The predominantly grey skies emphasise that this is a city with no inner light. The glossy surfaces of the ‘shopper’s paradise’ cannot compensate for this lack of radiance, nor can a cultural life be fabricated by opening a few café-bars and leaving plastic chairs on the pavement. ‘Quarters’ are neatly imposed upon the city, as a fully-fledged major European city must have its quarters, to reproduce the truly continental ambiance of a more fashionable, urban lifestyle. So, we shall have a retail quarter, an entertainment quarter, a civic quarter, a cultural quarter, a business quarter, an education quarter, a café-bar quarter… and quarters yet to be charted.

This is a tale of two cities, of an increasing polarisation, with only one of them quartered and subject to the impoverishment of gentrification, of homogeneity disguised as choice. Tightly noosed by an inner-ring road, the city centre has been gutted and re-gutted by shop fitters, its scooped-out buildings robbed of the resonances of generations; local amenities and institutions exchanged for ‘opportunities in city centre living’, yet more secure, gated compounds for the newly affluent. What about those who live outside of the golden circle, whose participation in the “illusion of privilege” is increasingly predicated upon their purchasing power? Those whose only role, it seems, is ceaselessly to work and spend what meagre income they have earned, yet are excluded from the proclaimed urban renaissance we are all supposed to benefit from? As the rising number on low incomes are less welcome into this market-driven playground, privatised space grows within the city for the advantage of those few who can afford its anodyne diversions. It is no surprise that there are now more and more civic security guards on patrol to ensure that the streets are kept only for those who fit in with the corporatist vision of the new century ‘core city’.

In their preposterous ‘strategic vision studies’, the public relations and marketing hirelings, the civic planners, architects and business developers have sketched out a vacuous depiction of this urban renaissance, together with that of its matching, conformist lifestyle, of the model consumer invited to partake in its illusion. It is obvious from their glossy promotional brochures that what those who claim to uphold our best interests really want is an environment entirely controlled for consumer activity, a twenty-four hour city under twenty-four hour surveillance. What they really want is a superficial pastiche of an ideal city, with its own ‘brand identity’ that can be marketed and promoted, amongst other things as a ‘tourist destination’ (pardon our laughter), where urban culture has nothing to do with real lives or real ideas, but is merely yet another image of what is felt will satisfy a certain fashion for pseudo-sophistication. They seem to have mistaken the appearance of a few designer boutiques for a rich cultural history of critical and creative life that becomes deeply ingrained into a sense of place over centuries, not weeks. What we are left with is a city centre that is being billeted with permanent tourists, who are not rooted in any such sense of place, separated from an unwelcome local populace consigned to the no man’s land outside the gates.

Anything that is truly vital in the city, that has grown organically out of, and is thus characteristic of urban cultural life, has all but been eradicated. Street by street, building by building, the city gradually loses its identity; the marvellous is buried under cosmetic layers of an economic prosperity founded upon considerable debt. Space is warped out of shape in the service of profit and everything is turned into an ‘industry’ – culture, education, leisure, heritage; everything has its price, everything is for sale. The same cold fingers of prefabricated concrete and plastic cladding rise along the skyline, bringing the same hotels, café-bars and restaurants, as in all the other ‘regenerated’ post-industrial cities. As we watch these structures rise out of the ground, we can observe at first hand that they are intended only as temporary skeletons wrapped in flimsy, thin facades. It is apparent that these are transient quarters, gleaming wastelands of strategic policy that bring us the very opposites of the community, diversity, and culture to which they lay claim; what this domination by privatised space brings instead is a stifling of the city’s inner life and light, or what little remains of it. Of course, depending upon what perhaps are purely aesthetic preferences, it would be hard to deny that on the surface the city centre has become a more pleasant environment, the streets being less rubbish-strewn, for example. However, we need to look beyond this imposed orderliness, to rend a critical hole in the fabric of appearances. The city is now chained and franchised into a bland uniformity, devoid of true vitality, all rough edges smoothed off and all shadows banished. That this spatial homogeneity is a conspicuously visible symptom of globalisation is all too evident. Conforming to the blueprints, urban space is now an occupied zone, reflecting how mental space is becoming increasingly occupied by consumer decisions to the exclusion of thought.

Is this increased corporate control of urban space perhaps a cyclical phenomenon that, with the turning of economic, political and social tides, will see the city develop in other ways, with a process of genuine ‘acculturation’ returning? Even if this were so, we cannot procrastinate, waiting and hoping for such change to come about as if meteorologically; we must ourselves intervene to begin this transformation here and now. So, the entrepreneurial partnerships and consortiums that direct the city’s development want ‘vibrancy’? Let’s introduce some into their neatly-landscaped piazzas and sanitised quarters: the vibrancy of streets blocked, motor traffic halted, consumption interrupted, unrestrained carnival; an exuberant awakening of “irresponsible acts”, like the untamed schoolchildren in anti-war paint screaming with rage. Let’s give them a zone of poetic contestation that will startle them back into their basement loft apartments and the refuge of their one-size-fits-all minimalist lifestyles. Let’s give them resistance instead of compliance, gatherings of our own invention and not the stage-managed spectacles provided by departments of leisure services. Let the city’s parks and gardens grow wild and unruly, let us invite old moles to make their homes on municipal golf courses, build bonfires on the white tiles of every millennium square, turn all the CCTV cameras towards the stars. Let us reject the false choices we are offered and begin to re-draw the city from our dreams and our imaginations.

Stephen Clark, Kenneth Cox, Bill Howe, Sarah Metcalf, Peter Overton
7th May 2004