The New Economics Foundation ‘festival’, 'The Bigger Picture' this weekend lived up to its name, with literally thousands of people queuing for hours to get into the Bargehouse on the SouthBank, to the point that sessions transferred outside. I was speaking with Stacy Mitchell, American author of ‘Big Box Swindle’, in a session called ‘Tales of how it turned out right: How communities in the US fought back and won.’ Much of Ground Control is based on the premise that we have imported one divisive American policy towards the city after another so how is it that Stacy Mitchell was asked to speak about how it turned out right? To my surprise, a key theme which emerged while I was writing the book is just how much more engaged Americans are with what is happening to their cities. Stacy talked about how local business alliances of independent shops were successfully working against the ‘Walmart economy’ to change federal government planning policy. She also talked of the success of local campaigns such as ‘Keep Portland independent’ and ‘Keep Austin weird’. In contrast to UK trends, 400 new independent bookshops have opened in the US over the last five years. Although American trends towards private government, gated communities and high security are so much more advanced than ours in many ways their federal structure offers more opportunities to revive local democracy.
The structure of the day – and the Bargehouse - was that people wandered from one packed session to another. Oliver James, speaking with Stewart Wallis about the myth of progress, described the atmosphere as akin to a 60s protest. For the thousands who attended, the idea of a politically apathetic voting public couldn’t be further from the truth.