Who Shapes Cities and for Whom?

by Maya Oppenheim

City centres are increasingly privatised and dominated by consumerism, which compromises our access to and relationship with public space.

First published: 26 February, 2014 | Category: Corporate power, Inequality, Privatisation

As capitalism has evolved, so have the cities we inhabit; capitalism has found new and invigorated inspiration in the conquest of space.  As urban regions have become critical to capital accumulation, cities have become command nodes in a globalised economy. In turn, urban regeneration schemes have become increasingly geared towards foreign investment and global image rather than the needs of citizens. By exploring late capitalism through a spatial rubric, this article will examine the urban transformations of the post-industrial west. As manufacturing industries have diminished and the consumer and service economy has grown, the places we inhabit have radically changed. In turn, cities have shed their industrial fibre and been forced to restore their fortunes by investing in consumption and entertainment industries.

In doing so, cities have become sites of consumption rather than production and this has changed the building blocks of our urban centres. These hermetically sealed, living-working-playing spaces have transformed the cityscape. Once a peripheral category of political economy and urban governance, consumerism has become integral to the evolution of cities and as it has changed the urban landscape, the way we experience and inhabit the city has radically altered. With consumer outlets now dominating the centres of our cities, the built-environment has been increasingly co-opted by consumer needs. In the run up to the London Olympics, for example, Stratford was transformed into a key site for consumption, leisure and tourism. Westfield embarked on a multi-purpose development scheme, which involved building a shopping centre, residential complexes, hotels and casinos in 'Stratford City', which was the size of a 'new town'.[1] This redevelopment is symbolic of the wider commercialisation of our urban landscape. As familiar brands have dominated our streets, shopfronts have become increasingly polished and sanitized, in contrast to the more haphazard and weather-worn city-centres of former eras. The spatial dimension of capitalism has profound impact on our daily lives.

The commercialisation of the urban landscape has resulted in the privatisation of public space. As city centres have become tributes to consumption, private interests have permeated these spaces. They have become awash with pseudo-public consumer spaces which belong to corporations rather than the citizenry. Although these places hold the semblance of being “public”, they are owned by corporate interests and are therefore under private control and not accountable to the public. The regeneration of Liverpool town centre provides a clear example of this. In 2008, Liverpool City Council renounced all control over the city centre and sold off 170,000 square metres of land to a private developer called Grosvenor. In turn, 35 city-centre streets were effectively privatised. Liverpool ONE's 170 consumer outlets, cinema-plex, Hilton Hotel, golf centre, luxury apartment complex and park do not evoke Merseyside connotations of either the Docks or the Beatles. On the contrary, they signify a broader move towards a post-industrial generic city space, stripped of local identity, While Liverpool ONE continues to be the largest privately owned, managed and policed retail development in the UK, it is a prototype which has become increasingly prevalent in western cities across the world.

 Across urban centres, the privatisation of public space has been reinforced by private security personnel and CCTV cameras which observe the movement of citizens.  The architectural design and panoptican-style of many shopping centres also means shoppers can be observed from all angles. The largest shopping centre company Westfield, which has 91 centres across the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand tends to build its centres with an open gallery design. The combination of exposed escalators, glass lifts, 24-hour security personnel, CCTV cameras and the lack of small walkways means there are no places were visitors cannot be observed by the unrelenting gaze of surveillance. What's more, Westfield in Australia have gone even further and implemented biometric surveillance measures. In short, surveillance, behavioural controls and policing strategies are used to eradicate visible signs of unrest and deter unwanted visitors from town centres and shopping streets.

 Such controls are commonly used to delineate between a “deserving” and a “non-deserving” public and “acceptable” and “non-acceptable” activities in public space. City centres and shopping centres frequently forbid or discourage non-consuming activities, such as busking, skateboarding, political gatherings, musical performances or any other ungovernable, impromptu behaviour. Buskers are now subject to a range of stringent rules and regulations. In Liverpool city centre, they are only allowed to play two hour slots in council designated areas and must apply for a license and photo ID. These council pitches are 1.5 meters in length and no matter how beautiful your music is if you do not have a license you can be accused of trespass. Despite the fact the 2003 Licensing Act did not include busking as a licensable activity, increasing numbers of councils are choosing to class it as one. Even in Camden, a place associated with music and its vibrant street-life, the council has introduced restrictive terms and conditions.

