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New urban behaviour

technical & practice - The desire of New Urbanism's critics and supporters to design out crime often denigrates the essence of urbanism itself

How do you design the perfect city? New Urbanism's revival at the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit spins this another way: design perfect citizens then let them behave naturally. Richard Rogers' dictum that 'people make cities but cities make citizens' has a ring of truth, but it would be a mistake to see this as a mandate for architects to remake citizens in their own image. Urban designers design built environments; cities are more evasive things.

Nonetheless, the imperative to design citizens has gripped urbanists of all stripes, and designing for community or sociability, for example, has become accepted practice. But given the more general crisis of 'citizenship' evident in political discussions about education, low voter turnout and, of course, immigration, there is reason for designers to be wary of taking on such a responsibility, and for the rest of us to be suspicious of any such attempt.

There is nothing new about designing the urban environment in such a way as to modify people's behaviour.

In particular, there is a long tradition of attempting to 'design out crime' by making it difficult for would-be criminals to gain access to residential areas or to operate unobserved, and especially by eliminating the dangerously dark and secluded alleys and underpasses that might provide cover for violent criminals.

Much of this is common sense and unobjectionable, but there is a downside to focusing on crime, and, indeed, this agenda often seems at odds with the aim of fostering community. At a time when 'kids hanging around' is commonly listed as an example of anti-social behaviour, for example, designers are faced with designing out the kinds of spaces that attract teenagers, or coming up with special areas away from older residents or others who might be intimidated. More generally, such measures contribute to a climate of fear and mutual suspicion, and reinforce a mean-spirited and authoritarian politics.

More recently, the old agenda of designing out crime may have evolved into an aspiration to 'design in' citizenship, but the notion of using design to modify behaviour is no more elevated for that, and perhaps no less authoritarian.

The public sphere, after all, is clearly about more than the spaces people happen to share. While Jane Jacobs famously described sidewalk contacts as 'the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow', the idea of 'the public' implies more than that: it requires a shared civic, even political, life. The impoverishment of contemporary political culture, particularly at municipal level, means that there is little in the way of institutional support for the idea of 'a public'. Without an effective mechanism through which a genuine public can be constituted, citizens relate to the authorities largely as the consumers of municipal services, and to each other as fellow consumers, or much worse, as problems to be dealt with by the authorities: litter louts, traffic congestion, loitering youths, Neighbours from Hell, and so on.

At a time when the notion of 'the public' is problematic, the whole idea of public space is bound to be vexed.

In short, people generally like the idea of public space, but are much more ambivalent about the public itself: concerned about what it comprises and what it excludes. However beautifully you design the piazzas, if you don't like the public, you are always going to feel let down by their unsightly presence. Cities might make citizens but if you start with a belief that we do not all know what it means to be civic - or civil - then pavement cafés are not up to the task.

Everyone feels entitled as a consumer to certain standards of safety and cleanliness, but there is little depth of agreement about what public space is actually for, and the result has tended to be anodyne public spaces, resembling outdoor shopping malls rather than distinctive urban places. This should be understood less in terms of an aggressive 'privatisation of public space' than a pragmatic response to the implosion of the public.

Proliferating CCTV, pedestrianisation and anaesthetic street furniture fill the vacuum, and bring a reassuring sense of order to ill-defined and potentially threatening spaces.

Again, there is an obvious downside to this. The sense of security derived from such developments is at the expense of the sense of freedom and spontaneity that for many is the essence of city life. An environment that inhibits people from behaving in a rowdy or unruly way, one that makes them feel safe indeed, is also likely to make them feel more constrained.

In an area conspicuously covered by CCTV, for example, people are likely to feel uncomfortable holding hands or snogging. That is not the kind of activity most people would consider to be anti-social, but nonetheless it would feel 'inappropriate' in what now often passes for public space.

The public visits such places; we are not in any sense at home there.

This problem has, in fact, been widely discussed. There is a recognition that the 'sanitisation' of cities takes away something of the spirit of the city, and a desire to retain of restore that vague quality, 'edginess', that seems to be lacking from urban design. This is the sentiment behind what has been called New Urbanism, whose advocates disdain anaesthetic commercial spaces and their corollary, anaesthetic residential suburbs, in favour of mixed-use, compact neighbourhoods with a distinctly urban character.

This is the vision of the city probably shared by most people with an interest in cities, whether as architects, designers, writers or bohemian flâneurs. It is questionable, however, whether the desirable edginess associated with this vision really is a function of design at all, or rather something more akin to the sense of the public so conspicuously missing from public spaces, with its roots in some less tangible element of urban life.

Indeed, in the latter case there is a real danger that New Urbanism is just another way of filling the vacuum, a set of design prescriptions to give the appearance of 'proper' urbanity, and, moreover, a set of prescriptions for public behaviour: walking is more urban than driving, shopping in small neighbourhood stores is more urban than going to out-of-town supermarkets, continental-style café culture is more urban than binge drinking in superpubs. This is very much a vision of 'citizens made by cities', but left at the level of design it can easily degenerates into a kitsch, theme-park version of the city.

The less-than-edgy character of New Urbanism is confirmed by the evergreen argument that by fostering community and natural surveillance, design can also reduce crime. Critics argue that the opposite is true, that open and accessible, mixed-used areas make things easy for criminals, and that the car-oriented suburban model is safer, as well as being more popular with most people who do not work in urban design. In the absence of that elusive public to bring public space to life, this may be true. In any case, New Urbanism's claims to reduce crime are not only unconvincing, but fundamentally anti-urban. The edginess of city life cannot be justified in terms of safety. An uncongested city cannot really lay claim to being a city at all.

Urban design has an important role in making city life easier and more pleasant, but the broader cultural and political context means that self-conscious efforts to mould people into citizens invariably lead to sanitisation in one way or another, even when the intention is exactly the opposite.

Dolan Cummings is the society director at the Institute of Ideas and chaired the 'Sanitising the City' workshop at the Future of London festival. Email: dolancummings@ instituteofideas. com

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