A major part of this project is on the long history of commons and enclosure. I’ve not started working on new research yet as I’ve mainly been looking at post-enclosure spaces such as parks this autumn, but it is on the horizon for the New Year. Hookland’s appeal to the age-old customary rights inherent in common land is a reminder of the mythical and folkloric power of such spaces.
But the history of commons have an urgent connection to current concerns about access to green space, landownership and its uses.
I was honoured to be part of an event on 15 November called ‘commons’, organised by the Whitechapel Gallery and hosted by Manchester School of Art.
I was intrigued by Chris Blake’s talk on the community project he’s involved with in the Rhondda Valley, The Green Valleys Skyline project, which seeks to rekindle the idea of ‘stewardship’ of the hillside enveloping the former mining town of Treherbert. https://skyline.wales/community/treherbert
The landscape, formerly owned by the National Coal Board and now owned by various bodies including the Forestry Commission, is a constant site of work, rethinks the meaning of ‘taskscape’ in that it has been mined and forested for commercial gain, and the livelihoods of the residents, but the residents did not and do not have access or use of it. It is also near Aberfan, and thus a site of catastrophic loss. Using art, the project seeks to get the residents to think big, beyond the immediate horizon and look upwards to the possibilities of reasserting some kind of custodyship over the natural resources in a sustainable way.
Artist Ruth Beale has been working on drone footage of the London parks and commons, many of which I tried to recognise in her short film (including flying her drone over Tooting Bec Lido, which I think I remember while swimming there this summer!). http://ruthbeale.net/work/commons-drones-gifs/
She has also made art using registration archives from the Commons Registration Act of 1965, in Nottinghamshire Record Office. These are my sort of archives and I will be examining similar returns in my research. They detail the surviving common rights that people claimed to have when registering their commons and village greens in response to the legislation.
Here are my slides of my talk. I was asked to do a potted history of commons and enclosure in England. It start with a summary of one of my earlier blog posts on this site:
Campaign groups and the issue of public green space today
I’ve also been approached by several groups campaigning for the preservation of their local open spaces. This is so much more than simply nimby attitudes against building of houses on open spaces. At Manchester I met several of them. The Save Ryebank Fields have a decades-old campaign running about their local space. http://www.saveryebankfields.org
I am going to be collaborating with them to use their archive for my forthcoming exhibition at the People’s History Museum next summer.
In Sheffield, I met with people from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, and Nicola Dempsey of the University of Sheffield to discuss all the issues around green spaces and community groups in the city. I found out how save the trees campaign seems to have skewed the broader issues of the responsibilities of the council and consultation regarding open spaces.
If you know of any more similar groups campaigning for their open spaces, especially if they have their own archive material or if they would like to be interviewed or have a link on this site, do get in touch.
I’ll leave you with Hookland’s imagining of the common:
I’m currently working my way through the council bye laws of my case study towns, especially those produced in c.1890-1920 in relation to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882, section 23, ‘power of councils to make bye-laws’.
Much of the literature on public parks comments on rules and regulations as evidence of the intent of municipal authorities to control the activities and recreation of the lower classes, enforced through park wardens and the middle classes. Urban historians have similarly commented on bye-laws regulating street behaviour in a similar way. Patrick Joyce argued that park regulations and similar rules enacted a mode of ‘liberal governmentality’ on Victorian society, applying a Foucauldian model of ‘surveillance and punish’ and power to the Victorian urban streetscape. He also suggested that such spaces were heterotopic, or in simple terms, people could misbehave and not follow the rules set by the elite in those spaces.
Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (Verso, 2003)
David A Reeder, ‘The social construction of green space in London prior to the Second World War’, in Peter Clark et al, eds, European City and Green Space, pp. 48-9.
Here are some of the more amusing bye-laws I’ve quickly surveyed:
(TNA, HO 45/10915/B8975 – Croydon byelaws, 1920):
No person shall in any street or public place throw or leave any orange peel, banana skin, or other dangerous substance on any footway.
