“How do we get a little bit of Stoke-on-Trent to look like a little bit of Covent Garden?”
A conundrum posed by Paul Mason – the Newsnight journalist – as he sat on a panel discussing how to rebuild our cities with Tristram Hunt – MP for Stoke on Trent – and Alexandra Jones of Centre for Cities.
Personally, I’ve never been to Stoke on Trent but I do know that it suffered when employment in its pottery industry declined. He could have named any place in decline – city, small town, suburban high street – and asked the same question. Like it or loathe it, it’s hard not to admit to Covent Garden’s vibrancy. It is alive, it has a ‘buzz’. His argument was that what really rebuilds places is social capital.
A quick Google search finds social capital defined as: connections within and between social networks; value created by social relationships, with expected returns in the marketplace; attitude, spirit and willingness of people to engage in collective, civic activities and it has, apparently, a stream of benefits, including safety and security, friendship and community, a sense of civic identity.
So, we need some atmosphere on the streets. Too many places in decline are drab, deserted, even the small groups of teenagers hanging around look bored and disaffected. How do we inject some of that Covent Garden pizzazz back into our suburban high streets? Is it the people or the environment? I suspect a bit of both. It’s hard to create pizzazz when the lights are off in shops and offices, especially when an ill-conceived pedestrianisation scheme has purged the street of passing traffic too.
People are social, they like to congregate and they like to have somewhere to congregate. Where there is optimism and energy, it is possible to overlook the shortcomings of the environment – a friend of mine whose daughter has just entered the sixth form and is therefore allowed the privilege of leaving school during lunch time, told me that, in the absence of anywhere better, her daughter and friends choose to congregate in the Homebase carpark – being preferable to the confines of the school yard, it has come to symbolise freedom.
We can do better. Land and property with no commercial value in the centre of towns and high streets could be released as public space. Places need spaces to gather and share news, events, ideas and opinions. If local authorities could release land and buildings, then perhaps private sector organisers will come forward to create the pizzazz.