Might the ‘Occupy’ Movement Transform Urban Planning?

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The extraordinary success of the occupation of Tahrir Square earlier this year has had an inspirational effect on protests across the world. Between 6 and 8.5 million Spaniards have taken part in the Indignants movement that is centred on the occupation of Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. In New York the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest has inspired over 900 similar occupations in public spaces across Europe, visit web Africa, Asia and North America. It is unclear how long they will last for. However the extraordinary success of the Tahrir Square occupation means that the model of occupations of public spaces will probably be a popular mode of protest for the foreseeable future. Consequently it is likely that a generation of activists will become highly skilled in the logistics of occupying public spaces. They are likely to become versed in the legal ownership of particular public spaces; in the regulations that govern those public spaces; in the land-use of every part of those public spaces, and the utilities that serve them; and as a result of the challenges that result from a group of strangers camping together in a small urban area they are likely to be highly experienced in negotiating how the camp will use the public space. Given the importance of their cause in their lives these decisions are likely to be charged with a great deal of significance. This is likely to lead to a much broader interest in urban planning amongst the movement: “act locally, think globally”. Could this lead to a new era of protest at urban planning decisions?

Some ‘Occupy’ movements have been greatly restricted by wanting to protest in privately-owned public spaces: New York’s Zuccotti Park bans tents, and the original target of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest, Paternoster Square, banned the protestors’ entry completely, forcing them to mount their protest at the adjacent St. Paul’s Cathedral. Given this experience, I imagine that such an urban planning interest would focus on critiques of privatised public space. As the chant goes, “whose streets? Our streets!”

"As Through A Mirror, Darkly": St. Paul's, London © Chris Haile

From here it is not such a big jump to imagine that the privatisation of public space might itself become a cause for protest, perhaps amid a much wider critique of urban planning. Certainly one response to the severe problems of the construction industry might be to make it easier to get planning permission — in Britain, for example, the government is proposing a default of permission of all developments that satisfy its currently rather elastic definition of “sustainable development”. Certainly a few developments are wildly unpopular with locals as it is; if the planning system is seen as being inadequate then a new age of protest might begin, perhaps led by those who have served apprenticeships at ‘Occupy’ protests.

Imagine: permanent, legal- and media-savvy occupations of the sites of developments they oppose…

This technique was used in British rural settings during the 1990s to significant success. The government’s hubristic 1989 announcement of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans” sparked a series of occupations of the planned routes, most notably at Twyford Down and outside Newbury. A motley coalition of environmentalists, New Age types and the rural wealthy became determined to face down a road-building programme of imperial ambition. A range of techniques designed to hinder and delay the construction were used in both urban and rural settings. In the most urban of the major protests, the M11 link road, condemned housing on the routes was commandeered by squatters, who built barricades, bunkers, towers and networks of cargo nets slung between rooftops. Protestors chained and even concreted themselves to key strategic points. The costs of evicting protestors at the various sites were immense: the costs of private security guards and of policing the Newbury bypass protest, for example, reached £36.6 million.

Claremont Road on the M11 route. 'Copyleft' Gideon Mendel

The protestors exploited the new possibilities of desktop publishing to the full, issuing ‘passports’ to their newly self-declared republics and issuing media-friendly press releases announcing, for example, the appointment of a 9-year-old as the new republic’s Minister for Education. The protestors conducted outrageous stunts such as climbing onto the roof of the home of the Transport Minister, John MacGregor, and unfurling a banner depicting a road going through his home.

The protestors were just as cheeky in their use of the law: the branches of a condemned sweet chestnut tree were occupied and protestors encouraged people to send letters to them there. When a postman delivered the letters the protestors declared that the tree had been officially recognised as a dwelling, and commenced legal action seeking to prevent its demolition. The protestors were also immensely determined: sabotage and mass trespass became tools of the trade, and some protestors were arrested, imprisoned yet still returned to the protests to be arrested again. One woman, Rebecca Lush, took her protest all the way to the European Court of Justice.

The protests attracted enormous publicity. Whilst not all were charmed by the ‘tree hugging hippies’, the protestors’ commitment, idealism and determination gained them widespread public sympathy. A man named ‘Swampy’ became an English folk hero, and the romance of the all-out defence of the countryside was immensely appealing compared to the dystopian images of mechanical cherry-pickers rearing up to rip wriggling humans from beautiful trees. The merits and demerits of the road-building programme were urgently debated, with many experts coming out against.

The protestors lost every battle, but they won the war. Although in each case the protestors were successfully evicted and the roads built, in 1995 three hundred road schemes were cancelled largely as a consequence of the protests. In 1997 the new government cancelled the remainder of the schemes and adopted a different approach to transport. The same year the Transport Minister during some of the protest period, Steven Norris, conceded that the protestors had been right to oppose the Newbury bypass.

