I was really pleased when residents in my block of flats voted recently against becoming a gated community – or at least against locking the gates we already, unfortunately, have installed. I don’t want to live in something that feels like a prison, when you have to rattle keys to get to your front door, with the gate clanging shut behind you as you walk towards it. And I think that having people around in the communal garden, a pleasant, social environment, as we have now – I regularly say hello to at least 20 of my neighbours, and know some people who use it as a walkthrough – is much better security than a lockdown that screams “something to fear here!”.
I found academic backing for that instinct in Anna Minton’s Ground Control, in which she concludes (talking here about the awful One Hyde Park in London where apparently the penthouses have bulletproof glass, iris scanners, purified air and panic rooms) “no matter how much military hardware is installed, the aim of creating a maximum security environment to make people feel safer is doomed to failure because … security is as much an emotional as a physical state”. (p. 66) (Even the attempt by owners to secure themselves against stamp duty has apparently failed.)
There’s evidence, as Minton wrote recently in the Guardian, that CCTV makes people feel less secure. I’d very much like to get rid of the one in our garden – and not just because of its recent controversy. Minto: “One of the most important studies is by criminologist Jason Ditton, who carried out a study for the Scottish Office of CCTV in Glasgow, which found that recorded crime actually increased after CCTV had been installed …. the majority of people supported its introduction and believed that it would make them feel safer, but the findings after CCTV was put in showed that there was no improvement in feelings of safety.” (p. 169)
She reports on the case of a Dutch architect brought to Liverpool astonished by public housing estates surrounded by walls and CCTV. Hans Van der Heijiden, she reports, worked for six years with local people in Fazakerley, consulting on a proposed scheme, more continental in design and relying on the presence of people for security, but the “Secured by Design” certificate was unlikely to be granted on this basis, so the scheme fell through, the architect was sacked, and a new one built a “traditional”, prison-like structure. His words on consultation are telling: “The consultation process was a big book with procedures we had to follow with boxes to tick. An enormous amount of money was spent on it – venues were rented and bus services were provided.” But their support for his scheme was ignored.
Minton looks at people living in gated communities, who when they go out into the “normal world” feel suddenly far more insecure and even actively frightened. “When she visits her son in his terraced house, she is aware that the people walking past outside are ‘just inches away’ from his front room…. ‘Would I worry if I didn’t live her? Possibly not,’ she said.” (p. 80) For all of us, Minton notes, unexpected events, like the doorbell ringing, have become much rarer – even friends who are in the neighbourhood are likely, with mobiles, to phone first – and the phone will tell us who’s calling. “There is a flip side to the certainty and predictability which has come with the explosion of new technology, which is that tolerance and appreciation of the unexpected recedes, while reliance on that sense of certainty and feeling of control over the environment grows.” (p. 81)
Minton’s written previously on the privatisation of so many of our public spaces – the way security guards chase off young people, the homeless and (I declare an interest here) political campaigners and leafletters. Ground Control looks at those commercial districts that have undergone redevelopment and “regeneration”, from Liverpool One to Canary Wharf, and quotes Henri Lefebvre, who almost 40 years ago said that that the consequence of treating places simply as a product to sell to consumers could create units of near identical places, to the same tick box recipe. (p. 54) Malls are the perfect example, but so sad that so many city centres are going the same way. (I fear for the so-called “Midtown” in London.)
She also writes on the comprehensive debunking of the “Broken Windows” theory of crime prevention – on which so much of the last Labour government’s policies were based, with its focus on tackling anti-social behaviour, despite the fact that only 16% of people told a recent British crime survey that it was a big or fairly big problem in their area. And of the way that generalist authority figures, such as park wardens, who did a range of jobs, have been replaced by people whose only role is to enforce penalties, to crack down, producing a very different relationship to those with whom they come in contact.
Minton’s also critical of many approaches to “social capital”, saying this agenda, relying on political scientist Barbara Arneil “overlooks the fact that lack of cohesion is driven not so much by a decline in civis participation as by the enormous gap in levels of trust between privileged and deprived groups, and within deprived groups, which is why fear of crime is so much higher in the poorest parts of the country, where living conditions are hardest…. It is far more likely that networks of social capital will only benefit those who know each other, which means that segregation will persist. … it is this question of trust between strangers that Jane Jacobs was so concerned with.” (p. 172.) While I can see Minton’s point here, I do think she may be being unduly pessimistic – based on my own local experiences.
But I’ll finish with a lovely quote she unearthed – I suspect I’ll use it again…. “The morals of our children are ten times worse than formerly.” Lord Ashley, 1823. About time we started to get over such panics…