Small minds think alike
Whatever happened to universal provision, and is community-led regeneration, in fact, anti-democratic?
The government's first Urban Renaissance award, presented by John Prescott at the Urban Summit last November, didn't go to a scheme featuring loft living, street cafes and pedestrianised boulevards, as might have been expected from the hype about development-led urban regeneration. Instead, the award for the project that best made 'towns and cities better places to live and work' went to an estate that had evicted 'antisocial tenants', introduced neighbourhood wardens and pruned trees as an 'innovative approach to reduce crime'. The scheme, based at Blackthorn in Northampton, entitled CASPAR (Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Partnership), was praised for its achievement in 'strengthening the community'.
In the same vein, 15 local authority areas have just been given the powers to apply for closures of alleyways where they are deemed to 'facilitate crimes such as robbery, burglary, arson and drug dealing'. Local environment minister Alun Michael has said that these places 'have become sheltered havens for drug dealers, or have been soft targets for vandals'.
Antisocial behaviour seems to be the new buzzword and interest in local 'problems' has been elevated to the centre of regeneration 'programmes', both to the detriment of investment in major infrastructural improvements in the physical environment. The urban renaissance, it seems, no longer has its sights set on transforming Britain plc by creating newly built environments, but in selfimprovement, community-building and conflict resolution. Indeed, when Tony Blair beamed his way into the Urban Summit conference hall, his ground-breaking three-point plan for improving the quality of Britain's public spaces comprised: banning aerosol cans for under 18s; removing beggars from the streets; and giving local authorities more powers to remove abandoned cars. Visions of cappuccinos and pain au chocolat al fresco were in short supply.
From New Urbanism to the new urban renaissance, regeneration seems to be centred on crime and based on local solutions. The common denominator being 'the community'. But what is 'the community' exactly, and is it something to be defended? In a debate later this year questions will be asked about the merits of the current preoccupation with local standards; and the use of local standards as national benchmarks. Among other issues to be addressed are whether this strategy, which focuses on 'the local', represents a democratic empowerment for local people or simply an anti-democratic collapse of national solutions?
Do 'community solutions' really cohere society around common goals and beliefs, or do they fragment and isolate those people deemed not to be participating? Is localism the precursor to a more universal worldview, or its antithesis? Is this the starting point of globalism, or a reversion to parochialism?
Local versus global
Two examples: firstly, Radio 4's To d a y programme recently told the story of the impact of certain industrial farming methods in the south-east of England. One of the consequences, the reporter noted, was that one particular type of bird had become extinct in that part of Surrey. It remained unremarked upon that extinction is generally considered to be a more global concept than simply the disappearance of a particular species from one specific region.
However, the Guardian's editorial of 23 August gives the same story a new spin by commenting that the Victorians' love of eating wildfowl, such as the bittern, 'actually made the species extinct in 1868. A breeding pair, ' it continued, 'only reappeared in Norfolk 44 years later.' Is extinction now a relative concept? How can such finite issues be acceptably discussed in such a qualified way?
Is this evidence of a creeping rise of parochialism, in which we deny the more universalising meanings usually ascribed to words and phrases?
Admittedly, it was a journalist who made the comments, so we can't generalise too much, but there is definitely a more widespread tendency to cynically encourage more attention to local issues by overstating the damage done or the hazard caused. Often this is excused as a game to attract more investment, but localism in this sense, is the premise for special-case pleading and distorting the truth.
The second example concerns the celebration of Eurostar's 208mph journey along a portion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Kent. An impressive feat, but it is important not to forget that: a) this is the first 47 miles of passenger rail track built in more than 100 years; b) we will never see that speed again as part of a normal service; and, most importantly, c) since when have we celebrated British speed records? In fact the train's British speed record is patently inconsequential, since 50 miles in the opposite direction the same train (in France) travels as fast as a matter of course. But the main point here is that it is not that long ago when British records were embarrassing - being local and unimportant. It was world records people aspired to (obviously, in its heyday, this often meant the same thing). As Britain becomes less adept at winning, so we revert to the safety of the local. Once again, this shows up a shift in aspirations - from the worldwide to the small-scale.
