The Future Cities project

encouraging debate, criticism and freedom of expression

After the Riots: what makes a city?

Michael Owens  | 17 October 2011

The riots affected many places that have been the focus for urban regeneration and neighbourhood renewal. It’s a bitter pill for those of us in the business to swallow, but our efforts may have contributed to the problem rather than helped create the solution. Despite all the ‘New Deals’, engaged stakeholders, and ‘empowered’ communities, a significant proportion of our communities were prepared to destroy and loot, expressing scant identity with their local places and with their neighbours. After decades when making relationships and building institutions has been at the core of urban policy, it was as if the rioters set out to underline the distance between themselves and both the authorities and the institutions of community life.

The most cynical response in the regeneration industry has been to welcome the trigger to new spending. Even though many of us have lost our livelihoods in the past two years, it would be bizarre to believe that the riots will herald a return to the levels of welfare spending of old. Certainly, the Mayor of London and the government have responded quickly, redirecting spending into Croydon, Tottenham, and the other High Streets that were affected. The broomstick was the immediate symbol of community response to the riots, and the funds will allow the official clean up to continue. If the wish to return to normality in riot-damaged high streets is understandable, a myopic response which suggests that new shop-fronts and better lighting will re-establish good communities would be an unforgiveable position for those of us who are committed to building good cities.

So, in the rush to re-assert normality, let us help sweep up the streets, support hard pressed small businesses to get trading again, let us even support fun and innovative ways to spruce up the local shops and kick start new businesses. But let us not forget how shocking the riots were; let us not ignore the underlying corrosion of community life that they represented.

The uncomfortable truth (for some) is the one told by Jane Jacobs, New York community campaigner back in the early 1960s: that local authorities cannot construct a ‘sense of community’. The dilemma for local government professions is that many of the attributes of the good city, particularly those apparently and cruelly absent, stem from community strengths rather than from government planning and social engineering. Public spending cuts and the recession have disoriented us, but this is not the real problem. We have allowed ourselves to become uncritical. If we are clear what makes a good city, then we can better appraise the worth of our current urban policy framework.

Scottish journalist Penny Lewis, in a recent essay reflecting on the riots, reappraises Jacobs’ most famous work, noting that she ‘stood in that great American tradition of celebrating the freedom of the individual, the right to privacy and the capacity of autonomous individuals to get along together as part of city life’. Jane Jacobs’ values provide a good start. Communities in good cities are built on self-reliance and solidarity: at work and at home. In such communities, the strength of the community is a source of moral authority; the individual is accountable to it. The strong community provides the source of authority through which the freedoms of autonomy and privacy are protected.

At first reading, Jacobs’ values seem self-evident. However, once we look at our practice, our commitment to these apparently timeless values is not so apparent. We don’t look to communities to assert moral authority; our policy instinct has been to create more quangos and create extra officialdom in impoverished areas. Traditional community institutions have ossified, while most government effort has gone into ‘joining up’ the fragments of the local state and making sense of the complexities of its agencies in the post welfare state world. Authority figures in local communities are less evident in public life, while creative consultation processes focus on the young and the marginal. We should re-examine our urban policies and practises against the test of our principles: do they secure the freedom and privacy of the individual and do they support community authority?

Governments can’t construct communities, but they can work in ways that don’t undermine them. The real steps towards creating the good city will be taken by its citizens, and we need to stop undermining their freedoms. Or we can carry on pretending that life is back to normal; we can continue spending our busy lives coordinating with other professionals, splendidly divorced from the lives of those communities we ostensibly serve.

Michael Owens is the director of Global Cities, a contributor to The Lure of the City: from slums to suburbs, and a member of the editorial board for the journal Local Economy. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas Satellite session After the riots: what makes a city?, which takes place on Wednesday 19 October, in partnership with the Croydon Salon.