As London builds tall, we urgently need to rethink the rules governing 'public space'

Eleanor Jolliffe

If they are putting us in flats, developers and politicians need to be realistic about our need to be ourselves outside

The sun began to appear above our overcast isle recently and the annual transformation of our cities and gardens is taking place. Barren, slightly damp patches of grass suddenly sprout new life in the form of picnics, children playing ball games and lone readers. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the capital where almost every blade of grass seemed to grow its own Londoner over the course of a few sunny hours. 

London is the greenest city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. Its collection of public spaces is superb. There are the political – Parliament Square where you can sit watched by the great and the good immortalised in stone – the “wild” – Hampstead Heath where you can experience the tamed wilds of the English countryside without actually having to deal with the countryside – and the iconic – Hyde Park, need I say more? Alongside these notable spaces are the hundreds of small squares, pocket parks and landscaped leftover spaces that constitute the rich fabric of public realm that wraps around the capital’s homes, shops and offices. 

We refer to it as public realm but of course most of it isn’t. A great deal of our “public” space is privately owned and managed, often watched over by a man in a suit who may ask you - usually politely if you’re wearing chinos rather than tracksuit bottoms - to cease and desist your picnic, to dispose of your alcohol or not to sit just there.  

Some of these spaces have more draconian codes of conduct that others. Sarah Gaventa has written of the construction workers eating their lunch who were asked to leave because “the dirt from their overalls might transfer to the bench and then on to the suit of another user”. As Gaventa says, most people have their own story of similar overzealous policing.  

You could argue we shouldn’t complain. Often these privately owned spaces are in wonderful locations and access to the land is a great public asset. On the other hand these rules often make the spaces sterile – driving out the slightly disruptive or different, the very things that add character and life to a space. 

But what I am worried about is the impact this may have on our way of life in a London undergoing increasing densification.

Let me explain. The other weekend in a precious few hours of sun a group of my friends and I gathered in the back garden of someone’s rented house to cremate some sausages on a rusty barbecue with a few beers. It would only have been more British had it started to rain. But the point is, most parks wouldn’t let us do this and I am pretty sure that if I dragged a barbecue on to the square in front of the mayor’s office I would have been moved on before I had failed at my first attempt to light it.  

Does this matter? Private landowners should surely be able to set some conditions in return for access to their land? But the densification of London’s housing stock means access to outside space will increasingly be access to a balcony or to a tastefully bland communal garden – with rules. Few balconies can host a dozen friends with a barbecue and beers. 

I don’t believe developers are inherently evil, or that communal gardens or privately owned public spaces are inherently wrong. But their rules often make spaces too clean, too tidy and too orderly. Many of these places are tidy to the point of being barren and unusable. If Londoners’ access to gardens is increasingly through access to public or semi-public spaces then the same level of thought and design that has gone into the space must be given to its access regulations and management. All of London’s green space is only as useful as it is habitable. 

I know I prefer that my “public” space is as open to me as it is to the Rastafarian homeless man down the road, as it is to the mayor of London himself. In the future, if I ever manage to move out of my rented room I hope that the communal garden is at least half as covered in children, paddling pools and barbecues as the family gardens in the village I grew up in – even if the children are irritatingly loud and there is a risk of a man in a suit getting splashed.

 

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