These somewhat tangential examples are indicators to the shift towards more localist concerns in the political sphere, which reflect themselves in myriad different ways - from the low horizons of sustainable architecture and housing policy, to the current caution-based transport strategy. Localism even dampens down what constitutes scientific advancement to an acceptably riskaverse local level. Reducing our aspirations to solving 'local problems' or - worse still - only aspiring to 'the local' is, in essence, a defeatist viewpoint (referring to the dictionary definition of parochialism as being 'merely narrow or restricted in scope'). Not only that, but a local 'world view' (if you excuse the contradiction) jeopardises the ability to see long term. Local concerns do not have the reach of national and international perspectives, premised as they are on a defence of local community. The idea that communities know best, exemplified in the antisocial behaviour mentality, is a true example of local prejudice triumphing over national democracy. This used to be called vigilante-ism. Actually, it is the broadening out of democracy from these mere parochial concerns that gives it meaning.
The problem with the antisocial behaviour debate is that it implies that cities should be 'safe'. As Miranda Sawyer pointed out in Park and Ride, this is what characterises suburbia, not city life. Cities are antisocial - that's what's so good about leaving villages to live in one. No more net-curtain twitchers nor nosy neighbours, but blissful anonymity instead.
It is dangerous to use local, community judgements to assess the concerns of cities. Firstly, we must avoid overstating the problems of cities. Secondly, why should we believe that 'communities know what's best for them' just because they live there? And, most importantly, we must reclaim the real meaning of 'change' - development - as opposed to 'development' with any number of fashionable pre-fixes. This involves rising above parochial concerns and the belief in local solutions.
Urban village contradiction
This political shift clearly has a great deal of resonance in the debate about where and how we live. In architecture and transportation it reflects the way we live in, and move around, our cities. In transport terms, for example, there is currently a push towards amending travel patterns and reducing mobility standards.
Whether it is closing roads or the ongoing debate about rationing air travel, we are constantly reminded of the need to consider what may, or may not, be deemed to be a 'responsible', and hence a necessary, journey.
After all, say transport advisors, many of the journeys we make by car are less than two miles, which is walkable, surely? Alain de Botton's latest book enjoins us to reclaim the beauty and enthusiasm for the local, using the extreme example of Xavier de Maistre's 18th-century book, entitled Journey Around My Bedroom, where De Maistre travelled to the sofa, the sideboard and re-discovered the joys of his bed, bed-linen and pyjamas.
(His trip to the window necessitated another book. ) In architecture, too, there is a similar celebration of localism in the push to create 'sociable cities', urban villages, sustainable communities, etc.
Once again there is an implicit social policy implication towards 'responsible behaviour', which dominates this school of thought. While this is not the same thing as the rigidity of Disney's Celebration (where gated 'communities' are being generated and preserved), the 'defence of the local community' model represents a more insidious aversion to change.
Urban planners, public artists and architects are regularly engaged in preserving memories of the local - reference points - to halt 'local extinction'. As we have seen, the concept was previously the domain of Surrey bird life, but is regularly becoming a term applied to human beings and their habitats.
Travel broadens the mind Prioritising 'communities' - whatever they are - turns real development on its head. It is the historic process of development to give rise to adaptive communities. The relationship between community and society is not static. Communities are - or should be - in a state of flux, rather than preserved in aspic.
Often, instead of proposing the provision of better employment opportunities, decent homes and travel opportunities, we maintain local landmarks - often called heritage - as a means of holding onto the past; presenting people as passive objects rather than as active subjects.
This denigrates the universalising mission of urban development while advocating urban stasis. It is about time we opened up the debate and stopped kowtowing to the three contradictions in terms: local 'democracy', community justice and parochial knowledge.
The debate, 'There is no such thing as society - only local solutions', will be held at the LSE, 6 December. For details contact Penny Lewis by email at penny. lewis@carnyx. com