Sunday, 14 February 2016

Why Will Self is wrong about public open space

The writer, Will Self has decided that it is a terrible thing that open space in cities is not in public ownership. Using his familiar flowery language he bemoans this as some sort of loss:

“What people don’t understand is that it does affect you psychically. It constrains you in how you think about what you can do in a space, and it constrains your imagination. It’s like a condensing of time and money and space – it needs to be resisted.”

Self added: “The kind of ludic, playful potential of living in a city is being significantly impoverished by this kind of stuff.”

What I don't get here is why, when publicly-owned space has been the subject of interminable (and often seemingly arbitrary) rules, the campaigners have suddenly latched onto the problem with these rules only when they are set and policed by private organisations. Bradford Council, to take one example, has a 16 page booklet explaining the rules governing its parks and covering such things as the flying of kites and model aeroplanes, bathing and ball games. You'll be delighted to know that cricket balls are banned, for example, as is climbing trees and archery.

We're also familiar with 'no ball games' signs on corner patches of grass and a host of other limitations, restrictions and bans used by public authorities to control the activities of the public using that public open space. So Will Self, in saying that the rules imposed by private organisations on land they own with public access rights constrain 'what you can do in a space', is completely missing the point that public authorities have done exactly the same on land that they control. As the public we have, in effect, no more control over the rules governing a public park than we have over the rules in a private park.

The difficulty comes when the rules imposed clash with what somebody wants to do - most shopping malls, for example, ban leafleting and especially political campaign literature. And I suspect most of the mall users - the public - would probably support that, just as they would support controls on chuggers, pedlars and signature collectors (it's worth noting that, while these activities can't be banned on the public highway they are banned in Bradford Council's parks).

Self, by trying to make out that the problem he sees is a problem of the privatisation of open space, completely misses the point - especially when he rails against Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs). These orders aren't available to private organisations they have to be imposed by a public authority, most usually a local council. Now I've some sympathy with the criticism levelled at these orders as they are a lazy approach to policing space since they, in effect, give the police power to criminalise things that aren't criminal - drinking in the street, smoking, singing, shouting and selling. But these powers are not a consequence of space being private but a consequence of the popular desire for what we might call 'order' being more valued than the unpopular desire of people like Self to act freely in public spaces.

It is a huge mistake to make the debate into a private versus public contest for it is nothing of the sort. Everywhere we go, we see the conflict between different uses of public space. We see this with cyclists, dog walkers and horse riders sharing the same green lane in a country park through to the clash between the right to protest and people's right to go about their business without interference. And in between these contestants we see authorities setting rules so as to allow (at least in their eyes) the moderation of a contested open space.

All of this reflects the persistent desire of public authorities to see private activity in public spaces curtailed and controlled (if not outright banned). As Barbara Ehrenberg observed in her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, authorities, public and private, dislike gatherings of people (regardless of the reason for gathering):

Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites.

So what Self is protesting isn't a new phenomenon, just a new set of tools and excuses prepared by government to justify the controlling of open space. And what those lovers of order - trust me when I tell you that those dreadful PSPOs are popular with the wider public - fail to appreciate, which I guess is part of Self's point even though he makes it clumsily, is that 'main street' needs those gatherings.

Other consumers and retailers describe social activities on Main Street, which they associate with a variety of experiences, including dining; window shopping; strolling for relaxation; jogging for health reasons; pub crawls; wine tastings; book clubs; language clubs; craft guilds; charity events; art events; parades; demonstrations; mass celebrations following major sports victories; and meeting friends.


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