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The Effects of Neoliberalism on Landscape Planning

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By Eliana Fitzmaurice

11th February 2023

Neoliberal politics carves out  pseudo-public urban landscapes, prioritising economics over democracy, producing cities that regulate behaviour, segregate, and neglect community. Situating Canary Wharf’s privately owned public space in its British, late-stage capitalist context and comparing it to the public space of Ancient Athens – democracy’s birthplace – highlights the link between government policy, urban public space, and the wellbeing of civic life. 

    The variation within the plaza typology between the contexts of ancient Athens and the UK reflects their society’s conditions. In Athens, the Agora (a plaza dedicated to commercial, intellectual, and political exchange), was a physical manifestation of the city-state’s democracy. This emblem of public space isn’t a straightforward example of urban equality. While Athens had, according to Michael Gagarin, an “extraordinary … fully participatory” democracy, political activity was exclusively for Athenian male citizens. Women, immigrants, and slaves were all barred from participating, affecting their status and behaviour in the Agora. This sets a precedent for the contested nature of public space and the way the civic life within it is shaped by who owns the space and what rules they enforce over it. The past few hundred years in the UK have seen a trend from urban squares and open spaces being privately owned and exclusive, towards being public and democratically controlled, however this is being reversed by neoliberal policies and the rise of pseudo-public space. 

    The effects on the built environment of the UK’s globalised economics and neoliberal government is vividly illustrated by Canary Wharf, a business district in the former East London Docklands. Neoliberalism is a capitalist economic and political ideology whereby the state avoids interfering with the market, keeping trading open and free from government interference and bureaucracy. Margaret Thatcher’s government (1979-1990) implemented neoliberal property and planning policies to redevelop the area of Canary Wharf through enticing private investment. An urban development corporation (UDC) was established to aid development, funded by public money but directed by private property developers. While being an economically advantageous way of progressing development, this strategy bypasses local authorities, community discussion and consideration of social impacts, resulting in public space that exists to increase wealth rather than support the local community. This is seen symbolically and practically in the materiality qualities and streetscape’s form. Canary Wharf’s Manhattan-style towers are too tall to relate to our senses and the way we move, according to Jan Gehl (author of Life Between Buildings, Using Public Space), creating psychologically unsettling streetscapes, reinforced by the micro-climate. The towers have globalised material footprints of steel, concrete, and glass, producing urban geometries of height and density, with cold, windy microclimates where air is funnelled along streets and street level sunlight is limited. This affronts the need for “direct sunshine and protection from the wind to be comfortable”, making the environment unpleasant, according to Gehl. This insensitivity to climate contrasts with Classical Athens, where parameters established by the society’s stage of development meant materials were locally sourced and climatic comfort was achieved passively. Arcaded stoas and porticoed buildings were recessed to provide passive solar shading at street level, creating “an ambiguous territory between the public world and the private world” and “friendly” streetscapes, with comfortable climates for pedestrians.  

    Urban space redeveloped by neoliberal private investment is unsustainable, unreliable, and unequal. Free trade advocates argue that neoliberalism self-regulates, improving quality of life via economically driven development. This self-regulation is unpredictable and, combined with globalisation related interdependence, creates shared economic growth and recession, as illustrated by Canary Wharf’s ‘boom and bust’ economic history. Foreign investment into Canary Wharf was immense and the project has generated real-estate wealth, however, the owners of the development were bankrupt in 1992. Many international businesses on the estate were bankrupt during the 2008 financial crisis and more recently the global pandemic emptied the area as people worked from home.

Mapping deprivation in the borough of Tower Hamlets

Proximity of high paying jobs doesn’t guarantee improved economic prospects for the locality. In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the residential areas that once housed the community working within the docklands, have high levels of deprivation despite Canary Wharf’s development, highlighting the flawed nature of the ‘trickle-down’ Thatcherite regeneration approach. Where social regeneration was considered, according to Patrick Loftman and Brendan Nevin, “the proximity of disadvantaged groups is often utilised as a rationale for legitimising” such projects, “rather than as the reason for the development itself”. The redevelopment project was framed as a “prestige project”, emblematic of neoliberal, top-down, private investment principles, meaning it set a precedent for private developers to “not offer a reliable foundation for generating stable and sustainable local economic regeneration”. The “cataclysmic money” spoken about by Jane Jacobs of neoliberal investment is narrow, concentrated and rarely benefits the wider area, failing to provide the sustainable “steady, continual growth” which Jacobs argues is key to maintaining the freedom, ownership, and ever-evolving life of cities.  

