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Covid and the rise of the non-place

The pandemic has destroyed countless community and public assets, but the power of local identity remains vital to our recovery.
 

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As the doors open on the world again people are discovering a different Britain, changed forever. In his “Peak London” essay in the New Statesman in November, Alec Marsh wrote that many public amenities, shops and local services that made up the quotidian townscape prior to the pandemic have since closed. Today’s street scene in Hackney, north-east London, where I cross weekly to and from Homerton Hospital, consists of boarded up pubs, shuttered and graffitied shopfronts, empty office suites and blocked off streets. Though some are reopening, many public libraries, arts centres, cinemas and theatres remain closed; some will never open again. This, together with a nervousness about the return of large public gatherings, could produce an overpowering sense of communal anxiety. The once ubiquitous public spirit of “we are all in this together” may not last long.

Meanwhile, delivery vans have been going from house to house like the postmen and doctors in Philip Larkin’s valedictory “Aubade”. Having captured a market worth billions, online retailers aren’t going to relinquish this territory lightly. Too many households are logged on to Amazon, Deliveroo, Ocado and former high street retailers to return to browsing the windows of half-empty shopping streets, or braving the rain to queue at once popular street markets. Dalston’s Ridley Road market – the beating heart of Hackney’s turbulent, cosmopolitan identity for nearly 140 years – is unlikely to see established traders return.

Covid has dramatically accelerated the long-term shift from a place-based to a non-place, networked public realm, first identified by Californian planner Melvin M Webber in the early 1960s in two seminal essays, “Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity”, and “The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm”. Though Webber is now forgotten, these two academic papers gathered a cult following when first published. As British planner Peter Hall wrote in Webber’s obituary, the key insight was that “planners were obsessed with the concept of place, but place was becoming irrelevant in people’s lives, whether for their work or their residence or their patterns of consumption”.

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Though other sociologists and commentators – such as Edward Relph (Place and Placelessness, 1976) and Marc Augé (Non-Places, 1992) – developed these ideas in greater detail, Webber’s phrase “community without propinquity” haunts the planning profession. It also became the rallying cry for a generation of urban sociologists who argued that neighbourhood, class and nationality were no longer the key determinants of identity, and that race, gender, sexual orientation and cultural lifestyles had taken their place, aided by the rapid growth of transport networks and virtual communications.

“Community without propinquity” was based on the globe-trotting lifestyles of the academics, business entrepreneurs and tech pioneers of America’s West Coast and incipient Silicon Valley that Webber saw around him at Berkeley. Many had severed any emotional affiliation with the cities or neighbourhoods where their homes or workplaces were based. They were citizens of “anywhere” rather than “somewhere”, in David Goodhart’s recent typology. Webber, like his admirer, Reyner Banham, was fascinated by mass car ownership, freeways, motels, airports and shopping malls. What California does today, he surmised, the world does tomorrow. Even those who stayed at home could now communicate across the globe with others who shared their interests or affiliations. In the UK, for those at the other end of the social scale, Norman Tebbit’s advice to the unemployed of Britain’s deprived towns and cities was to “get on your bike” to look for work elsewhere.

These new ideas presented a serious challenge to the planning world, whose origins lay in a profound anthropological understanding that place was the key element in human settlement and identity. The founder of modern planning, Frédéric le Play (1806 – 82), famously stated that the proper order of things was “Place, Work, Family”. His Scottish disciple, Patrick Geddes – biologist, geographer and sociologist – emphasised the need for organic, incremental growth in communities, based on close observation of how people lived, worked and constructed local cultures and social relationships – rather than relying on top-down planning. Such assumptions were understandable at a time when the main sources of employment were determined by topography and geology: mining, steel-making, agriculture, cattle and sheep-farming, weaving, ship-building, fishing and marine culture.

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All this changed once concepts of zoning or land-use captured the planners of postwar Europe, who were having to deal with the wholesale reconstruction of towns and cities laid to waste by war, and the subsequent rise of white-collar employment. Planning became preoccupied with creating or re-creating impressive town and city centres, dominated by shops, offices, and facilities supporting tourism and leisure, with housing development relocated to the periphery. Yet it didn’t take long for growing public dissatisfaction with the scale or distinctiveness of the resulting townscape – often the result of inadequate maintenance rather than design – to require a new approach to urban improvement. Hence the rise of place-making in the 1980s, a subset of urban design, which was itself a hybrid of what was formerly civic architecture and town planning traditions and practices.

For a while urban renewal and town centre management seemed to be going well, particularly during the early years of the 1997 Labour government, aided by the National Lottery (an unexpected gift from John Major). New plazas were designed and built, marina-style developments appeared beside inner-city waterways, shopping centres were refurbished, new concert halls and libraries were commissioned, and council marketing departments eagerly promoted their towns and cities to the wider world. But the palette of materials used and the repertoire of urban design tricks employed in too many refurbishment schemes lacked texture or substance.

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In her review of The Good Place Guide: Urban Design in Britain and Ireland by John Billingham and Richard Cole (2002), the urbanist Judith Ryser concluded: “The overall impression of the pictures in the book is one of a hard landscape for a hard society.” This hardness was compounded by “designing out crime” strategies employed to thwart anti-social behaviour in public places – having fewer seats and anti-skateboarding plans were among the measures deployed to create a hostile environment for the homeless or gatherings of young people. Anti-terrorism measures followed the London bombings of 2005, including defensive curtilages around station concourses and public squares, 24-hour surveillance and increased privatisation. There were positive innovations, notably in legal requirements to make public spaces more accessible to people with disabilities, but the mix of objectives failed to reconcile civic ambitions with security demands.

The result was that urban renewal as a people-based policy was replaced by a set of design-based strategies favouring the visual over the social (schemes were often photographed empty). A 2005 Demos report, pointedly called People Make Places, suggested that urban designers should be asking not, “What does this place look like?” but, “What experiences can be supported and enjoyed here?” Over the past decade a monoculture ofover-large piazzas without shade, furnished by sensor-controlled fountains, brutalist seating and expensive coffee kiosks, has been contrasted unfavourably with the year-round popularity enjoyed by parks, ever the poor relation in urban planning. If Covid has achieved one positive outcome it has been to highlight the indispensability of parks and open spaces in providing open-air recreation for all, and a welcome spirit of rus in urbe. The egalitarian ethos of the commons, the origin of many town parks in the UK, still stands fast against the privatisation of public life, and for the democracy of the public domain.

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Attachment to place is the latest terrain on which culture wars are about to be fought. The present government has stolen a march on Labour with its proposal to set up a new “Office for Place” this year as part of the Building Better, Building Beautiful programme, with some eye-catching proposals: in future it proclaims “all new streets will be lined with trees”. It is an ambitious agenda, though whether local authorities have the powers or financial means to play their part is questionable, and may explain the small-print qualification, “should economic conditions allow”.

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The default position of much Labour thinking on urban issues has been to emphasise how bad things are everywhere, oblivious to the fact that most people – including ethnic minority communities, sometimes especially so – remain loyal to their home territory and take pride in it, whatever outsiders say. Attachment to place often overrides race, class or other identity attachments. It is vital ground to nurture. As the Covid crisis abates, there is much to learn about how communities can reconstruct a sense of place more sustainably and inclusively, for as Bertolt Brecht warned after a far worse catastrophe: “Behind us lie the exertions of the mountains, ahead of us lie the exertions of the plains.” 

Ken Worpole’s “No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime Britain” is published by Little Toller

Ken Worpole’s latest book, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, will be published by Little Toller in 2021

This article appears in the 16 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web