Streetalking: Soulless Cities

In my hometown, Edinburgh, a local landmark recently shut it doors. The Jenners Department store has been housed in its fantastically ornate Renaissance revival home for over one hundred years and its closure represents the end of the 183-year-old Jenner family brand. However, the loss is far more profound for me, as the closure of Jenners leaves me stranded the next time I am caught short in the city centre. It was the only place near Princes Street with free public bathrooms. If you’ve ever experienced the blind panic of your bowels in relentless locomotion, desperately scrabbling to find a toilet while in town, then perhaps you can relate.

I latterly find out this was a deeply British problem. The aggressive hostility of code-lock toilets and ‘customers only signs’, are the architecture of a cold, heartless society. When I was in Athens, humane bar owners extended the benevolent hand of clemency and were surprised I even asked to use their bathrooms.

There was a point to that brief international tour of my bowel movements. My quest for sphincteric liberation is indicative of a wider issue; our cities are increasingly harder to live in and particularly harder to live in without spending money. It is difficult and inconvenient to relieve the most simple of human needs without having to buy a coffee in a café and even then our respite was in a department store.

The closure of shops has highlighted a sombre reality, our city centres are desolate voids of commercial opportunity and little else. When I was recently in Glasgow centre it had a sense of funereal desertion. Quite simply, there was no reason to be in the city centre if shops were not open. Surely, our cities are more than just shopping centres? I’ve mentioned before that Glasgow centre is really difficult to walk, the only truly pedestrian area being on the shopping high street, Buchanan Street. It is a perfect example of what happens when a city is designed for the movement of money, not people.

The number of public spaces diminishes daily: there are precious few places that exist simply for the wellbeing and enjoyment of humans, places designed to make cities liveable for locals. The Coronavirus has naturally highlighted the huge value of green space, but in the longer term we need to look at creating more buildings where local people can gather, socialise and contribute to the cultural wealth of the city. It seems we once understood this necessity and then forgot. Buildings like the People’s Palace were built for exactly this purpose, and even through the last century community and leisure centres were recognised as an important aspect in addressing urban poverty before defunding and closures hit in the last decades. While our immediate situation limits gatherings and keeps buildings closed, if we ignore this chance to reflect, the long-term diagnosis is grim.

It is these same city centres that give cities their identity. Their beauty, their landmarks attract visitors and bring repute. There are good reasons tourists flock to Paris, Milan or London but avoid Birmingham. In the period in which these cities cemented their reputation as cultural and social capitals par excellence, the cities’ boundaries were often limited to the extent of the current tourist centres. Essential tourist hotspots like Montmartre were distant suburbs with their own community and culture that attracted people to their cities.

Yet few locals would recognise this indigenous culture, or see the centre as a lived space. The sectorisation of modern cities has turned our centres into commercial zones, shopping and office spaces during the day and nightlife at night. After the working day locals retreat to the suburbs, far away from the city they supposedly live in. When ‘the city’ where people live is divorced from ‘the city’ itself, citizens are abstracted into consumers and workers. It anonymises cities, robbing them of identity and turning their centres into an exclusive beauty zone reserved for tourists and rich students. The suburban sprawl atomises humans into isolated nuclear units, fracturing our communities, furthering isolation and alienation.

The great irony is of course that the lure of tourism only exacerbates the problem. The same beauty that attracts visitors forces citizens out of city centres. This problem has become particularly acute in a smaller city like Edinburgh. Increasing numbers of flats are becoming Airbnbs and student lets, and any available plots are wolved up for hotels and student accommodation (indeed, Jenners is set to become a hotel). Thus, the best bits of our cities are reserved for their most temporary residents, students and tourists, while the citizens are priced out of them.

This is bad for visitors too. It becomes more meaningful and enriching when culture is not homogenised and sanitised. With each heritage building discreetly bulldozed for halls and with each local that migrates to the suburbs, city centres rapidly become hollow shells, vapid and superficial. There will come a critical point when mass tourism either literally destroys cities (as it seems likely to do to Venice) or strips them so completely of any distinguishing features that they lose their touristic appeal.

 I once overheard an American in a London hostel despairing about a travelling companion who had complained about British food because in Greece ‘they’d got hamburgers just like at home.’ We cannot pander to those who want our cities to become identical twins. Rather than cater to them we should bluntly inform them that travelling isn’t for everyone and it’s ok not to pretend to like it. Our cities must prioritise the needs of those who live there year-round rather than for a few fleeting days of holiday.

Though this problem can seem insurmountable, tied as these developments are to the relentless degradation of the capitalist system, recognising these problems is the first step in reclaiming our cities from anonymity and community degradation. In my columns, the underlying conclusion has often been that cities are constructed not with concrete or brick but through the lives of people. A crucial step will be developing not-for-profit space in our cities. It is not a simple choice between hippie anarcho-communal cringe and office buildings: Athens’ Stavros Niarchos Centre is an example of the incredible potential of these spaces. Various planners have proposed urban approaches on a human scale that may be a solution, if planners can prioritise people over profit and sustainable tourism measures can help stem the hordes. Perhaps the biggest issue is lack of awareness. I think citizens are passively aware of the decline of urban life but don’t quite know how to diagnose the causes. We must be active citizens if we want to live in better cities, if we want cities to work for us then first we must challenge why they don’t.

[Ruaraidh Campbell – he/him]

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