joke. Now enviro-crime - together with the rise of antisocial behaviour - is a mainstream idea; and 'something must be done' is the response.
The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill announced in the Queen's speech is an ominous example.
It will allow local authorities to impose 'on-the-spot' fines on graffitists, flytippers, people abandoning cars on the streets, and others engaged in similarly 'low-level nuisance'. Already, the London Local Authorities Act 2004 gives councils the power to remove graffiti, clampdown on illegal drinking dens and ticket touts, remove 'abandoned' cars, move on street vendors, fine 'noisy neighbours'and take fly-posting 'gangs' to court. Antisocial-behaviour orders are the new fast-track mechanism to impose a sort of sharia-justice.
This month, the summit returned, minus the 'urban' bit. The Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit promised much of the same and more so, in line with the Sustainable Communities Plan. It featured a commitment to the benign-sounding imperative of 'liveability', which seems to mean even cleaner streets, better (that is, safer and family-friendly) parks and 'better' public spaces. But what kind of citizen will live in this risk-free, spacious and unpolluted New Britain?
Happy, shiny people In the Institute for Public Policy Research's Lonely Citizens: Report of the Working Party on Active Citizenship, Ben Rogers endorses a therapeutic citizenship centred on 'what it adds to our individual lives' rather than constituting a broader social vision. We are increasingly disconnected from politics and public life, he says, because we are 'mistrustful, powerless [and] frustrated'. In 'Reinventing the Town Hall', he begins to make the case for designing civility into the built environment itself, for 'involving the public, fostering civic pride? building trust' and creating 'animated public places'.
Renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl said recently that 'people are the lifeblood of any city and it is important to have vibrant, inviting public spaces'.
This sounds reasonable and, as the author of Towards a Fine City for People:
Public Spaces and Public Life, a report commissioned by Central London Partnership and Transport for London, Gehl too calls for better public squares, pedestrianisation and removing the quaint-sounding 'street furniture'. But are physical obstacles really the reason that the public sphere is fragmented or that people are so individuated and disengaged from society at large?
It is not just quangos and community activists firing off this type of rhetoric. In official circles, fear of the collapse of public life and the need to rebuild it through an engagement with public space are all the rage. The ODPM is charged with 'creating sustainable'or 'cleaner, safer [and] greener' communities. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' Clean Neighbourhoods initiative is similarly intent on 'foster[ing] a sense of civic pride' and 'improving public space' up and down the land. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has spoken of the improvements a better environment will make to the appreciation of the city, and launched London's 100 Public Spaces programme.
Missionary position In the absence of the civic icons of the Victorian era that Rogers, Gehl and other self-proclaimed reformers might hanker after, the elusive 'vision thing' instead plays its part today in the service of illiberal campaigns that seek to constrain the use of public space. On the one hand, public space is meant to reinvigorate civil society, but if society is currently that uncivilised, maybe people can't really be trusted to occupy civil/civic spaces without someone to oversee that they don't wreak havoc.
This says more about the contempt civic leaders have for the public (portraying them as barbarians at the gate) than it does about social reality. In the run-up to the ban on smoking in public, as proposed in the recent Public Health White Paper, local authorities competed with each other to impose their own bans.
Their eagerness to appear 'modern' (in the reactionary sense of the word) and to be trailblazing, smoke-free zealots betrayed a certain recognition that they desperately needed a cause of some sort; an issue, behind which to rally the troops and engage their constituencies.
In Scotland, first minister Jack McConnell presented the passing of the anti-smoking law as a matter of national pride and progress, insisting that tobacco is a 'cultural trait' that 'holds us back'. Soon after, Welsh secretary Peter Hain pledged to follow suit.
Manchester's representatives, following a fact-finding mission to smokeless Dublin, were moved to rhetorical flourish in a report agreed by the council's executive: 'The smoke-free city is an idea whose time has come: Manchester should be in the vanguard of this change.' Liverpool City Council, determined to put Manchester in its shadow, was set to petition parliament following a landslide vote in favour of a ban and a £1,000 fine for transgressors.
The danger, of course, is that we are losing a sense of perspective and, worse, losing a sense of what the urban environment should be about. Something about the words 'public space' implies a certain autonomy from authority.
The mainstay of the urbane ethics of anonymity and personal freedom are being subsumed in an acceptance that we need to be protected from ourselves.
The smoking issue is emblematic of the rise of the moralising busybody. It is a variation on the suburban curtaintwitchers who view the cosmopolitan life with barely disguised hostility. Or, as the website accompanying Miranda Sawyer's book on the perils of suburbia, Park and Ride, puts it: 'Welcome to? the vast swathes of in-betweeny, mind-your-manners [Britain]'.
Minor inconveniences that were once resolved between ourselves are now writ large as major social problems to be legislated against. At the same time, the 'encounters' that we are now told are essential to the rebuilding of civility and civic pride are reduced to technical design issues of usability and access, backed up with performance criteria on how to behave. The public and private are thus turned inside out.
The chaos, fumes and bright lights of the big city are out, and a new decaffeinated, smoke-free Millenarianism is in. The crusades against enviro-crime and antisocial behaviour in the name of a new civil society are sanitising city life. And for all the talk of involvement and participation, we would do well to shout down the arguments.
Dave Clements is organising the session 'Sanitising the City'at the Future of London Festival on 16 February. Contact austin. williams@emap. com for details