People “should be told to be braver” if the widespread and socially-damaging fear of crime and strangers is to be beaten, Miranda Sawyer, author of a book that investigated local neighbourhoods in Coventry, told a day-long conference on Future Vision: Future Cities at the London School of Economics.
“Cities are a bit rough”, she admitted, but people were capable of taking control of their lives if they were given the opportunity to do so. Ms Sawyer told a session on local solutions that she hung around parks as a child and “worked things out” with her peers. Today’s youngsters, she said, needed a similarly neutral space.
Victoria Nash, formerly senior researcher at the Institute of Public Policy Research and author of Making Sense of Communities, described the role of local authorities as that of re-establishing trust and a sense of civic pride through, for example, anti-litter campaigns. Nash subscribed to the view that sink estates were characterised by “network poverty”, and argued that if residents – and particularly children – were able to mix with a cross-section of positive people and role-models they would find a way out of their circumstances.
The debate ended with a split between the proponents of “social mix” (the goal of policy-makers increasingly interested in re-forging the social ties that define the urban experience) and “social mobility” (a hands-off approach that regards the state as facilitator of the public good). Are communities ripe for engineering? Or is the increasing fragility of informal ties already being undermined by such interventions? As a contributor from the floor argued, the narrowing of the public sphere and the increasingly draconian clampdowns on “anti-social behaviour” can only encourage the intrusive parochialism of the village and suburb from which cities offer an escape.