Here is the debate about which part of the street this rule should apply to:
…In the case of an ordinary carriageway, there is by no means the same danger to pedestrians of the throwing down of orange peel etc as in the case of a foot pavement, and to prohibit the placing of orange peel etc anywhere eg in the gutter, would be too stringent.
No person shall place or suspend any flag containing any advertisement relating to any trade or business, in, over, or across any street to the annoyance of residents or passengers or to the alarm of horses.
Most of the byelaws are in the vein of social control of the lower orders, but laws like the above ‘suspension of flags across streets’ is both a continuation of the older 18th century improvement act regulations against shopkeepers putting adverts for their businesses out in the street, and a prelude to the aesthetic critique of street ‘clutter’ (advertisements, telegraph poles, aerials) that came to dominate the preservationists’ campaigns against ‘subtopia’ or the encroachment of the town on the country.
There are two excellent books that chart the planning processes that shaped open green space in London in the 19th and 20th centuries:
Matti O Hannikainen, The Greening of London, 1920-2000 (Routledge, Abingdon, 2016)
Peter Clark, Jean-Luc Pinol and Richard Rodgers, eds, The European City and Green Space: London, Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg, 1850-2000 (Routledge, Abingdon, 2006)
Another related and useful book is by Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: the design and development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Most of the current literature on the history of ‘greening’ policies is London-centric, Conway’s book an earlier exception. Apart from James Greenhalgh’s work on Manchester, there is otherwise very little on municipal bodies’ policies to open space in urban areas and, especially, residents’ use of such spaces. This project will seek to fill in some of these gaps.
What was distinctive about London?
London was particularly unusual because it had so many different layers of jurisdiction – overlapping and mutable administrative geographies. So the borough councils were overlapped by the regional authorities – the LCC and then the GLC. In amongst these authorities were the City of London, and also, important with respect to parks and open space, the Crown Estate and Royal Parks. The Green Belt was a dominant theme in shaping the relations between inner and outer London authorities and the regional authorities, but as Hannikainen and Clark show in their books, the political changes and motivations that the borough and regional councils brought to decision making in response to bigger political changes in government and policy shaped all aspects of green space within the city as well as on its outskirts.
The dominance of Abercrombie and Forshaw’s County of London Plan (1943) and Greater London Plan (1944) in accounts of 20th century planning also underline the uniqueness if not the exceptionalism of the metropolis. Historians of planning and modernism tend to get somewhat caught up in the utopianism of the wartime reconstruction plans, envisaging a world that could have been had it not been for those pesky municipal authorities prioritising cost and efficiency in the provision of housing and new roads over the more idealistic elements of the plans. Notably, the aim of providing 4 acres of open green space per every 1000 inhabitants, though remaining an aspiration, was hampered by factors not fully considered in Abercrombie’s plans, notably land values, and national and local governments’ reluctance to radically interfere in existing forms of land use and ownership by private owners and developers. (Hannikainen, p. 97; Garside, ‘The failure of regionalism’, p. 106).
Hannikainen points out the exceptionalism of London compared with other cities in creating over 800 acres of public green space, which he attributes to the fact that the authorities were ‘vested with new legal powers and following a coherent town plan’ (p. 94).
Although Abercrombie also created earlier plans for Hull and Sheffield amongst other towns, it was often local planners and officials who created the plans for other towns. And also crucial was that the postwar financial, political and social demands of retrenchment and rehousing tempered and reduced the importance of providing extensive open space in these plans.
I need to compare this complex mix of administrative geographies and policies with the municipal governments of other areas in England. Was London the exception or to what extent did the story of policies on open space in English towns follow the patterns found by Hannikainen and Clark?
This is the general chronology of policy changes they chart:
As part of the ‘urban renaissance’ (as charted by Peter Borsay), squares and promenades were developed in improvement of town centres and private estates. Most of these squares were for residents only.
mid 19th century
gradual opening of royal parks to the public, though still highly regulated. Kew Gardens and the botanical and zoo gardens in Regent’s Park were opened to the public in the 1830s and the park itself, a project of the Crown Estate commissioners and intended as a private estate park, was fully opened in the 1840s. (Reader, in Clark et al, p. 31).
The cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1840s led to growing concern about industrial and smoke pollution, and the slums – Victorian sanitary movement characterised open spaces as ‘breathing spaces’ or ‘lungs’.
1833 Select Committee on Public Walks revealed the lack of access that working class people had to the countryside. Local elite concern for the potential for social disorder in overcrowded slums also fuelled the rise of the public parks movement.
St James’s park opened in the 1840s; Victoria Park 1845, and Battersea Park in 1860.
The emergence of the commons preservation movement from the 1860s onwards drew attention to the enclosure of commons and forests on London’s periphery.
1920s – 30s
Secularisation had an impact on people’s leisure time, and pressure was put on councils to allow organised games in their parks on Sundays. The trend towards more organised and commercialised outdoor entertainment also put pressure on the borough councils to provide shows in their parks, enabled by the LCC (General Powers) act of 1935. Hannikainnen argues that the introduction of electric lighting and amplifiers into park entertainments (notably in an attempt to lure people away from sitting in cinemas) ‘marked a break with the natural order of park life that was based on the amount of daylight, and outdoor entertainment began to encroach on areas traditionally limited to outdoor spaces’ (p.76). Arguably the upper and middle-class pleasure grounds of the 18th and early 19thC century had provided this with their evening shows lit by candlelight and gas, but the change in this respect concerned open public parks and the lower classes.
WWII and post-war reconstruction
Huge areas of green space were requisitioned by councils and the military during World War II. Some types of space were closed off – i.e. for military purposes – while others were effectively opened out through conversion to allotments.
The 1950s and early 1960s ‘marked the most intensive period in the provision of new public green space in London during the 20th century’ (Hannikainen, p. 113). A major force was the decision by the LCC and borough councils to privilege public interest over private property ‘as a national policy in town planning and in the actual reconstruction of London’ (Hannikainen, p. 108). Compulsory purchase orders of war damaged sites were an important part of the development of new open spaces.
Increased wealth and leisure time of the working classes drew them indoors again, while the subsequent economic decline left parks underfunded and therefore a cycle of under-maintenance and becoming no-go areas because of crime developed.
By the mid 1960s, the planners’ view of the Green Belt was less about giving Londoners open space for leisure and health and more about curtailing London’s growth (Reader in Clark, p. 39)
A major change that developed gradually from the 1960s onwards was a growing interest in the preservation of nature. Arguably this began formally with the creation of National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest from 1949, but the idea that nature should be conservation for environmental reasons rather than solely for human enjoyment only really had an impact on the preservation of open green space from the 1970s.
The economic crisis of the 1970s and the new political priorities of the Conservative government in the 1980s, together with the re-organisation of London councils in 1963-5, saw the provision of new green space become dependent on external and private funding.
De-industrialisation also impacted on what sorts of open spaces were ‘greened’, notably ‘blue space’ = the docklands, canals and rivers from the 1980s onwards.
The redevelop of the Docklands promoted three new practices in planning: (Hannikainen, p. 171):
preference of the government for public-private partnerships instead of municipal planning.
town planning focused on a single project instead of a comprehensive redevelopment, reducing the powers of the municipal authorities and participation of the public in the planning process.
reduced role for public green spaces in the plans.
Hannikainen argues strongly that the abolition of the GLC in 1986 was a turning point, not just in marking the end of co-ordinated regional planning in London, but also confirming how private amenity and business had superseded public interest in influence in planning.
Yet out of this decline of the role of central and local governments in shaping the traditional public green spaces, new priorities and opportunities arose.
New types of green space were developed in particular because of the growing awareness of ecology and nature and desire to conserve it. Importantly, it was local borough councils and voluntary associations who pushed for this new definition, while central government lagged behind in considering the purpose of public green space to be, as traditional, about recreation and leisure in the form of organised sports.
