continuities of ‘social crime’ protest about land use

James Greenhalgh’s book, Reconstructing Modernity: space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities (Manchester UP, 2017) is a thought-provoking account of the development of postwar planning, especially in Manchester and Hull.

His main point concerns the continuities between planning in the 20s/30s and the postwar periods.

Negative No: 1968-0867 - Negatives Book Entry: 18-04-1968_Estates_Wythenshawe-Airport Etc_Various Sites
Manchester Archives Plus, Negative No: 1968-0867 – Negatives Book Entry: 18-04-1968_Estates_Wythenshawe-Airport Etc_Various Sites, Town Hall Photographer’s Collection – GB127.M850

Yet what struck me the most from his research – and which I need to do more of in this project – is his focus on everyday spaces.

So rather than outlining, as many planning historians do, the well-known architectural experiments of Modernism in planning and construction, he examines the ordinary indoor and outdoor spaces that shaped residents’ lives in estates like Wythenshawe or on the temporary prefab developments. He trawls through planning disputes and estate archives for local controversies over the uses of cleared bomb sites, grass verges and other ambiguous spaces (though he uses the term ‘liminal’ to describe these, which I will not).

Tactics

What further jumped out at me – and here’s the benefit of looking at this topic from a long-duree perspective – are the parallels with early modern/18th century types of protest or resistance by residents against the pre-planned uses ascribed to spaces by landowners, developers and the council.

In May 1943, a few residents of the Roundwood Estate in Northenden took the campaign for ‘dig for victory’ into their own hands by digging small plots in a piece of land that divided their gardens from an ajoining industrial area. This move was unsanctioned by the council, and indeed the city surveyor condemned their actions,

that it is most undesirable that any tenant of adjoining property should be permitted to establish would become a precedent, for other people could justly claim a like privilege. this would endanger the growth of the whole belt of trees and defeat the scheme of development of the Estate.

Greenhalgh points out how the council wished to preserve not only its legal position over the land but also its ordering vision of the space as a tree-lined boundary between industrial and garden. (p. 173)

In the cold winter of 1947 Manchester city surveyor reported several occasions whereby damage had been done to trees on the council estates. It is likely that, during the fuel shortages still in place after the war, residents were taking wood for fuel. Greenhalgh derives from the evidence of Wythenshawe estate committee that such incidents were common, and

‘whilst most of these incidents were recorded as vandalism, damage was also caused by residents viewing the trees as a resource’,

a view that over-rode attitudes of the greenery beautifying the estate. Interestingly, the Corporation reported that ‘constant patrols have been organised to cover all the development areas and spinneys’, to prevent further degradations. (p. 174).

There were further debates over trespass over private gardens, and the degradation of grass verges by local residents taking short cuts that turned into what we now call desire paths, thereby again subverting the ways in which the planners intended residents to walk through and around the estates.

Desire path (19811581366)
a desire path
Briony McDonagh amongst other early modern historians have underlined the significance of subaltern forms of resistance and protest against dominant landowners’ delineation and enclosure of land. These include:

  • mass ploughing of fields,
  • trespassing along short cuts or stopped-up paths,
  • releasing of animals for pasture.

Briony McDonagh, ‘Making and Breaking Property: Negotiating Enclosure and Common Rights in Sixteenth-Century England’, History Workshop Journal, Volume 76, Issue 1, October 2013, Pages 32–56.

The continuities of tactics in these very different circumstances and places is intriguing – the claiming or reclaiming of land through ritual and habitual forms of work and play: digging up soil for planting, overturning (or intriguingly in the postwar case, creating) fences and hedges, trespassing by using old paths or creating new ones.

The repeated use or ritualised actions, deliberate or not deliberate, echoes the emphasis in histories of early modern and 18th century on the role of ritualised bodily actions in community justice and protest, for example in the moral economy food riots and in enclosure riots. Hence the gathering of firewood from the trees by the Wythenshawe residents has echoes of gleaning and fuel gathering (albeit not customary reclaiming rights they had felt had been taken away).

The main difference perhaps is the type of property: in the mid-20th century, the residents are enacting these forms of small resistance against the purposes ascribed to these essentially new spaces, marked out as new estates by the Corporation. As council tenants for the most part, they also occupied a different status than the tenants of the lord of the manor.

OS_PLAN_1-1250_SJ7989NE_1959 - OS Plan 1:1250-Part of GB127.M850 Manchester Town Hall Photographer's Collection
Manchester Archives Plus, OS_PLAN_1-1250_SJ7989NE_1959 – OS Plan 1:1250-Part of GB127.M850 Manchester Town Hall Photographer’s Collection

Social crime or protest?

There is an old debate in the historiography about the extent these sorts of actions constituted ‘social crime’ or popular resistance, or vandalism or juvenile delinquency.  Greenhalgh stresses the role of young people in such actions, and the differing views of authority on whether or not their actions were legitimate, criminal or vandalism.

Some indicative reading:

  • Roger Wells, ‘Popular Protest and Social Crime: The Evidence of Criminal Gangs in Southern England, 1790—1860’, Southern History, 13 (1991)
  • John Rule and Roger Wells, Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England, 1740-1850 (Hambledon Press, 1997)
  • Bob Bushaway, ‘From Custom to Crime: Wood Gathering in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-century England’, in J. G. Rule, ed., Outside the Law: Studies in Crime and Order, 1650-1850 (Exeter, 1982)
  • Timothy Shakesheff, Rural Conflict, Crime, and Protest: Herefordshire, 1800 to 1860 (Boydell Press, 2003)

More recent work for example by Iain Robertson, drawing from Karl Jacoby, has described such actions as Highland crofters protecting land usages and Forest of Dean Free Miners asserting their customary rights as enacting a ‘moral ecology’.

