Shoplifting London

Screenshot 2015-02-06 12.15.07

© Rosannagh Maddock, 2015

The streets of London are paved with gold, so the saying goes. While that may never have been the case, the changing nature of urban space means that our newly minted streets are becoming ever more gilded by the day. Growing gentrification of first world cities has been a recurring concern of media commentator and middle class taxpayer alike for some time now, with such left-leaning institutions as The Guardian covering it regularly. Londoners are increasingly feeling as though the city, and its attendant cultural capital, is being snatched from beneath our feet and sold back to us as part of some perpetual motion machine that runs on aspiration. It is however assumed by both new arrivals and the more embedded residents that at some point London will become theirs, either through concrete methods such as home-owning or softer aspects of stability such as community engagement or job security. We are fast approaching the possibility that London is no longer within reach of its populace.


The city is being sold back to us as a luxury product. I see the packaging for this new gold-dipped crystal encrusted town on my daily commute. City Road is lined with expensive hoardings which act as high-end advertising for contents of the new built environment. Each is carefully designed to emphasise the unique nature of the building, and each development comes with an in-built brand identity, such as ‘white collar factory’ or ‘lexicon’. These branded hoardings are tangible artefacts of how the emotional wiring of our cities is being ripped out and upgraded. They are the direct effects of the values, opinions and priorities that occupy decision-makers and those with influence. The soft power of branding, acting through graphics and print in this example, can be a powerful tool in the manipulation of urban space. Hoardings, billboards and printed ephemera are just some of the objects that communicate these ideals. Re-designing street furniture (my own particular area of research) is another element which often goes overlooked but is an equal contributor to the ideological background radiation of city life. Guy Julier writes in The Culture of Design that street furniture, when co-ordinated with city centre branding initiatives, seems to be ‘conspiring to redefine urban identity through their form. They are architectural detailing. But they are also part of a graphic treatment of the cityscape. They are about communication.’ [1] This need to ‘communicate’ the new city extends the purpose of a bin, bench or streetlight beyond their more obvious function, to the extent that their original function starts to become secondary.


This role of basic infrastructure grew in the post-modern city in tandem with other cultural shifts. Julier raises a link between the ‘emergence of a cityscape designed for looking – both at it and its subjects – and the growth of photography. [2] Additionally, ‘Just as the flaneur visually consumed all city sites, so the tourist photographs each vista on offer.’[3] With the rise of the smartphone, and in particular Instagram, this technological aspect of the city can be seen physically through the use of embarrassing hashtags in adverts, QR codes on bus stops and the fetishization of graffiti. This constant online presence and flimsy attempts at augmented reality have made all of us tourists in our own city, acting as living advertorials.


Beyond flat billboards and hoardings, street furniture can become a kind of branding that you physically interact with, where the material and aesthetic stylings of these objects are carefully considered in order to suggest a visual continuity. In the history of street furniture, attempts have been made to create co-ordinated sets that act as a ‘family’. This can be from simply stamping a coat of arms or logo in a prominent position – see the purple lettering on bins and kiosks in Angel – to more essential similarities originating in the very construction of the design. In the 1970s the extent to which co-ordinated furniture should be pursued was questioned. A key opportunity to explore the possibility of complete control over urban furniture was the development of Milton Keynes:


The aim then was to be ruthlessly consistent. In a city of such disparate elements as Milton Keynes, which embraces three towns and a bevy of villages, the one utterly dependable feature, it was argued, should be the infrastructure. A glance at a bollard or bus shelter should be sufficient to tell you that you were within the hallowed confines of the designated area. Yet even at that early stage, a note of compromise was beginning to creep in.[4]


Proposed designs, which consisted of streetlights, bollards, bus stops and benches all derived from the same principles of construction and material, only differing in their colors according to purpose. However despite the compelling visual cohesiveness,’[5] these designs were abandoned for a more pragmatic mix of off-the-shelf pieces and individual re-designs. Rather than strict coordination, the furniture shared a modern air and minimal lines, and there was a surprising variety of material and quality. This was part of a wider shift from solely visual appreciation of street furniture to expecting additional functionality, such as branding, or social control such as vandal-proofing in benches or affixing CCTV to streetlights.


This is not to say that our urban space has not historically been subject to control, and indeed it’s important to guard against nostalgia when talking about the changing cityscape. As Jeffrey Hou says in ‘Insurgent Public Space’: the official public space has long been exclusionary, […] public space becomes subjected to new forms of ownership, commodification, and control. The control of public space in now a worldwide phenomenon that shows how form follows capital.’[6] The city may have always been a product, and maybe all that is changing is the nature of what is being sold, and to whom. Rather than the municipal vision of the post-war era, the built environment that is being sold is hyper-luxury and exclusive.


Another way that this shift can be seen is in the rise of security culture. What are the anti-homeless spikes, CCTV cameras, barbed wire and anti-climb painted streetlights but the environmental equivalent to security tags and alarms in shops? Rather than guarding against the theft of a single object however, these design interventions seek to protect against the shoplifting of urban space. By blocking deviant interventions in the city such as trespassing, loitering and vandalism, we are confronted with the reality that something which should rightfully belong to all of us regardless of circumstance, has been taken and is being offered back at an extortionate price. We need to start interrogating our city, and asking who it functions for. What price should we pay for change and what kind of development do we want? Many are asking what it is we can do to engage with the city on our own terms again. I’d say we should steal it back.


Rosannagh Maddock


[1] Guy Julier, The Culture of Design (London: Sage, 2008), p.117

[2] Guy Julier, The Culture of Design, p.120

[3] Guy Julier, The Culture of Design, p.117

[4] Design (London: the Design Council, 1976) issue no.333, September 1976

[5] Design, issue no.333, September 1976

[6] Jeffrey Hou, Insurgent Public Space (London: Routledge, 2010) pp. 6-7

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