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Christian Moeller, "Hands", San Jose (2010)

On the motorway with Anna Minton

We speak to the Ground Control author about the future of our cities and how we can break the walls between us all

Anna Minton’s Ground Control (2009) was a chilling study of how the regeneration of towns have intensified social divisions and left us fearful of each other. In it she argued that Britain’s streets have been transformed by the construction of new property – but it’s owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. 

We spoke to Anna Minton as she made her way down the M1 from Yorkshire to London. As she approached the North circular, she spoke about the future of cities, how first and third worlds now exist side-by-side in the contemporary city, how the internet of everything could imprison us all and why we need to use psychoanalysis to break down the walls between us. As she tells us, “The very basic point is that we’re going in the wrong direction on almost everything: politically and economically. Having said that we are now having the discussions that we weren’t happening a few years ago”.

Are cities in the UK getting more extreme?

Anna Minton: I think that some of the themes I highlighted in Ground Control – privatisation of large parts of the city, segregation, polarisation, pockets of extreme deprivation alongside affluence – is certainly getting more pronounced. In a city like London it’s more extreme because London is an offshore tax haven for global financial capital.

What is biggest threat to happy cities at the moment?

Anna Minton: Well a big threat, which can also be an opportunity, depending on how we deal with it, which was made very clear with the rise of UKIP is the increase in immigration. And this is happening across Europe. I was in Oslo a few weeks ago. A third of the population are immigrants: in Greece they have a population of eleven million and one million of these are immigrants. And that is a challenge to lots of people but it’s also an opportunity.

Because of how immigrant communities can revitalise cities?

Anna Minton: Exactly. There’s been a lot of discussion about the decline of the high street, but if you look at parts of London like Haringey Green Lanes, Peckham Rye, Walworth Road on Elephant and Castle: there are lots of parts of London where the high street is really thriving, but it’s actually quite a different high street to a traditional “English” one. It’s the epitome of a multicultural, diverse society with a very large immigrant population.

“We are seeing the first world and the third world coexisting in British cities and the first world and the third world coexisting in third world countries” – Anna Minton

And how would you characterise that?

Anna Minton: You know in some ways you could say that its a very third world condition. When I say third world I don't mean it in a derogatory sense. I mean the diversity, and more public way living and using public space. These places like Green Lanes feel more democratic and lively than the Liverpool Ones or Cabot Circuses of this world. 

In parallel and alongside that you can see the segregation, privatisation and gating off of parts of the city. And meanwhile the converse is happening in cities in what may be called third world countries: privatised blocks spring up alongside bustling streets. We are seeing the first world and the third world coexisting in British cities and the first world and the third world coexisting in third world countries.

What do you think of the so-called ‘Smart CIty’ – the drive for an increasingly networked city, with sensors hooked up to everything, monitoring pollution levels, traffic flow etc – that’s being discussed a lot and is being promoted by companies like Cisco and Intel?

Anna Minton: I think they have a very frightening vision of the city. It’s a very controlling and undemocratic view. I think there’s been a real rush to embrace the smart city narrative, but it's just another narrative. Cities are very prone to stories being told about them but it’s basically marketing and spin. I think the reality is  that aspects of the smart city will morph with aspects of the more traditional city. Just look at the sat nav – it’d be crazy if you only relied on your sat nav. You still have to carry a map and know where you are and if anything those skills are more important than they used to be.

What do you think will be the impact of the increasing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning that will allow companies to learn how citizens use the city?

Anna Minton: I’m really suspicious of these technologies because most of them benefit the people whip create them because they can hoover up  all this data about the people. I’m quite sceptical about those things and there’s quite a backlash. You get people who say “No, I refuse to have a loyalty card.” A big area of development is people seeking privacy and the various services that encourage and offer ways of withholding data and the anonymisation of data.

In one of your reports for RICS, you recommended an increased use of Community Land Trusts for housing developments. They seem to be gaining a small amount of momentum, with one on site in Mile End, London. Are CLTs the future for a more accessibly housing market?

Anna Minton: They do seem to be gaining momentum, after a slow start. They can be a viable model for genuinely affordable housing and that’s the aspect of it I really like. But at the end of the day a community land trust is still a privatised enclave, so I’d flag up that aspect of it. Part of it is removed from the urban fabric. So community land trusts: yes, but. A note of caution.

I’m interested to know what do you think of the resistance movements like Occupy?

Anna Minton: Yes, it was a great shame that Occupy basically ate itself up. What’s striking about Occupy was that it was a landless movement that came into being, really, at a time when private property was at its high point and it hadn’t been as powerful as this since the 18th century, you know, the pre-democratic period — and Occupy was against this. And there it was in London, in New York, there were links to Gezi Square in Istanbul, it was the polar opposite to the dominant ways of doing things. 

Are you very optimistic for the future of politics?

Anna Minton: It’s hard to feel positive at the moment when you look around at democracy being undermined in various parts of Europe, especially ones that are on the front line of the financial crisis, such as Greece which had this government foisted up on it nntirely undemocratically. And when you look at the way the austerity cuts are distributed — who they hit — and who is benefiting in this country from ongoing low tax, it’s quite difficult to feel optimistic, but you know, actually the trends are towards less democracy. 

“I think there’s been a real rush to embrace the smart city narrative, but it's just another narrative. Cities are very prone to stories being told about them but it’s basically marketing and spin” – Anna Minton

And what about the underlying economic models?

Anna Minton: I thought the financial crisis was going to open up a new space for discussion, an opportunity to look at alternative models, which I thought was quite exciting, but that really hasn’t happened. In terms of the privatisation of space: OK, property companies aren’t building as much as they had because they are finding it difficult to borrow large sums of money, but what you are seeing is the rise of the individual property oligarch. The Shard, the Olympic Village, One Hyde Park: these are all backed by individuals or sovereign wealth funds.

Politically things are not getting better, they are getting worse. Having said all that there is a discussion and a debate that we didn’t have during the boom period. We are having more debate and discussion about different ways of doing things. Theres seems to be a consensus around at the moment that the social democratic moment was the anomaly and in fact ruthless capitalism, red in tooth and claw is the way it is. I think there may be a backlash against this.

Why do you think there wasn’t a rethink, post-crash?

Anna Minton: The problem with the crash was that lot of a our institutions and all our leaders were completely flawed and didn’t know what to do. And they are completely helpless without big capital. Without the City of London what has the UK economy got? The alternatives weren’t there ready-made for them so they fell back on what they knew and actually gave even bigger tax breaks and subsidies to the private sector and bailed out backs because they coulkdn’t think of an alternative. I think we need to use this period to build institutions that can work and help reinvigorate politics. I think if we look at models of assembly that introduce some form of regulation. Regulation should be an important part of democracy but it’s not seen like that at all.

Is there any particular work you’ve seen recently that really excited you?

Anna Minton: I’ve been doing some work looking at psychoanalytic models and what they can teach us, and how we can apply those to how we run society.  I’m interested in what psychoanalytic methods can teach us about how people behave in groups. It’s slightly unfashionable!