Terrorist attacks make way for urban regeneration. But what use do we make of the possibilities? The rebuilding of urban centres in Britain after terrorist bombings have almost without exception led to increased privatisation and increased private control.
– These privatised high-security enclaves are a democratic problem for the cities, writes Anna Minton.

Gated development, Stockport, Greater Manchester.  Photo: Henrietta Williams

Almost 20 years ago, a series of bomb blasts hit British cities, after the conflict in Northern Ireland spilled onto the streets of the mainland. The IRA’s bombing campaign included two terror attacks in 1996, which targeted the Docklands quarter in London and the centre of Manchester. Almost a generation later, the sites of these two bombings are emblematic of a process of urban change that has taken place throughout British cities.

For the property developers and the growing army of urban professionals at the forefront of these changes, the bombings provided an opportunity, as they created a blank slate in the centre of the city where new regeneration could be rolled out. The pattern that this took, both in Docklands and in Manchester, was typical of the growing privatisation and control of city space that was taking off at that time, and which has now become the template for all new development in British cities.

Architecture of extreme capitalism

From Ground Zero in New York to Oslo’s government quarter, terrorist attacks, and the destruction they bring, inevitably create space for new development. As Norway considers plans for the redevelopment of its government quarter following Anders Breivik’s horrifying attacks in 2011, perhaps Britain’s experience of the type of development that can follow terror attacks has some lessons to offer.

Architecture reflects social, economic and political realities of a period, acting as a mirror for a society and its politics. In my book Ground Control, I describe the architecture of the last generation in the UK as the architecture of extreme capitalism. It is a process that began in Britain during the mid-1980’s, sparked off by the deregulation of finance in 1985 known as the ‘Big Bang’. This created a need for a new type of financial architecture, with banks that required very large trading floors, unsuited to the cramped buildings and narrow alleyways of the existing financial district in the City of London.

As the new economy of the financial services industries gathered speed, the decline of the old industrial economy was simultaneously creating a pattern of dereliction in Britain’s old industrial heartlands, which was becoming a growing concern to politicians. Chief among these areas were the old docks to the east of London. Once the powerhouse of the Empire, by the 1980’s the collapse of Britain’s shipbuilding industry had left the old docks empty and desolate. By the late 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher’s right wing government laid the foundations for new financial quarters in Docklands and the nearby Broadgate Centre.

"In every British city, all new development, large or small, is privately owned and privately controlled."

Cabot Circus, Bristol city centre, on opening day, 2008.  Photo: Ian13, wikimedia commons

High security enclaves of wealth

This was a pioneering model in that it was the first time since the 18th century that a very large part of the city was planned on the basis that it would be entirely privately owned and privately controlled. Canary Wharf and the Broadgate Centre are private property in the same way that a country estate, a shopping mall or someone’s house is private property. The rules that govern the rest of the city do not apply. Rather than being unconditionally open to the public like the rest of the city, it is up to the owner to decide who is allowed in and what they are allowed to do there. As a result, 24 hour CCTV surveillance and private security guards police and control the area, making sure the rules are enforced.

Yet, despite the pioneering zeal of Mrs Thatcher’s government, when these private estates were built they were controversial places, perceived as high security enclaves of wealth, which segregated and divided the area. But by the late 1990’s, when plans for South Quay in Docklands and the centre of Manchester were drawn up, also based on this model, it reflected the fact that the private estate approach was on its way to becoming the standard template for all new development.

Today, Liverpool One, which spans 34 streets in the heart of Liverpool, is effectively owned by the Duke of Westminster’s property company, Grosvenor. The company has leased the entire site, including streets and public places, from the council for 250 years. Cabot Circus in Bristol, Highcross in Leicester and Westfield’s Stratford City, which was the gateway to London’s 2012 Olympics, are all owned and run by property companies. In every British city, all new development, large or small, is privately owned and privately controlled. Ironically, even the Greater London Authority, the seat of democratic government in London, is based at More London, another privately owned estate which includes the Norman Foster-designed headquarters of London’s Mayor.

Liverpool One, a retail-driven development in the centre of Liverpool. Opened 2008.  Photo: John Bradley, wikimedia commons

Malls without walls

In their defence, politicians and developers point out that people like these places and flock to shop in them. But they also raise a challenge to the kind of public life, culture and democracy that has been taken for granted in British cities for the last 150 years. A host of seemingly innocuous activities — skateboarding, rollerblading, even eating in some places — are routinely banned, along with filming and, of course, taking photographs. So are begging, homelessness, selling the Big Issue, handing out political leaflets, and holding political demonstrations. It’s a very different and far less democratic idea of the city and citizenship.