The occupations of development sites can be a potent political force, then. It may be more so now given the developments of mobile phones, ubiquitous video capability and mobile internet. Moreover, the occupations of urban development sites may be even more potent than rural ones for three reasons.

Firstly, the sites are much more accessible to a wide group of people and any protests will be correspondingly more visible. Secondly, since developments may be occupied by multiple parties upon completion, the legal implications of significant, unforeseen delays could be enormously problematic. Thirdly, the owners or tenants of the sites are far more likely to be sensitive to public opinion than roadbuilding companies are: an anchor tenant of a proposed shopping centre, say, may be extremely squeamish about the centre gaining indelible negative associations within their catchment area. A relatively small number of sufficiently-determined occupations might potentially make certain types of development unviable in the same way that the road protests of the 1990s made extensive road-building unviable.

I’d be extremely surprised if the occupiers outside St. Paul’s Cathedral are unaware of the success of the roads protest occupations not twenty years ago and do not buoy up each others’ morale with tales from the period. Currently the occupation seems mostly a discussion forum, but it wouldn’t stretch the imagination if some offshoots decided to make occupations of places where their presence would cause daily financial pain to those they view as their opponents.

Great Expectations. A protestor's sign in St. Paul's Churchyard. © Chris Haile

A few years before the roads protests it would have been difficult to predict that scientific-minded environmentalists concerned with carbon dioxide emissions, arty New Age people and rural Tories from the shires would have formed such a powerful coalition. Yet given this precedent, I wonder if a similarly unlikely coalition might emerge between the emerging ‘Occupy’ movement and two powerful organisations that have already campaigned against the proposed framework — the four million member-strong heritage organisation the National Trust and the arch-Conservative establishment newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Although the current planning system might not be passionately adored, I believe that it is seen as non-corrupt, thorough and as the guardian of beloved green belts across the country. The current proposals threaten every point. In the three years prior to producing its radical planning proposals the Conservative Party received £3.3 million in donations from the property industry, which certainly raises awkward questions concerning the purity of its motivations. These doubts are exacerbated by the extremely cosy relationship between government and some developers. The degree to which the green belt would be protected is greatly doubted by some. The thoroughness of the planning process may also be called into question in future: as the Planning Minister Greg Clark proudly notes in the draft framework’s foreword over a thousand pages of legalese planning policy has been reduced to around fifty easy-to-read pages in order to encourage greater citizen participation in the planning process.

"What Am I Bid?" © Chris Haile

Yet this might perhaps be yet another case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Whilst you could certainly make the case that the planning system is overly complex and slow, the precision of the legalese is used for a reason. I think it would be foolish to assume that the citizens Greg Clark so wishes to encourage would necessarily play fair. Those citizens might also launch legal challenges for the primary purpose of time-wasting. Making the planning framework vague might help developers argue that their proposals comply; it might also help protestors to gleefully throw spanners in the works.

Prime Minister Cameron has repeatedly tried to launch his vision of a Big Society of volunteers running fundamental civic services such as libraries and post offices, only for it to founder on the suspicion that the idea is a mere cover for plans to cut state funding for such services. Yet it is commonplace to wryly note that the best example of the Big Society may be those volunteering to ‘Occupy’ St. Paul’s, with their library, lecture courses, film screenings, newspaper and committees focussing on topics ranging from wide-ranging economic critiques to the site’s logistics. However, surely the ‘Occupy’ movement is not quite what Cameron had in mind. If Greg Clark’s vision of citizen participation in a brave new world of urban planning is perceived to be a mere cover for the interests of property developers then citizen participation may come in an equally unintended form. Perhaps Greg Clark is risking becoming another J. Alfred Prufrock: “that is not what I meant at all; that’s not it, at all…”

If the National Planning Policy Framework becomes the law then it becomes the law. However a consequence might be that planners might have to redouble their efforts in engaging with the public to compensate for the possible shadow of corruption and lack of thoroughness that may be a by-product of the framework. Trying to win democratic legitimacy for the development might be essential. Extraordinary levels of commitment to a cause has no bearing on the correctness of the cause, and occupations might in some cases make desperately needed developments unviable. In many cases it may be necessary to effectively persuade locals of this, whilst keeping in mind that the protestors might in some cases have a point.

Urban Planning could be about to undergo a radical change, then. Whilst this post has of course included much speculation I’ll be watching developments in the ‘Occupy’ movement with interest. Perhaps — perhaps — of 2011 we’ll say “all changed, changed utterly; a terrible beauty is born.

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