Open Cities12 Power and Enclosure
Fences, barriers, railings, walls, hedges, barricades, enclosures with their gates are all expressions of exclusion. They manifest the power of those who are in a position to exclude. Why should they put up barriers? What do these obstacles do for them, and against whom? Protection is invoked. Those behind enclosures are protecting themselves but why? Are they segregating themselves from whom they see as threats, aggressors, enemies, or simply from the other? Power and enclosure, this abstract issue of political science has concrete repercussions on cities and their openness.
The role of the powerful
The powerful may be gated behind their vast country estates or on their yachts in international waters. Most of them though colonise the city. They take over space, often in prime, symbolic places. Gradually, surreptitiously, they scrape space off the public realm. They erode the ‘commons’ owned by all and nobody in particular, the place of socialisation, the essence of urbanity. This becomes a thorny issue when ‘they’ are those who represent the ones they exclude, the politicians elected by the citizens who in effect convey their individual power to their elected representatives to use them for the common good.
The position of the state
The parliament is the visible seat of that power. Therefore fencing it in has profound symbolic meaning.
Decisions made with the entrusted power of individuals, such as going to war, are thrust upon the powerless citizens who, at best can join a protest march where those who are supposed to protect their safety, the police, confront them with truncheons, shields and helmets. When they are turning their own headquarters into a fortress, this again has profound symbolic meaning.
With each new prime minister an extra round of (de-)fences has been added to what used to be a London street. Gating is now sprawling onto the pavement, another space which is supposed to be a ‘common’.
For good measure, enclosure is spreading out to the machinery which supports the political powers, the civil service, the government buildings. Streets have been, and are being cut off from public use over the years despite ancient legislation which is supposed to protects this common right of way.
They leave Whitehall, part of a Unesco World Heritage site like a sterile channel between Parliament Square to which there is no safe public access and Trafalgar Square which had been conceived from the outset to contain the angry masses. [Rodney Mace. 1976. Emblem of Empire. Lawrence & Wishart]
What justifies the erosion of the public realm?
Without impunity, large chunks of urban space, in the heart of the city centre where people rightfully wish to enjoy its cultural assets, are being surrounded by physical obstacles which offend the many assumed to be the aggressors, without grounds, without proof. What is the justification? Security. But whose security, and why is suddenly more of it needed? War on terror we are told. In a city like London where multiculturalism is lauded as one of its prime assets, this is a hard argument to sustain. The citizens of cities like London are told that global conflicts have direct repercussions on our safety of everyday life in our cities. But is it our safety which is at stake or that of those who are seen as the aggressors by the outside, those who decide to go to war apparently on our behalf.
What can justify the assumption that those who live, work and visit these places, citizens, taxpayers, voters, ordinary bypassers are the enemy of the state? Is potential aggression possibly of the state’s own making? Could other solutions akin to the values of open cities be chosen instead of increasing the rings of barricades?
This question needs to be explored to prevent the public realm of cities from being eroded more and more. If the central state needs to protect itself, why stop there? It already encompasses all its arms length organisations, such as development corporations and all the para-public institutions, the schools, the hospitals, utilities, public transportation, cultural establishments…. The local state does the same. There is no reason why other powerful private institutions should not follow suit, the banks, the shopping malls, hotels, offices, housing estates. There is no end to the list and it has been happening for some time. It could be argued that the various inclosure acts form part of this process.
The key issue here is justification and legitimacy of such erosion of the public realm. This amounts to the power relation between the state and the rights of the urban population to its city. How to obtain more not less openness to the benefit of cities and their people?