In the US, critics call these places ‘malls without walls’ – new parts of the city built out as open air shopping malls where the citizen is first and foremost considered to be a consumer. Inevitably this is a model that excludes, not just because of strict rules and regulations, but because there is little on offer for those without money to spend, such as groups of young people routinely moved on by the guards, and few places for old people to sit and pass the time, unless they can pay for an expensive latte.

Middlesex Estate, housing project in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.  Photo: Henrietta Williams

Private or public?

The period that lasted up until the financial crisis in 2008 witnessed more construction in Britain than at any time since the 1960’s, bringing with it the private control of streets and public places. But when the financial crisis hit, development collapsed, as banks refused to lend the large sums of money required to finance this type of development. While development in the UK stalled for a few years, recently a new breed of billionaire investor has emerged, bankrolling schemes that are, if anything, even more heavily privatised and securitised than what had gone before. Britain’s tallest building, The Shard, located in the privatised London Bridge Quarter which was built with money from billionaire Qatari investors, is just one such example.

When it comes to the privatisation of streets and public places, few people are aware of the changes literally underfoot. The assumption is that because the streets have always been public, they will continue to be so. In fact, during the early 19th century, before the advent of local government and local democracy, cities like London were owned by a small group of private landlords, mainly dukes and earls. Their old estates include some of the finest Georgian and early Victorian squares, but what is not visible today are the private security forces that were employed by the estates to keep out those who did not belong there — and the many gates, bars and posts.

After growing public outrage, which paralleled the rise in local democracy and was reflected by two parliamentary inquiries, control of the streets eventually passed over to local authorities in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then it has been common for local authorities to “adopt” the streets and public spaces of the city, which means that whether or not they actually own them, they control and run them. Now, however, this is being reversed, as a new breed of private landlord assumes control of entire districts.

This process has very significant implications for democracy, particularly with regard to the right to protest, which is banned in private estates. In 2011, the Occupy protest, which was called ‘Occupy London Stock Exchange’ or OccupyLSX for short, attempted to site their protest outside the London Stock Exchange, which is in privately owned Paternoster Square. In response, the high court awarded an injunction against protests in the square and the police sealed off the entrance. As a result the protestors moved around the corner to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. What emerged was that nearly all of the square mile that contains the City of London’s financial district now amounts to a series of privately owned enclaves – except for the small area around the Cathedral.

"The growing privatisation of public space inevitably creates a high security environment."

High security fencing being produced at a fence-making factory. The factury has traditionally provided fencing for prisons, but is now finding that most of their work comes from schools.  Photo: Henrietta Williams

The spread of private security

The growing privatisation of public space inevitably creates a high security environment, as a result of the process described by criminologists Clifford Shearing and Philip Stenning as the ‘mass privatisation thesis’. According to them, private security is an essential feature of the spread of mass private property, in the form of shopping malls, finance districts, airports, leisure parks, conference centres, university and hospital campuses and gated communities. Government districts, such as London’s Greater London Authority, are also increasingly favouring the privatised model. But this roll out of private security creates a very different environment, because while the rule of law and the protection of the public is the goal of public policing, private security prioritises the protection of property, with the aim of maximising rental prices and property values.

In Britain and America, the spread of private security has been accompanied by high profile policies favouring defensible space, through what is known as ‘Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design’ in the US and ‘Secured by Design’ in the UK.

‘Defensible space’ is the brainchild of Oscar Newman, an American architect who wrote a book by that title in 1972, which detailed the result of research he carried out in three deprived housing ‘projects’ in New York. Newman argued that “territoriality” created space that could defend itself. By marking out boundaries clearly – often through walls or fences – and limiting entrances and exits, residents would feel a sense of ownership over places, be encouraged to look after their patch and discouraging strangers and opportunistic criminals from entering, so lowering crime and creating safe places.

Despite scepticism in academic circles, where Newman’s ideas were criticised for their particular brand of environmental determinism, politicians seized on defensible space as a straightforward ‘can do’ approach to crime, holding out the promise that it can simply be designed out – and so avoiding the need to tackle complex social problems. The consequence for the UK is that Secured by Design features, based on defensible space, define all new public buildings and public places, in particular housing, schools and hospitals.

"Secured by Design features, based on defensible space, define all new public buildings and public places, in particular housing, schools and hospitals."

