In the continuing debate over the proposed development of a new stadium and out-of-town
shopping scheme for York (“Monks Cross 2”), it is taken for granted that the city is
first and foremost (if not exclusively), a site of commercial activity. As a nominal public
space, the essential purpose of the city is unproblematically assumed to be the pursuit of
profit by private individuals and groups through the sale of goods and services to the
general public. In other words, the city exists for and through business.
For this reason the competing interests of those engaged in commerce, be they butchers or bankers, corporations or independent shop keepers, are presented as somehow representative of the collective interest. The wealth and well-being of the city in general is thus expressed in terms of the wealth and well being of a particular branch of business (in this case retail), and is for the most part measurable in pounds and pence; the vibrancy and vitality of the city being synonymous with the overall quality of the consumption experience.
Inhabiting the opposite side of this particular coin are the public, whose ascribed role
within the busy world of commercial activity is that of consumer; the self maximising or
pleasure seeking individual concerned with the summation of her/his own particular
preferences. Thus the choice offered to the public in this debate is nothing more than a
choice between consuming environments; “post-modern”, “out-of-town”, “purpose built”,
versus the “traditional” city centre with its claim to “heritage”, “authenticity” and, above
all, “sustainability”. Premised upon the obvious conflict of interest between established,
and for the most part, small scale city traders and intruding corporate giants, the overall
effect, whether intentional or not, is to strictly limit the terms of debate to whose business
interests the city should prioritise.
Within these terms the arguments and counter arguments of competing business interests risk drowning out other equally valid voices, effectively stifling genuine democratic participation in determining the direction the city should take as a community. Reduced to the position of passive consumers we are de facto excluded from making any substantive contribution of our own.
While not wishing to diminish what is without doubt a serious of issue for those
concerned, it is nevertheless important to draw attention to what has been omitted from
the discussion thus far. Rather than meekly submitting to the prevailing view of the city
(or any urban environment for that matter) as a space exclusively dedicated to the
uncertain pleasures of mass consumption, we should collectively endeavour to re-imagine
our city as a site of socially creative, diverse and potentially life affirming activity.
Such a collective re-imagining must recognise that there are definite limits to individual
fulfilment through personal consumption. It should be evident by now that once our basic
requirements have been fulfilled, our collective yearning for shared experience, of simply
being together, transcends all consideration of possessive individualism based upon the
satisfaction of false needs and desires. The sociologist Robert Park has remarked that the
city is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the
world he lives in after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it
is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live”. In creating the city “man” has
inadvertently recreated “himself”.
For this reason the development of the city is inextricably linked to our development, both individually and collectively, as human beings. It raises important questions about the type of world we wish to inhabit, our shared relation to nature and society, and the fulfilment of our “heart’s desire”.
Phil Hall, York Social