Demos Daily: The Freedom of the City

Cities have been a central part of many of our livelihoods for years. But with higher living costs, the current lockdown could make many people question their urban lifestyles: why put up with a tiny flat and no garden if we can work from home outside of the city with plenty more space? While this situation is unique, it isn’t the first time the logic of living in cities has been thoroughly challenged. Back in 1996, personal safety in cities was a rising fear in people’s minds – in The Freedom of the City, we called for personal freedom in cities to be restored by making cities more liveable places, and outlined our vision for the future of cities.

Read the full report – The Freedom of the City – here, and the introduction by then Director of Demos, Geoff Mulgan, below.

Introduction

After a decade or more of decline, cities in Britain are showing renewed confidence. The often huge outwards migration of the 1970s and 1980s has slowed to a trickle. A flush of funds from sources as various as the European Commission and the National Lottery has revived the activity of urban planners, and fuelled increasingly confident partnerships between the public and private sectors.

But the revived interest in urban renewal, architecture and aesthetics has been coupled with an increasing fear – whether real or imaginary – for personal safety. In Britain today, only half the population dares go out after dark and fewer than a third of children are allowed to walk to school. Few modern city dwellers truly feel that they have the ‘freedom of the city’, the freedom to walk, roam and wander where they want.

One knee-jerk response, encouraged by the availability of sophisticated technology, has been investment in surveillance. Closed circuit television networks have become so commonplace that most weekend trips around town are captured on dozens of different cameras. Another response is the creation of more insulated and controlled environments like the shopping malls in Thurrock and Meadowhall.

Both responses have their virtues, and both contribute to making public space less threatening. But on their own they are not enough. Their logical endpoint could be to turn our cities into segregated fortresses like many in North America, leaving islands of security amidst a sea of anxiety.

This book offers an alternative. Although many of us would rather live in a rural idyll, most British people live in cities and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. If we want to improve the quality of life, we have to make cities more liveable places. That depends, in turn, on how free we feel to use the city as we want.

Jane Jacobs put the argument well in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘The bedrock attribute of a successful city.’ she wrote, ‘is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all those strangers,’ That attribute is now missing in most British cities.

Instead, this book argues, successful and contented cities depend on promoting activity. In almost every instance, from streets to parks, town centres to suburbs, safety is better guaranteed by the presence of other people than it is by the presence of technologies.

Drawing on eight years of studying town centres, parks and libraries, The Freedom of the City calls for a more sophisticated concept of planning which emphasises the opportunities in public meetings rather than plays up the potential for conflict. It looks at ways of creating greater tolerance of difference involving all members of society, rather than conveniently pretending some don’t matter, or simply matter less. It argues for a more, rather than less convivial city, as the accompaniment to technologies in the home and at work that often make us more isolated.

At its core is the case that there is no inherent reason why cities should be such bad and divisive places to live. Humans are social animals and get an enormous amount from the conviviality of city life. But unless we take practical steps to underpin the freedom that city life offers, the virtues of the city can only too easily turn into vices.

Geoff Mulgan