    Sustainable growth creates physically and psychologically integrated urban fabrics. At Canary Wharf, neoliberalism’s erratic growth has created a district connected by transport infrastructure, yet disconnected from the locality, creating an island of what Jack Brown calls a “grandiose scale of development.” The area’s redevelopment saw the Docklands Light Railway constructed and the Jubilee Line extended, giving Canary Wharf a total of three stations. Rather than integrating the development, these enable workers to live elsewhere and never interact with the local area. Gehl argues that this separation of living and working space hides society’s composition and removes a diversity of function that allows people to “stimulate and inspire one another,” indicating the link between psychology and city planning. Driving infrastructure also connects the estate to the city yet creates barriers or ‘edges’ to the local districts. Historic waterways restrict the area’s connectivity; however these conditions are exacerbated by urban planning. The government positioned Canary Wharf as a global financial services hub, endorsing “physical and economic regeneration” of an ‘urban fragment’ rather than an integrated urban system, manifesting in physically disconnected places. There are additional psychological barriers created by radical changes in material and scale, creating a “sharply demarcated border,” which Gehl argues is a characteristic of uninviting, repelling public environment.

    Privately owned public green space is well funded and maintained but its qualities psychologically bar certain people from enjoying its use. For instance, Jubilee Park was designed by Wirtz International Landscape Architects to temporarily take users out of Canary Wharf’s vast scale and into a “small oasis of rest, refreshment and intense nature” through an immersive planting scheme of lofty redwood trees and lawns surrounding mountain-stream-like fountains. The designers were sensitive to greenery’s ability to support wellbeing however the park’s private ownership hinders equitable benefits for everyone. The design is driven by aesthetic experience. Water fountains, immaculate lawns and a modest planting palette create a green space to be looked at, photographed, and sat in. Further constraining activities possible in Jubilee Park is the highly technical construction as a ground level green roof, covering the Jubilee Line underground station and Jubilee Place mall, with giant skylights compounding the sense that the park is not truly public. Privately owned public green space provides a narrow range of experiences, catering to a part of society rather than the whole, enforcing divisions in society.

Pseudo-public space in London

Neoliberalism creates open spaces with poor ‘life between buildings.’ In privately owned urban areas, citizens are framed as potential customers, creating a commercialised experience. Existing in the space is an exclusive privilege rather than a right. People must pay to stay – seating is tied to cafes rather than being public benches. This strips away variety of social experiences, impacting on community cohesivity as people become unfamiliar and scared of difference. These social environments are unsuccessful as Gehl writes: passively being around others is “appealing” in city centres. Evidence of the lack of ‘life’ in Canary Wharf is the estate’s public art collection which is used as a device to artificially insert culture. While the estate’s website shows awareness that culture “sparks curiosity, starts conversations and knits a community together,” the inherent private nature of the development means this intent will never move past superficiality.

    Neoliberal spaces fail in meeting civic needs as private decision-making is disconnected from traditional democratic systems, leaving a lack of accountability or incentive to maintain or design more than performatively public space. Places open to a global market of scale are subject large property developers tapping the city for profit, leading to private ownership of public space. This impacts on the city’s civic life as this space may fit into a public landscape typology, however, without the legal demarcation, this space is not truly public. Behaviour (such as begging, protesting, vending, leafleting, photography, filming, skateboarding, and busking etcetera) is micromanaged through methods such as security guards, CCTV, and signs, creating what Daithi Sithigh calls a “sanitized version of public space, without any of the rough edges or unpredictability that make true public space so vital and democratic.”

    A more overt convergence on the city’s democracy is the inability to protest. This pseudo-public space is insidiously spreading as neoliberalism widens the disconnect between decision making and users’ needs.

    Neoliberal places result in fragmented urban fabrics. To achieve “a more diverse and public-spirited culture, […] in tune with local people and creates more successful places as a result” policy must regulate the private sector and enforce social considerations. Anna Minton suggests reducing transfer of land ownership to large companies, protecting public rights of way, and reinventing the “civic-minded Victorian approach that saw land and buildings left to local communities in perpetuity” through the establishment of trusts. Improving the public life of urban spaces in the neoliberal era will require government legislative action, indicating neoliberal ideals of government non-intervention are unable to deliver adequate urban space. 

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