Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Solutions to the financial crisis from Edinburgh

Just returned from Edinburgh where I spoke at a couple of events organised by the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust. Saturday afternoon saw a packed crowd of community organisors turn out for an afternoon seminar on the themes covered in Ground Control. The best thing about the day was the sense of enthusiasm about where the city finds itself post financial crash and what can be done. A key focus was the Caltongate site in Canongate. The development there, like so many others around the country, has stalled following the financial crisis and despite a number of possible alternative uses - including a literary centre - the council is so far failing to consider alternatives and hoping to resurrect the privatised mall model, despite very considerable opposition.

The upshot was a number of suggestions to take things forward and the Trust has a series of meetings and seminars planned to coordinate activities. The day produced a number of ideas that I really hope are followed up. These include setting up a 'Free the spaces database' to coordinate community groups engaged in similar issues around the country, which is a much needed resource. Another idea I particularly liked was 'Site Seeing', alternative walking tours organised around the key areas under discussion, to which local decision makers would also be invited.

Monday, 5 July 2010

From Docklands to the Olympics

Found myself immersed in the Olympics this weekend after leading a walk around Docklands and Stratford, curated by Ruth Ewan for the Chisenhale Gallery. It was an unusual event for me – a talk on the move, or series of talks – but it worked very well. We began at Crossharbour, outside The George pub, where Ground Control opens. I chose it as it seemed to draw a boundary line between the finance district and the Isle of Dogs which remains almost entirely untouched by the supposed promise of ‘trickle-down’. Next stop was the privatised Canary Wharf Estate, before crossing the dual carriageway which separates Canary Wharf from Poplar. There can be no better illustration of the stark segregation of the area than Aspen Way, a motorway which separates the glittering towers from local communities, who are literally on a different level. The walk drew to a close in Stratford, overlooking the Olympic site. With its reliance on Westfield Stratford City, Westfield’s 170 acre open air shopping mall, the development looks increasingly outdated. However, while Stratford City will effectively be a private city within a city, the Olympic Park might have a more promising future. While there is no doubt that the entire Olympic site will be a disturbingly high security zone it is by no means certain the park will be entirely private. I understand the details on who will own and control the site have not yet been finalised and I hope to do more work on this soon.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Debating with BID managers

Spoke today at the 'World Congress of Town Centres and Downtowns', a mainly American and British gathering of Business Improvement District managers. My remit, clearly, was to give the audience something to think about, given the stance I take towards BIDS in Ground Control. On the whole I got a receptive and interested reception although I did provoke the ire of one American BID director who claimed that I conflated gated communities and BIDS in a 'sloppy' manner. His question was the last of the session so I didn't have time to address his points properly, which I'll briefly do here.

The reason I think BIDS and gated developments have a lot in common is because both are privately run organisations which rely on fees from their members to provide common - ie. 'public' - services. Secondly, I draw parallels between BIDS and privately owned places such as Liverpool One because they are both run according to the same 'Clean and Safe' - ie. high security and sanitation - principles laid out by the New York Mayor's Office in its guidelines to BIDS. He also felt I was simply arguing that public money was 'good' and private 'bad' and was harking back to a non existent socialist utopia. One of the themes underpinning Ground Control is that the last decade has seen a wave of development comparable only in scale with the 1950s and 60s which saw modernist arterial roads and tower blocks slice through cities and communities. My argument is that the disturbing consequences of the very public centralised planning of the post war period have in many ways been replicated by the wholesale privatisation of cities more recently. Ground Control is not a call for a return to centralised planning but a commentary on the consequences of today's property fuelled approach to cities, as practiced particularly in the US and Britain.

I spoke afterwards with Cathy Parker and colleagues at the Institute of Place Management who suggested that we both debate these points in their journal, which I'd be very happy to do.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

'Tesco Towns' artlicle in The Guardian

Published this piece in today's Guardian, on the spread of 'Tesco Towns' - where homes, streets and even schools are built by Tesco:

Friday, 23 April 2010

The failures of investigative journalism

Very interesting event at the Southbank Centre last night, with Patrick Wright and Dan Jones from the theatre company Sound and Fury. It was great to do an event with Patrick Wright, whose book ‘A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London’ is, I like to think, a precursor to ‘Ground Control’. Wright also collaborates with film maker Patrick Keiller who made the brilliant ‘London’ and its sequel ‘Robinson in Space’ and is, with Iain Sinclair, representative of a more political generation of writers and film makers who link politics and place with memory and identity.
Sound and Fury is a theatre company particularly interested in the sound space of theatre, which uses darkness to dramatic effect to highlight other senses. They are workshopping a play about surveillance for the National Theatre and currently touring ‘Kursk’, a play about the Russian nuclear submarine tragedy.
The discussion brought out how journalism has failed us in recent years, with the most interesting political work emerging either in non fiction or the theatre, with plays like ‘Enron’ and the ‘Power of Yes’ doing the work that investigative journalism fails to do. A big gripe of mine is that I tried to get half the stories in ‘Ground Control’ into newspapers I write for but editors weren’t interested, finding pieces ‘too negative’. Now, of course, that the book has been well-received there’s plenty of interest, but I think that response speaks volumes about the ongoing crisis in investigative journalism.

Monday, 15 March 2010

New Statesman happiness piece

Here's a piece on happiness I've written for this week's New Statesman:
I'm very critical of positive psychology courses and the teaching of happiness, which is being enthusiastically imported to the UK directly from the US. There these courses are part of a multi-million 'Resilience' programme teaching happiness in the US army while over here they've started to be rolled out in our schools. The piece shows how this approach originated during the cold war, with management guru Abraham Maslow.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Guardian comment piece on Drones

Apologies for delay in moderating comments and posting, had minor tech problems. Wanted to post a link to this comment piece I published in The Guardian earlier this week, about Drones coming to Britain. It was partly sparked off by discussions following recent talks and chat on the blog.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Drones come to London

Great event with Michael Rosen on Thursday night, at Bishopsgate Institute, a beautiful, unexpected Victorian hall opposite the starkly demarcated Broadgate Centre. Put on by Newham Books the event pulled in lots of people from nearby Dalston, and local groups Southwark Cyclists and 'Space Hi-jackers', who lightly disrupt the regimen in privatised places by towing in an enormous banner, proclaiming the banning of photographs and the usual. Keep feeling surprised that every time I'm asked if policymakers have responded to the messages in 'Ground Control' I find myself praising Boris's Manifesto for Public Space, which states that streets and public places in London must stay under local authority control.

Unfortunately I fear that has come too late for Stratford City which is shaping up to be a scarily high security zone. When I give talks about the book I mention the Drones - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used in Iraq - which now fly over parts of Liverpool and are set to patrol over Stratford City. After a talk the other day someone in the audience told me she had attended an Olympics reception where the Drones had a demonstration stand! So, not only are they certain to fly over London, they're clearly seen as something to be proud of.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Rowan Williams, MI6 and Shell...

Silence on the blog front because I’ve been on a two week residency at the Southbank centre, with a group of artists, film makers, musicians and writers. Highlights included lunch with the Archbishop of Canterbury, a briefing with a top bod from MI6 and a tour of the Shell building. The visits were organised by Jeremy Deller, the artist who suggested a burnt out car from Iraq for the fourth plinth. He’s interested in mapping power. As to the least powerful, we also went to Kids Company, the children’s charity run by Camila Batmanghelidjh, who is a phenomenon. I’m not sure what will come out of it, though I’ll certainly be writing about Kids Company again. And certainly memorable to have the Archbishop define god for us.