This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Weeks 18-20: Walking and unweaving the urban mesh, Bristol/London,” written by Adam Greenfield in London and Bristol on the 19th of May 2011.

The past two weeks have been dominated by our trip to the UK for a talk and walkshop in Bristol, followed back-to-back by a walkshop in central London.

- We’d had the slightest trepidation, prior to arrival, that Bristol wouldn’t be densely enough provisioned with networked tat to make for a good event, but that fear turned out to be unfounded: the Millennium Square area, particularly, is just littered with connected objects of one sort or another, and we spilled over our allotted ninety minutes without getting much further than 200 meters from our starting point. In London, of course, the fabric of BorisKenbike stations, networked parking meters, electric-vehicle charging points, embedded sensor grids, unidentifiable antennae and other hardware gave us plenty to sink our collective teeth into.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, both walkshops wound up dealing disproportionately with the question of CCTV surveillance. It’s become a commonplace to note that the UK is the most oversurveilled society in human history, and London its veritable fovea; the city’s 7.7 million residents are resolved by no fewer than one million closed-circuit video cameras, and one widely bruited-about figure suggests that a Londoner can expect to traverse a camera’s field of operation some 300 times a day.

The number and variety of these devices readily apparent on the streets kinda blew our mind — and remember, we’ve been doing this for awhile. Some are the conventional, naked box-type; others are modestly domed. Some blindly spool footage onto a remote drive that, unless subpoenaed, will be overwritten in six months, never to be reviewed by a human, while others are clearly and obviously being operated in real time. Some of the most dramatic are those mounted in clusters on municipal masts, morningstars to be wielded against some unknowable but evidently fearsome foe. And each of the municipal cameras, at least, is accompanied by a placard furnishing a justificatory apparatus, thoughtfully specifying its provenance, unique ID number, and ostensible purpose.

But for all that digitized, extended awareness, and for all the placards’ formal promises that cameras are there “for purposes of crime prevention and public safety,” they appear to be having a negligible impact on crime: official Metropolitan Police statistics admit that fewer than one in every thousand street crimes in London is resolved with the aid of CCTV footage. Conversely, the cameras’ advent is demonstrably making Londoners less safe. As Anna Minton observes in her essential Ground Control, the visible presence of a camera in the streetscape makes people less likely to intervene personally in emergent situations, presumably on the theory that Someone Official is observing anything untoward, and will surely intervene.

Thus the likelihood that each of us will get involved in the sort of incidents that happen ten hundred times a day on the streets of any real city — a woman slipping on sidewalk ice, audibly shattering her hipbone; an immigrant deliveryman harrassed by a clutch of tweens — that likelihood shrivels. And so whatever remaining social contract governs our dealings with one another, the incentive mechanic operating in the background that underwrites so many acts of consideration, is not-so-subtly undermined. (Perhaps reflecting an inevitable co-evolutionary spiral, the Metropolitan Police also confess that the number of crimes caught on one or another CCTV system has fallen by seventy percent over the past year. Perhaps they only worked at all as a relative novelty.) Confronted with this evidence, we might be forgiven for concluding that this “protective” CCTV is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Another unpleasant development we turned up in the London walkshop was the advent of the US-style business improvement district inMidtown. Formerly “inHolborn,” the BID apparently rebranded after annexing leafy, pleasant, innerlectual Bloomsbury and the St. Giles hub; our suspicion that this drab nomenclature — so redolent of the unexceptional streetscape of east-side Manhattan in the mid-Forties — is especially tin-eared was confirmed by native Londoners. (There may in fact be no London neighborhood less suited to the name than Bloomsbury, with its ludicrous concentration of world-class cultural institutions, disposed around lovely Georgian squares. You think it’s a plus if people start thinking of this area as “Midtown”? Really?)

The sense of a cluelessly transplanted, tone-deaf Americanism is compounded by the reason inMidtown exists in the first place. The BID has its origins in the threatening dynamics High Street retailers feel rippling outward from Westfield, London’s first US-style in-town shopping destination. That’s right: feeling the need to stay at parity with a fucking mall, and whatever perceptions of amenity they believe consumers associate with it, this clutch of merchants is prepared to banalize some of the most idiosyncratic and beautifully textured urban space on earth.

Mentioned prominently inMidtown’s appeal to the public is a radio-linked force of Rangers (yes, with the capital R) empowered to patrol the district. Minton, again (I told you the book was essential) documents the perceptual arms race that takes place on the street between the police and such private security units: neither wants to be seen as softer on crime than the other, so there’s a more or less continual escalation of force employed, a more or less asymptotic approach to zero tolerance. This is especially ironic and discomfiting, given how safe these particular streets happen to be; in this context, inMidtown’s claims of “improved public space” are in doubly poor taste.

In any event, despite these baleful augurs of a London becoming, the day was a stone delight from beginning to end. Our walkshops are invariably filled with brilliant people, but I have to say this general tendency may have achieved a new peak in the two UK ‘shops. Your depth of background knowledge and insight made these very special occasions for us. (If you were at either event, be sure to use the “walkshop” tag on Flickr and the #walkshop hashtag on Twitter when you post reflections, etc.)

Many thanks to Watershed Media Centre, the Digital Cultures Research Centre, Jon Dovey and the Pervasive Media Studio for your kind hospitality in Bristol. In London, we wish to thank Jo Morrison and the Innovation Centre at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. Sam Kinsley and Nick Triggs, we truly could not have accomplished either of these walkshops without your efforts, and are more grateful than these words can express.

- The Bristol trip was also an opportunity to spend some time visiting good Mike Rawlinson and his team at CityID, whose work on projects like Bristol Legible City is an inspiration to us.

I’ll only embarrass Mike if I say anything more, so I’ll confine my comments to noting that his practice is a model for Urbanscale in terms of the clarity, detail, rigor and humanity they bring to their work. It’s, in particular, hugely important for us to see proof that complex design projects for municipal clients can be shepherded all the way from conception to deployment without being dumbed down or having the quality value-engineered out of them. You may recall that our first outing alongside CityID didn’t pan out, but we sure look forward to learning more from future collaborations with them.

- Mayo is in Helsinki, working onsite with the Nordkapp folks on Urbanflow, and what with Nurri leaving the Do projects side of our shared space for a three-month residency in Korea, and Jeff Kirsch not arriving for another month yet, it’s looking to be a bit lonely hereabouts. That makes it an excellent time to swing by the studio for a visit, if you’re in town or happen to be passing through — do drop a line if you’d like to come say hi.