A journalistic phronetic research: Anna Minton’s Ground Control

I often hear academic colleagues that criticize others’ works by labelling them as “good journalistic inquiries”. The underlying idea, here, is that journalistic enquiry is some kind of epistemologically inconsistent version of real scientific enquiry, that is, academic research. And, actually, it is very uncommon to find, in academic papers and books, references to works from outside academe.

Anna Minton’s Ground Control. Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-century City (Penguin Books) is the proof that academic research in planning (and social sciences in general) would benefit a lot from opening itself to the world of journalistic enquiry, at least. Published in 2009, it has been reissued in 2012 with an additional chapter about the legacy of the Olympics.

Ground Control engages with contemporary planning in the UK, showing how it has been recently exchanging the common good for the profit of the few. At the core of the analysis are recent security and safety policies and how they are at the same time a springer and a tool for privatization and fortification of contemporary British cities. The main lesson of the book, which bridges concerns with urban fear with wider issues of public culture and civic life, is that

there are psychological dangers […] in creating places which have too much security and as a result are too safe and too controlled. The problem is that these environments remove personal responsibility, undermining our relationship with the surrounding environment and with each other and removing the continual, almost subliminal interaction with strangers which is part of healthy city life. The consequence is that people are left far more frightened when they do have to confront the unexpected, which can never be entirely removed from daily life (33).

When published, the book generated debate in the UK (see, e.g., the reviews on the Guardian and the Telegraph). Ground Control has also been object of some academic attention. The review by Frank Tonkiss for the LSE Review of Books, yet, is telling of how “we” academics are inclined to look at journalistic works. The book is defined as a “passionate and convincing tale”: a good story, a “compelling” one for it touches important issues. That’s it. Well, I think Ground Control is something more than a good narrative, for three reasons.

Firstly, as a matter of fact, debates about how fear and the discourses about security have been driving privatization and fortification are not new (think of Mike Davis, Stephen Graham, Michael Sorkin, to name the most famous). Yet, although from a non-academic perspective, Anna Minton’s work is one of the few capable of linking in-depth the spatial and social effects of these trends with the very practice of urban planning. Most mainstream books about fear and the city leave the reader with the idea that these are overwhelming processes driven by immense, unchallengeable global powers. Ground Control, instead, shows how these processes are driven by the most trivial reasons, that is, profit and land revenue. This is a key issue for those interested in reverting fortification trends of contemporary cities: there is the space to challenge them, and this space is located within urban planning and local policy (this being the concern of my Fear, Space and Urban Planning).

Secondly, this has implications for planning in general. Ground Control, focussing on power in planning, shows, at the same time, which are the problems with planning and why planning is necessary. The book explains how a planning system in which public debate is considered to be at the core of the mechanism (the UK one) can be driven by the interests of the few, instead. It makes me think of Flyvbjerg’s works about planning in Denmark, in this sense. At the same time, criticising the famous “Non-Plan” essay (by Banham, Barker, Hall and Price), Anna Minton suggests why the space for change lies within planning:

when the market is given free rein to make places, this result is not the freedom and vitality that people want. The essay glossed over the fact – wilfully or not – that removing planning does not free up people to make choices; it allows the market to make choices. When it comes to places, the market rarely reflects public demand, because the enhancement and creation of genuinely successful places cannot function in the same way as a classic market, like the car market, where supply is able to meet demand far more effectively (186).

Thirdly, Ground Control is capable of powerfully and effectively criticising some mainstream concepts widely used in planning and local policy, such as communitarianism, defensible spaces, broken window theories, or the “non-plan” idea (see above). What impressed me was how the critiques are not grounded on complex theoretical constructions (as we are used to in academic work) but on “practical wisdom, practical judgement, common sense, prudence”, that is how Bent Flyvbjerg defines the phronetic approach to (planning) research. The point is that this journalistic enquiry is probably one of the most striking examples of phronetic research I have ever read.

This to say that academic research concerned with progressive or radical change has a lot to learn from journalistic enquiry, when it is driven by civic passion and carried out with rigour, like in this case.

Simone Tulumello

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