The residents of Wythenshawe and other estates in the postwar era perhaps were not consciously or deliberately enacting a moral economy by any means: it was often, just taking a short cut or growing some veg on the side, but there is still a sense of resistance against the definitions of space and how they were planned to be used by the developers and Corporation.

placards on the street

Keep Seattle Liveable placard, June 2018
Keep Seattle Liveable placard, June 2018

I’ve recently visited three US cities: Boulder CO, Portland OR and Seattle WA. Wandering round neighbourhoods in all three, I saw similar placards in front gardens, driveways and windows. These are liberal cities, so the most common placards to see were defiant Black Lives Matter placards, and also, variations on a poster about welcoming all genders, sexualities and ethnicities, and the placard starting with ‘in our America all people are equal…’

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:In_Our_America_Sign_(31167857504).jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:In_Our_America_Sign_(31167857504).jpg
https://www.oregonlive.com/window-shop/index.ssf/2016/11/portland_shops_safe_spaces.html
https://www.oregonlive.com/window-shop/index.ssf/2016/11/portland_shops_safe_spaces.html

I may come back to how the placing of these placards in front yards of people’s homes in residential neighbourhoods change the nature of public space in different ways to posters displayed on shopfronts. Hopefully there is already work being done in sociological and cultural geography studies about the identity politics of the campaign propaganda.

 

 

What I also noticed in many neighbourhoods were placards from more local campaigns around housing policy, gentrification and more specifically about the building of affordable housing. The placard above in a residential neighbourhood of Seattle was opposing the 2014 HALA  (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda):

for an opposing opinion piece, see www.seattletimes.com/opinion/dont-believe-hala-upzone-hype/

For Portland, see this pair of op pieces:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/01/portland-anti-gentrification-housing-scheme-right-return

Portland doesn’t really want to make housing affordable

 

The scholarly literature on American cities and gentrification is much more advanced than that of the UK in cultural geography, urban studies and sociology. From David Harvey onwards, there are numerous strands on the neo-liberal city, including by Setha Low and others. I’ll keep updating my bibliography on this, but if you have suggestions of useful material to read on this more specific issue of policies  to address unaffordable housing with altered planning, do comment below.

But the point of view of the residents in the neighbourhoods making these protests is also clear and understandable in terms of the impact on their public space and established forms of community. It was really noticeable walking around that after going through a leafy neighbourhood with older wooden detached houses, some derelict, one would turn a corner and there would be large construction projects of apartments. And it would always be flats. So the level of greenery would be lessened; more density changes the functions and functioning of the local communities.

neighbourhood in seattle
neighbourhood in Seattle, June 2018, where the placards against HALA are

In such cities with a very high cost of living (and the mass homeless issue in Portland and Seattle is another separate issue), problems of housing are acute and it is interesting to compare the debates around affordability, supply, zoning and city policies with what has been going on at home, not least in Croydon where every other office block has been bought up and changed into ‘luxury’ flats following the relaxation of restrictions on change of use a few years ago, spearheaded by the then MP and housing minister Gavin Barwell.

I’m piecing these somewhat disconnected bits of my holiday with current local issues at home with my research because I’m currently reading Peter Saunders, Urban Politics: a Sociological Interpretation (Hutchinson & Co, 1979), which is a sociological case study of planning policy in late 1970s Croydon. It has a whole chapter on why and how ‘the deep south’ stockbroker belt of Purley and Sanderstead opposed building on the Green Belt on their outskirts, using the justification that they were not nimbyists, but also preserving open space for the benefit of the poorer residents of the north part of Croydon, Thornton Heath and South Norwood. Yet because in effect the great and the good of the ‘deep south’ were part of the political elite, they were able to influence council policy, and the effect of rejecting development plans in south Croydon intensified the problem of lack of housing and public space in the north of Croydon. (pp. 242, 248).

questions I will be thinking about and trying to find more literature on relating to the US comparison:

  • why and how do local residents’ groups oppose policies on affordable housing or the building of different forms of residence such as apartment blocks?
  • how do such communities view what public space is and how they use it?
  • why do people put placards in their front gardens? Does this change the nature of the public space around them and the street?
  • Do placards in front gardens make the street political? Does it work? what happens if someone with a ‘we welcome…’ placard is neighbour to someone more conservative?
  • how do groups like the anti-HALA campaign in Seattle operate; are they NIMBYists or how do they conceive their aims and role?

 

I’ve also been comparing the US Open Spaces society and their National Parks movement history with the UK equivalents, but as that’s rural and this post is urban, I’ll leave it until a future post…

 

References:

For an older planning history of Portland OR, see Martha J Bianco, ‘Robert Moses and Lewis Mumford: competing paradigms of growth in Portland, Oregon’, Planning Perspectives, 16: 2 (2001)

 

Update:

Dr Niamh NicGhabhann has just sent me a link to her new article on the aesthetics of protest and spaces in the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland: ‘City walls, bathroom stalls and tweeting the Taoiseach: the aesthetics of protest and the campaign for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 2018:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10304312.2018.1468413?journalCode=ccon20