I wish I was Anna Minton: she has successfully crafted a writer’s life as author, consultant, journalist, commentator and analyst. I haven’t read her book, Ground Control, but I have read various reviews of it including one by Mark Wilding in the April issue of Planning. He describes Minton’s findings as a policy analyst. She identifies that there is increasing reliance on the market and commercial property developers to shape our towns and cities. This is driven by UK policy making which significantly draws on US policy frameworks. The result is a retreat from the civic and social function of the public realm – the gathering spaces, the high streets, the markets and the like – and increasing homogenisation. This is, incidentally, also equally apparent in developments such as masterplanned communities and gated communities. As Minton argues, “when what’s driving your city is shopping, you don’t create very healthy places.” Minton, like other commentators, argues for the creation of economies that are locally based and not underpinned by property finance and retail”. So what does that mean for those shopping centre developers or retail asset managers that are endeavouring to imbue social sustainability? What does that mean for those who want to ‘leverage their assets’ for community development or engagement?
That, I think, presents a fundamentally ontological question for those companies (SB Banerjee) i.e. what does it mean to be a corporation or involved in a corporation. As Banerjee states “if corporations [including property developers and asset managers] are to play the role of social change agents a new ontology of the corporation is required that can open the way to more ‘polyphonic’ forms of organization (Hazen, 1993) requiring a plurality of voices and actors from economic, social, cultural, political, juridical and pedagogical spheres.” Banerjee further argues that “the current formulation of corporations as artificial persons with guaranteed rights but non-enforceable responsibilities or as a nexus of contracts between wealth maximizing actors places severe limits on the social role of corporations”.
Thinking about this locally, yesterday when my partner and I were at Westfield Chermside, we overheard a conversation between two shop assistants talking about local parking issues. When queried, they told us that the shopping centre management was planning to introduce parking fees, including for the staff. There is a great deal wrong with that picture. First, the planning orthodoxies have created a suburban development landscape that is predominantly reliant on cars but does not provide parking other than that provided by private land holders. While there is a bus station, bus travel is not always an option for those who use the centre given the size of its catchment and the geographic distribution of public transport. Second, Westfield has the monopoly on car parking because it is the dominant land use and the centre includes most of the local entertainment and dining (including a cafe strip, cinemas, bowling centre and bars). Key services are also located in the centre, including a skills/employment centre, banks and post office. This is the sort of environment that evokes quite dramatically Tony Fry’s ideas of ontological design – i.e. we design a place and that place designs us. In suburban environments, we are designed as a car dependent consumers fuelling a wasteful culture and economy of vapid consumption. In that circuit, we are ever more exploited and our resources are ever more exploited. That’s what is particularly appealing about Minton’s – and other commentators’ – appeals to more locally oriented economies. Like Guattari’s proposition in the Three Ecologies, we need to pay attention to our mental and social ecologies. In that work, he provides a rather easy to understand example of a patient who spends all their days walking around in circles habitually reproducing their disorder until, one day, they just go and do something else. That ‘something else’ isn’t a distraction; it is compellingly another course, another pathway, a rupture in the reproduction of the disorder. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the disorder no longer exists – there are other matters in the ‘ecology of mind’ to consider.
Something as simple as the introduction of parking fees in a suburban shopping centre tells us something about the ontology of that corporation and its regard for any social role or responsibility (and I wouldn’t try using the argument that this measure is an attempt to curtail private car use and reduce greenhouse emissions). It also reveals something of my own ontology – it is in fact much easier (from a convenience perspective) for me to jump on a bus and commute into the CBD (a trip of 12 km) than it is to get to the shopping centre in question (a trip of less than 2km) and deal with the vagaries of intermittent public transport situated in grim stretches of highway or a trek through a rather unwalkable environment. Even so, imposing parking fees on users and staff of the centre seems inherently misguided, taking a step towards the condition of validating parking and ultimately imposing an imperative of shopping and spending in what is otherwise quite a degraded and anti-social built environment. Making money out of a development condition or regulation, like providing parking, has to be a breach of the intent or principle of that requirement and the alleged public benefit of providing free parking. As the planning regimes situate shopping centres like this as major activity centres – growing as town centres with many city functions – it makes me wonder about the type of urbanist culture that might emerge and that might be quashed. This brings me back to Minton’s warnings about the dominance of private interests in shaping our cities and towns. It reminds us that commercially provided public space, like shopping centres or town centres, is only ever provisional and property developers remain unaccountable to the broader community.