Comment: What’s a City For?

Have you seen the winning design for the revamp of George Square? The resurfacing work is to integrate powerful magnets into the ground which will suck loose change straight out of pockets and straight down carefully-designed slots. But we won’t mind because the trees will all be fitted with diffusers which will pump mood-enhancing chemicals straight into the air, leaving people a bit disorientated but utterly passive and pliable. There will only be one way into the Square, through a narrow street of cashline machines, pawn shops and pay day loan companies. And there will only be one way out, through a single immense shopping mall which will enclose the remainder of the city centre. The pigeons will be trained to attack loiterers (including picnickers) to ensure ‘optimal throughput flow’. To fulfil civic responsibilities a ten-inch screen will be installed in the north end of the Square which will relay live footage of protests and demonstrations which will now take place at the Greengair landfill site in North Lanarkshire. And when necessary large brushes will clear the Square of all items (including people) not bolted down, preparing it for corporate entertaining purposes in under 15 minutes. There shall be some flowers in a pot.

This may seem a little unfair – the actual designs for the Square look quite nice (if not that appropriate to the location). And it is certainly not much of a social space as currently configured, with its expanses of parking-lot red tarmac and a layout that hardly encourages socialising. But before we get too swept up in these thoughts we should remember that all designs look good in artists’ impressions and that even if the present is not ideal, that doesn’t offer a blanket defence of anything that comes next.

Victorian ideals of civic responsibility to citizens have gone the way of public toilets and drinking fountains – allowed to decline slowly and then finally demolished to be replaced instead with a commercial alternative

In this issue we have used the redesign of George Square as a jumping-off point for a look at the purpose and meaning of the modern city. If the focus on Glasgow suggests this is a city-specific issue, it shouldn’t. In Edinburgh much, if not most, of the city centre is now managed ‘on behalf of the public’ by Essential Edinburgh, a private company that appears to make all the decisions about the use of public space independent of any serious oversight. People who have engaged with Essential Edinburgh report experiences that reflect very closely the George Square issue; the criteria used by the company is virtually all about commerce. Thus if someone wishes to set up an exhibition in Charlotte or St Andrews Squares, the decision to give approval will cite the impact on retail in the surrounding area as a key factor. Even more than that, matters which must surely be considered a matter of taste – what will look good, what will look ‘untidy’, what people will like – are taken by a private company which does not own the space. There is very little democracy involved.

The conversion of public space in the centre of cities from being a civic space to being a commercial asset has been virtually non-stop in Scotland since Glasgow pursued its retail-and-leisure regeneration strategy in the 1980s. In public debate the assumption that city centres must be managed for the benefit of retail and the service sector is now seldom challenged. Victorian ideals of civic responsibility to citizens have gone the way of public toilets and drinking fountains – allowed to decline slowly and then finally be demolished to be replaced instead with a commercial alternative.

This matters in all sorts of ways. The ‘managing-out’ of activities that were once seen as central to the life of a city (the many reasons for the congregation of large numbers of people, not least legitimate protest and demonstration) is a particular focus. So is the anti-social geography of the city with sitting and congregating spaces apparently designed not to compete with the surrounding commercial interests. If in doubt about this, try and find somewhere in a city centre you can sit comfortably and read a book for as long as you like with access to drinking water and a toilet. You will find this hard to do indoors other than in a few public facilities like an art gallery or museum; outside you will find it close to impossible, unless you are willing to pay.

But there’s something more insidious even than these practical manifestations of the reorientation of space towards commercial interests; it’s the impact on democracy itself. The left has complained for a very long time about the merger of government and commerce at the national level. We watch our shared assets and resources being used to promote the interests of big business and argue that this is not the purpose of ‘the common wealth’. But it has become hard not to conclude that at the city level, this process has gone even further than at the national level. The legacy of the toxic ‘Team Glasgow’ nonsense seems deeply ingrained in the government of the city. That idea – that an elite of business and civic leaders should take over the running of the city collectively to remake it in their own image – was the definition of hubris. But it is hard to see that the general attitude has changed. The political definition of a city just now almost always revolves around some synonym for ‘powerhouse’. Now, if one were to turn to a dictionary to work out whether a city being a ‘powerhouse’ is a good thing one might conclude it was. ‘Powerhouse – A person or thing of great energy, strength, or power.’ If our cities were designed to be strong and energetic, as great centres of human activity, that would be wonderful. But that isn’t the definition of ‘powerhouse’ that is being used here. In fact everyone always seems to mean ‘Powerhouse – A plant or facility to provide energy to something else’.

This is a conception that requires a moment’s thought. The modern Scottish city is deemed to be successful if in its activities it fuels and makes something else successful. That ‘something else’ is not the city’s communities or social cohesion but commerce. A modern city is successful only as far as the governance of that city is used to benefit commercial activity taking place in that city.

In neoliberal theory that is fine because the wellbeing of the city as a whole depends on the success of its ‘wealth generators’. We take the general criticisms of this line of neoliberal doctrine as read (i.e. it’s not true and it doesn’t work). But even taking it at face value, even if the theory is firmly rooted in classical economic theory, there are problems. Think of it like a balance of payments issue; how much of the growth predicted by commercial governance theories is an ‘export out’ of the city? I.e., how much of the strategy can be seen to rely on economic activity that does not simply cannibalise the existing ‘customer base’ (i.e. the people who live and work in the city or who visit regularly)? In the Glasgow case everything is about ‘retail and leisure’, making the city centre more attractive for spending money in. But all of this is money spent by punters. There are no factories to be built in the new George Square/Buchannan Galleries development, no innovation units, research facilities. It’s all about retail and leisure.

So let’s call this what it is; a scheme to make the city just that little bit more effective at parting its own residents with their money, money which is rapidly expropriated by Gap or Starbucks or H&M or Primark. All that talk of ‘attracting tourists’ is a convenient cover; the profit comes out of the pockets of the locals.

Of course a lively leisure and retail industry is a good thing in a city centre. But as a one-stop strategy for regeneration it is a straightforward con trick. It is little more than the farming of citizens on behalf of corporations. This is the economics of ‘serve up the public on a plate and may the most ruthless corporation win’. It’s not like these corporations are even building anything in the city worth keeping, like the old tobacco barons did. The Buchannan Galleries extension hasn’t been built yet and already it is a forgettable contribution to the long-term wellbeing of Glasgow as a city.

We ask what a city is for. Really, we know. It is a system for farming people on behalf of corporations. There is an old gambling adage – look round the table; if you can’t spot the sucker, it’s you. Keep that in mind when you see an artists impression of a nice day out in Glasgow.