I've just finished an excellent book on cities. Anna Minton's Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the twenty-first century city (Penguin 2009) is an examination of how there's been a major shift in ownership of our city spaces from the public to the private. She tells the story of how the redevelopment of London's docklands provided governments with a template of how urban regeneration could be privatised and hence, in the eye of its proponents, delivered more quickly and efficiently.
The upshot, Minton argues, is that public space is being increasingly privatised and blandified. we see it in mammoth shopping centre developments where streets are glassed over and ownership shifts to the property company whose uniformed security people rule the roost and have the right to refuse entry to people they think are undesirable - young people in hoodies, groups of pensioners killing time but not buying.
Maybe this is the reason why all retail parks seem the same, boasting the same rosta of shops and cafes, lacking in local flavour or identity. And it isn't just covered centres that are privately owned. Liverpool One, the redeveloped heart of that great city, is also privately owned and policed by people other than the boys in blue.
Apart from leading to bland and soulless spaces at the heart of our cities, these trends have coincided with the rise of gated communities and the previous government's desire to secure even social housing developments by design that makes the areas difficult to access or pass through. More and more land is fenced off and gated, rendered inaccessible to the general public despite the fact that it seems to be 'public' land.
It has also coincided with the rise of CCTV - the UK has more cameras than the whole of western Europe put together and yet fear of crime in our country is vastly higher than in any of our EU partners. Minton's argument is that the more we separate ourselves from one another, the more fearful we become of 'the stranger' and 'the outsider'.
I think that theologically she is on to something here; something that feeds into what I was blogging about recently in relation to neighbourhood mission. It's simply this: do we have a role, as people who believe in communities comprised of a rich mix of people of all types (since that is what the church is or ought to be), in helping to create neighbourhoods that reflect that where we live?
Minton is iffy about the notion of social capital (for interesting reasons that I can't go into here) but I wonder if Christians have a role in balancing financial capital with the creation of social capital (which I understand to be simply to be the creation of connections and relationships between people in society); and in so doing, helping to create neighbourhoods where there are just collections of houses and flats.