City Living

LSE Cities MSc. Research Project
with Ilana Adleson, Sharifa Alshalfan,
Ariana Valdez Young and Nicolas Palominos

Read the report here

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This design-based research project formed the core design component of the MSc City Design and Social Science, at the LSE. It imagines a new City of London, through an in-depth analysis of the financial crisis, the Occupy Protests, and the meaning of public space. This extract is from the introduction to the final submission, and predates a version of this research as published in the journal City, profiled here:

“We arrived to a city strained by economic recession, unhinged by a wave of riots, and occupied by demands for alternatives to austerity. In the late summer and autumn of 2011, the public presented a series of challenges to ‘business as usual.’ On August 6th, the protest against the police killing of a young black man in outer London escalated into attacks on businesses and public infrastructure that ignited five days of riots across London and the UK (Guardian and the London School of Economics, 2011). On the morning of October 15th, protesters aligned with the global Occupy Movement stormed the London Stock Exchange - a symbolic heart of the local and global financial sector (Occupy LSX, 2011). Forced by police to retreat, protesters established a makeshift tent city along the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where they set up temporary residences, educational programmes and political working groups (ibid). Similar scenes unfolded in over 2,500 cities around the world, where the ad-hoc public city embedded itself in the crevices of the business city (Occupy Together, 2011). In London, Occupy Camps appropriated pavements, parks and vacant office buildings near the very institutions they deemed accountable for job losses, home evictions, and widening income disparities. Converting 8-hour business districts into palpable public sites of 24-7 civic performance, London’s camps spatialised democratic ideals in the everyday non-spaces typically occupied by hurried commuters and symbols of corporate power.

The City of London - a leading global business enclave with a dedicated police force and a small resident population of 8,000 - has responded to recent events with increased securitisation, legal action, and unyielding historic ceremony. During the 5 days of riots, the City’s private alert system broadcasted over 100,000 messages to businesses and residents, advising them on how to respond to the events (Vocal, 2011). Although no rioting occurred within the City’s boundaries, companies urged employees to avoid public transportation and to work from home, bank branches and retailers closed to the public, and the City’s police force remained on emergency alert (City of London Police, n.d.). Despite the presence of the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s, the Lord Mayor’s parade held to the same 785-year-old route through the City, promenading livery companies, military bands and police teams past the protesters. In February 2012, the Corporation of the City of London secured the legal right to evict the St. Paul’s camp, winning a court case on the premise that the 24-7 presence of protesters obstructed businesses and threatened ‘public health and safety’ (Davies, 2012).

The context of the current financial crisis has intensified pressure on the public realm to mediate between different actors vying to assert political rights, economic claims, and social expression. Although the August riots and the Occupy movement emerged from distinct socio-economic and political conditions, they both illustrate how the control of public space becomes an increasingly valuable asset in a time of crisis. Sociologist Craig Calhoun extends the implications of the 2008 financial crisis beyond the market, positing that ‘the crisis does not just belong to the financial rating agencies, Goldman Sachs, or other corporations. It belongs to culture and society’ (Bregtje van der Kaak, 2011). Architect Laura Burkhalter and sociologist Manuel Castells frame the financial crisis as a failure of both neoliberal market systems and their translations into urban form, declaring that the ‘bankruptcy of the economic and spatial model’ should be addressed equally through urban design and political reforms (Burkhalter and Castells, 2009: 24). These multi-disciplinary frameworks for reading economic systems as integral to the design and lived experience of the public realm have shaped our conceptualisation of the financial crisis as a city design problem.

We have arrived at a global moment in which economic enclaves of exclusion are being challenged in cities around the world. And we begin our investigation of the ‘public city’ in the City of London at this moment of crisis and contradiction: when banks rely on public bailouts as public institutions experience funding cuts, when businesses have more votes than residents and women are restricted from participating in certain political processes (Fig. 4), when public demonstrations are treated as security threats and public security is outsourced to private companies (Vocal, 2011). In this context, we ask what is the ‘public city’ and what role can it play to address urban inequality? We propose the creation of a more public City of London, in which productivity stems from diversity and intensity, and public spaces facilitate inclusion and opportunity. The City of London is unique, yet it is also kin to a global family of urban business districts. It offers an opportunity to question the efficiency of urban terrain ruled by private interests and to reconceptualise the ‘business as usual’ city as a true public city for the 21st century.”