When oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2015. Image: Getty.

If you happen to visit Egypt and find yourself in the famous Tahrir Square, you might be puzzled: how could this space accommodate two million protesters?

In fact, the square looked different at the time of the Arab Spring – up until the new military government ringed its central part with an iron fence. A similar transformation happened with the Pearl roundabout in the capital of Bahrain where demonstrators used to gather – It was turned into a traffic junction. In my hometown, Moscow, the square where millions called for the end of Soviet rule in 1991 now houses an hideous shopping mall.

For a pro-liberty movement to raise its head, Twitter is not enough: face-to-face contact is crucial. That is why when oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces. Street markets, green squares and lively parks (think of the iconic Hyde Park corner) are places where citizens meet, negotiate and slowly learn to trust each other.

Joseph Stalin knew it well, hence he made sure that city dwellers had no public spaces to socialise in. The results were devastating: chronic mistrust that post-communist societies are yet to overcome. Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the levels of social capital in Dresden and Leipzig are still lower than in Munich and Hamburg, which bears its economic as well as political costs.

One study shows that residents living in walkable neighbourhoods exhibit at least 80 per cent greater levels of social capital than those living in car-dependent ones. That is something to consider, given that only a half of Brits know their neighbour’s name. The economic benefits are also clear: improved walking infrastructure can increase retail sales by 30 per cent. London has witnessed it on Oxford Street where the creation of a Tokyo-style pedestrian crossing led to a 25 per cent increase in turnover in the adjacent stores.

In the 20th century, the world has fallen in and out of love with urban utopias. Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” with its enormous avenues and gigantic block houses is probably the most famous (or infamous) proposal – look for gloomy pictures to get an impression on how Paris would look like if his ideas were put to practice (or just imagine Barbican extended to the size of a city). American journalist and one of the founders of modern urban studies, Jane Jacobs, challenged these ideas in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” while praising spontaneous order in urban development.

What was common for the socialist urban projects? They glorified the automobile as a means of transportation. In contrast, the most appealing examples Jacobs presented in her book were all neighbourhoods with intense pedestrian flow. Besides boosting community life and helping cities to prosper, she argues, walkable cities are also safer ones. More pedestrians means more “eyes on the streets”, which lowers the need for police surveillance (Britain has almost 6m CCTVs, one for every 11 people).

That’s all fine, but who pays? It’s true that large-scale urban redevelopment projects can be very expensive. However, engaging with private capital has proven to be a viable strategyboth in and outside of the UK.

One inspirational example comes from right across the Channel. In Rotterdam, local architects proposed a pedestrian bridge that would link two parts of the city separated by a railroad. When the local government refused to fund it, they launched a public crowdfunding campaign and raised enough money to complete the project. This is a perfect example of how social capital can bridge aspirations and reality — sometimes even literally.


Many citizens are sceptical about large-scale urban projects, and for a reason: the most ambitious of them are being implemented in a top-down-way. Take Barcelona’s car-free ”superblocks” or Paris' mayor’s pledge to halve the number of private cars: both faced strong opposition from residents.

Back in the sixties, Jacobs warned against one-size-fits all solutions. In one of her public speeches she pointed to the corner grocery store as a sign of commercial diversity in a city – and soon began to receive projects where planners literally allocated slots for corner grocery stores. Such “patronising conception”, she argues, is not something a modern city needs.

Of course, there will always be NIMBYs opposing any changes to the city landscape, but YIMBY is the new black. Few years ago, when I was serving as an elected official in Moscow, I was the only outspoken YIMBY in my district. Once at the public hearings I was even accused of being bribed by the developer – just because I supported a private park project.

Here, once again, we face the problem of trust, and it is hard to blame people for being distrustful when social ties are so weak. This vicious circle – no public spaces so no social capital, no social capital so no public spaces – should be finally broken.

Vera Kichanova is a recipient of the John Blundell Studentship. She was the first Russian libertarian to be elected to public office and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on market urbanism at King's College London.

This article was first published on the Adam Smith Institute blog, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.