Cities need to be civilized and civil

at the Coffee House

But the English-speaking world forgot two important things about city life in the 20th century, lessons that have been painfully half re-learned: that cities should be beautiful and cities need to be civilised. The story of American urban decline in the late 20th century is especially tragic, hollowed out by architectural vandalism, community-destroying motorways, and most of all the breakdown of law and order. In contrast suburbanisation represented a retreat from public life.

London is never going to reach US levels of violence and urban decay, partly because of our gun laws and the lack of available places for a middle class to escape to, but nevertheless the fourth fatal knife murder in as many days is something the mayor might want to think about.

Knife crime is up in London 40 per cent on last year, and on top of many ruined lives it has a terrorising effect that goes beyond its victims. Mary Wakefield’s recent piece about being scared in her local park will be depressingly familiar to many Londoners; there was actually a murder in her playground a couple of years back, in front of children, something that perhaps might once have been national, front-page news. I read Mary’s article while in the Highlands, during a brief period of wi-fi availability, and for a moment I found the idea of driving half an hour to buy a pint of milk and worrying about ticks quite attractive.

Our local playground is safe, but even in my middle-class neighbourhood I’ve seen teenagers throw rocks at people in broad daylight, a woman having a knife pulled to her throat, a man beaten up by a gang for no reason. Half a mile or so from our house is a different world altogether; there have been three shootings in the past year and several stabbings within this small radius, and I’ve counted three murders so far, including one only about 200 yards from my kid’s school. This sort of things affects people in different ways, I suppose, and I’m more neurotic than most; but as the Russian proverb goes, an idiot can throw a stone down a well that 100 clever men cannot shift. It only takes a small number of bad guys to make life unpleasant for a much larger number.

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