Guest Post: Marginalize Away the Joy and Sell Us Boredom

A masters student of Human Geography at Stockholm University, currently studying at Queens University Belfast, Matt Smith seeks to uncover alternatives to the current neoliberal paradigm and how they might come into being. This is informed by his activism as an anarchist.

"I took the first bus out of Coca-Cola city,
It made me feel all nauseous & shitty.
I took the first bus out of Shell town,
Cos they didn't want me all hanging around."
[Refused - Worms of the senses/Faculties of the skull]

A significant ruptures exists between what is advocated by geographers and planners and the reality of how cities are designed, formed and governed. This is of course nothing new; the chasm between theory and policy is longstanding. However, with the current resurgence of cities as the environment of choice for people to live, work and exist in, it has been accompanied by a sense of optimism that cities are the drivers of change and that multiple potentialities concerning the future arise from their existence.

This optimistic sheen however seems to fade when reality comes to the fore. The event that sparked this post was my recent discovery of the phenomena of Business Improvement Districts or BIDs. They are a strategy originating in the USA and as a policy initiative have spread and flourished to Africa and Europe. In the UK and Ireland there are over 184 BIDs, 148 of these are in town centres. How they function differs from each country, but they are essentially a public-private-partnership that operates over a distinct geographical area in order to improve and enhance the public space within that area. They normally last for around 5 years at which point they can be renewed. They come into existence through the businesses within an area voting on whether they would like to be part of a BID, and if successful a levy is paid by all the businesses to fund projects and services. The kinds of geographical area covered, from a UK context anyway, are regularly commercial areas, industrial estates and city centres.

Here I’m primarily concerned with the creation of BIDs in city centres, since generally industrial estates are only inhabited by those who work there, but city centres are or at least should be for all the inhabitants of a city and beyond. The sort of services offered may be focused on place branding and marketing, the aesthetics of a place such as the removal of litter, the renewal of façades, or improving security. It is this security aspect that is perhaps the most troublesome. What this entails could be seen as merely ensuring the safety of people out shopping in the city centre, and so businesses hope to improve their takings by ensuring that their customers can come and shop in a secure environment. Although I would argue that this is a naïve approach, and really something more insidious is in action here.

What this is is the privatization of public space. Where business interests are able to decide on the kind of people they want in the geographical area of their BID and the controlling of perceived nuisances. This means ‘undesirables’ who do not fit the aspirations of business owners can be moved on whether they be the homeless people or sex workers or other forms of economic, cultural or political activity that does not facilitate the consumption of goods. Moreover, the committee of the BID who decide on actions to be taken is more often than not only accessible to those businesses paying the most and not all the small and medium enterprises who are required to pay the levy. This creates a distinct democratic deficit in how public space is being governed.

Belfast city centre. Picture by Matt Smith.

Furthermore, many UK city and town centres already suffer from the phenomenon of ‘clone towns’ in that they all have the same familiar global and national high street chain stores with only the original layout and architecture differentiating them. The proliferation of Pret-a-manger’s in Fitzrovia, London is just one example among many of the marginalisation of diversity and independent retailers.

BIDs seek to further choreograph the urban landscape by governing the practices that exist within them and enable the desirable populace of consumers to be left undisturbed. BIDs further the sterilisation of town and city centres, perhaps increasing their profitability, but does this enhance liveability?

The question rises who is it these ‘improvements’ to city centres are being made for? And more importantly, is this the kind of city we desire? Where the public space is being governed and sculpted by private interests in order to enhance consumption. The concern over the privatization of public space is nothing new, but the discovery of BIDs has reanimated this concern for me. The sheer juxtaposition of the conceptualisation of the city as a site of infinite multiple future potentialities, and the seeming undemocratic homogenous reality is not something that should spawn pessimism, but act as a wake-up call for those who have an undying optimism for the city as the primary site of humanity’s progress.

(Thumbnail image by: mariejirousek, licensed under Creative Commons)