Peabody Estate, Pimlico, London.  Photo: Henrietta Williams

Fenced in

The results are that today gates, fences and high security installations are built into the environment. For example, a gated development in east London, which won a Secured by Design award, saw the housing commended for its small windows, reinforced steel door with full-size iron gate and grey aluminium military-style roof. But while the security grilles, electronic security, anti-climbing paint and perimeter fencing meets many Secured by Design standards, it also leaves the place looking like a prison. Other public buildings in the UK, particularly schools and government buildings, have similarly become high security environments. While researching ‘Fortress Britain’, a report I recently wrote on this topic, I came across a factory that has traditionally provided fencing for prisons, but is now finding that most of their work comes from schools.

One of the main arguments put forward in Ground Control is the idea that security is counter-intuitive and paradoxical, and that rather than making us feel safer, the presence of high levels of visible security makes people more scared. This is one reason for what the police describe as the ‘success paradox’, which is that while crime has been declining steadily in Britain for the last twenty years, fear of crime is soaring. Fear of crime does not in fact equate with actual levels of crime, but it does equate directly with trust. My argument is that all the external controls in private estates – the security guards, CCTV, rules and regulations – undermine the trust between people, which depends on the unconscious interactions and eye contact which occurs automatically between strangers. By contrast, busy, bustling places are safe places, where, to use the American writer Jane Jacobs’ term, the ‘eyes on the street’ of strangers create a self-policing environment.

New US Embassy, London. View from east. Architects: Kieran Timberlake, Philadelphia. Completion: 2017.  Illustration: ©Kieran Timberlake

Security as the central feature

In Scandinavian countries the sort of high security culture I have been describing is far less common, and fear of crime is much lower than it is in Britain and the US. Denmark offers a telling parallel. According to the European Crime and Safety Survey, levels of crime are very similar in the UK and Denmark, which is attributed to similar rates of urbanisation, a large population of young people and a binge drinking culture. But fear of crime is far lower in Denmark, which consistently emerges as one of the happiest countries in the world according to the World Values Survey. The security culture is also far less advanced in Denmark, which means that levels of trust between people – which correlate directly with happiness – are not undermined by too much security.

»Policy makers in Oslo now face the need to make decisions about the sort of environment they wish to create when the government quarter is rebuilt.»

Policy makers in Oslo now face the need to make decisions about the sort of environment they wish to create when the government quarter is rebuilt. When places are damaged or destroyed as a result of terrorist incidents, there is often an inherent drive to create high security environments which will prove resistant to any future terrorist incident. This is amplified by world wide concerns about the ongoing so-called ‘War on Terror’, which have reinforced the pre-existing trends towards increased securitisation already described. The consequence is that high security is the defining feature of many government buildings, especially in the UK and US.

This is captured by the drive to create ‘resilient’ buildings, a term increasingly favoured by developers and the urban industry. In Britain, the US is developing plans for a new embassy quarter in Wandsworth in South London with security as the central feature, with the design including a modern day moat, in the shape of a contemporary water feature. It is reported that the Embassy of the Netherlands and the Chinese Embassy are also planning to relocate to the area, which will be comprised of a 15 acre private estate, including thousands of upmarket apartments, shops, restaurants and office space, developed by the property company Ballymore. It goes without saying that the streets and public spaces of the new quarter will be privately owned and privately controlled.

The Oslo Government Quarter at the end of the working day, 1962, when it was still possible to pass through the main block.  Photo: Randulf Kure/Oslo museum

Is Norway’s democratic culture strong enough?

However, although contemporary development in Britain and in much of North America is no longer democratic, many other European countries continue to favour more open and transparent models of development. For example, the rebuilt Reichstag building in Berlin, designed by Norman Foster to symbolise the unification of Germany, emphasises public access. Its large glass dome provides visitors with a panoramic view of the city, while a mirrored cone in the centre of the dome directs sunlight into the building, so that the public can see the workings of the parliamentary debating chamber below. As for the area around the building, it is genuinely public space, open and accessible to all, in contrast to the area around the planned US Embassy in London and the Greater London Authority headquarters.

As Norway decides what model it wishes to pursue when it rebuilds its government quarter, it faces considerable pressure to create high security ‘resilient’ buildings that can withstand any future terrorist attack. The type of buildings and public places that are created after terrorist attacks tend to reflect the key trends at play in contemporary politics and society, as happened in Britain after the IRA bomb attacks of the mid-1990’s. The hope is that Norway’s democratic culture is strong enough to withstand the multiple pressures to privatise streets and public places, withdrawing them from the public realm. If the government district of a country is privatised, that speaks volumes about the government itself.


Jacobs, J.: (1961, 1993) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage
Minton, A.: (2012) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City. Penguin
Minton, A.: (2013) Fortress Britain. New Economics Foundation. Available at www.annaminton.com
Newman, O.: (1973) Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design. Macmillan

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