This signals the loss of collective vitality and freedom which thrives in truly public space. What's more, many city centres now lack places to simply sit for free, instead shopping districts are designed to facilitate the most cost-effective movement of consumers. Furthermore, most of these urban centres are empty after shopping hours, being left abandoned after dark. The quasi-public space of the commercial city centre is unwelcoming for a growing number of citizens. Non-consumers, such as the homeless, the unemployed, the poor, the young and the old are branded as 'others' to the hegemonic consumer order. In turn, cities are able to demarcate between who is welcome and who is not. Despite the fact that shopping centres are open to members of the public, they only really cater for citizens with money to spend.  The right to the city is increasingly a privilege for those with the material and cultural capital to consume. Those living on £53 of benefits per week or experiencing the government’s brutal sanctions regime are excluded. As a consequence, non-consumer identities become eliminated.  The quest for clean and sanitized space has meant that 'out of place' individuals who fail to match up to a highly circumscribed model of 'consumer citizenship' are hidden from view.

Consumption has not only reconfigured the physical topography of the city, it has altered the meanings attached to the city and its citizens. Shopping-orientated regeneration has been more than a material, aesthetic pursuit and parallel discourses of 'place' have followed. Access to the city has been restricted by physical surveillance and narrow representations of space. Different layers of social control are rendered more and less visible, for instance the authority of a security guard in a G4S uniform is more visible than the messages disseminated by flashing adverts. In the socially controlled, privately-owned spaces of commercial city centres, imposed identities have become increasingly prescriptive and fixed. The space for non-consumer subjectivities and activities is fast diminishing.

In turn, the late capitalist impulse to 'brand' and 'package' space has led to the homogenisation of difference and plurality. Collective meetings, marches and street parties have no space in the sanitized town centres of western cities. Political occupations of Merseyside's newly regenerated town centre, Liverpool ONE or Shepherds Bush's Westfield Centre are prohibited at all costs.  Instead many shopping malls restrict gatherings to two or three participants and prohibit the carrying of protest signs or banners.  The carefully placed plants and disparate sofas in shopping centres provide an artificial, disingenuous sense of community. In time, the individualistic logic of consumerism has circumvented collective participation in the city.

Shopping centres have stabilised and normalised consumer habits, providing a highly ordered place for well-behaved citizens to observe the spectacle of the consumer city.  Furthermore, the plurality of our own lifestyles has been overwhelmed by the standardisation of consumer spaces. With city centres across the western world beginning to look increasingly similar as they pay homage to the same brand of shops, cafes and entertainment complexes. Whether one is walking through London or New York, Liverpool or Milan, you are guaranteed to pass a Starbucks, Subway, McDonalds, Zara, H&M and Apple store. This standardisation has manifested itself as an increasing “placelessness,” which is experienced by consumers as a “could-be-anywhere” feeling.

The polished surfaces of commercial centres have glossed over enduring social and ethnic inequality. The attempt to rebrand the city image and attract a new class of affluent creative-sector residents and industries, has led to the mass displacement of those residual communities who do not match up to regenerated cityscapes. With redeveloped city centres and luxury apartments catering for young wealthy individuals, it has become increasingly difficult for local families to continue living and shopping in such unaffordable places. Furthermore, as private landlords start to evict tenants who claim benefits, we will witness a move towards gated communities of claimant-free zones. In turn, citizens at odds with this narrow vision of wealth, purity and order will continue to be hidden from sight. In East London, Olympic-related land clearance and large-scale infrastructural development of new sporting venues, housing complexes and retail outlets has led to the direct and indirect displacement of local residents. The London 2012 Olympics sanctioned the eviction of local residents, businesses, services and sporting activities, with up to 1000 businesses and residents forced to vacate the Olympic Park site.[2] What's more, since London won the Olympic bid, increasing numbers of unaffordable luxury apartment complexes have been constructed in the area surrounding the Olympic Park.[3] The arrival of upmarket gated properties and Westfield Stratford shopping centre has displaced those citizens who do not correspond to a circumscribed criterion of urban regeneration.  In essence the histories and vocabularies of those on the receiving end of displacement have no place in privatised plazas.

Cities have become increasingly culturally dislocated from their historic sense of place and unique identities. The omnipresence of privately owned and privately controlled consumer spaces means the city dweller can easily become a stranger in their own city. As the ownership of urban centres has moved from the public to the private sector, we have witnessed a regression to Victorian times, an era when private landlords owned and controlled large quarters of cities. Whilst the non-consumer might be welcome in a park, they are far less welcome in a shopping centre. For this reason, we must continue to unearth the ideological function of the built-environment. The cityscape is more than a backdrop for the scenes of late capitalism to play out and is directly implicated in a far longer narrative of power relations.  


This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City

Maya Oppenheim is a freelance journalist from Hackney with an interest in the polarisation of the contemporary city.

[1] Poynter, Gavin & MacRury, Iain. 'The Regeneration Games: Commodities, Gifts and the Economics of London 2012', The International Journal of the History of Sport 14 (2008), 2078

[2] Poynter, Gavin & MacRury, Iain. Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London (Surrey, 2009), 207

[3] Stratford, Alphabet City Estate & Letting Agents. http://www.alphabetcity.co.uk/GenericPage.aspx?type=AreaProfile&key=stratford

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