The preservation of disused Victorian cemeteries, especially Nunhead and Highgate, marked a shift in thinking about what open green space was, and could be.
From the 1980s onwards, disused riversides, canals and railway embankments came to attention of local groups for conservation and renewal in the forms of greenways, linear parks and nature reserves. The increasing popularity of nature trails, city farms and wildlife areas marked the shift to a new appreciation of conservation and definition of open green space. Hannikainen argues that this marked ‘a profound conceptual change’ in how green spaces were viewed and maintained: (p. 191):
The provision of new green space focused neither on secured unrestricted public access nor outdoor recreation, because new ecological parks in particular were created as natural habitats for wildlife and to educate children. The role of people was reduced to the appreciation of nature.
Yet at the same time, the policy of selling off of playing fields and sports grounds for development substantially decreased the public’s access to green spaces used for sport. A somewhat viscious circle of lack of funding for public parks led to their decline, exacerbated by crime and delinquency, which increased the decline in their use. Public preference for indoor leisure also meant that open green spaces and parks were declining in use, and more traditional leisure amenities such as lidos. Sports funding went to indoor sports centres (p. 202).
One aspect that comes out of their accounts is how the LCC and Crown Estate classified different types of open green space, and how much of this was based not just on size and usage types, but also location and perceptions of class.
So when the LCC was constituted in 1889, and well into the 20th century, it allocated the maintenance and funding of its green spaces according to a hierarchy of two categories of parks and open spaces, with a long list of subcategories from Parks Class I (a), Battersea Park and Victoria Park – to Open Spaces Class IV (b). The classifications were not static but nevertheless reflected status (p. 76). The distinction between Royal Parks and municipal parks and open spaces was reflected in their uses: royal parks promoted rational recreation and informal uses (i.e. walking) rather than organised sport and games (p.56).
After WWII and in the process of modifying the postwar reconstruction plans, the borough councils were critical of Abercrombie’s County of London Plan’s proposal of a standard of 4 acres of open green space per 1000 inhabitants. This hampered their main priority of providing new housing. Yet on the other hand, some councils thought of open space differently, beyond the classifications of the LCC. Hannikenen sifts through Bermondsey council minutes for example, to find that they thought that the prevailing ‘concept of open space’ presented by the LCC did not include the gardens and playgrounds attached to council housing estates. The LCC apparently refused to classify such green spaces as substitutes for ‘real’ public parks and gardens.
As James Greenhalgh’s work on grass verges and patches of lawn in postwar Manchester estates has shown, such spaces were vital for play and recreation for working class residents.
There’s more work to be done here on ‘no ball games allowed’ on such sites (I’m sure there’s some studies in sociology and childhood studies; if you know of any relating to geography and public space, do let me know).
Regional differences that I need to follow up in more detail:
Hannikainen, drawing from work done by sport historians on working-class football, states that whereas the LCC gradually accepted the dominance of amateur games being played in parks on Sundays, other major cities including Manchester and Sheffield continued to prohibit games, ‘due to the strong opposition of the church’ (p. 59).
“In contrast to the interwar period, now most new green spaces created within the city were acquired through piecemeal purchases. Only a few other cities such as Birmingham constructed new public green space during these years.
In general, research concerning the provision of new public green space in the UK is far from complete, especially for other cities.’ (p. 108)
David Reeder, in his chapter in Clark’s book, points out another particular aspect of London, the reasons why the commons preservation and open spaces movements were so influential:
“what particularly characterised the London initiatives was the way that movements were orchestrated by influential networks of politicians and philanthropic social workers, many of them based in the West End and Hampstead and in contact with members of the aristo willing to act as patrons of organisations such as the MPGA and the London Playing Fields Association.” (p.55)
He also underlines the role of well connected women in these groups – the Hill sisters, Henrietta Barnett, and Dorothy Hunter.
The class and gender elements of these movements were significant and I need to find more on whether this was similar in other towns and cities.
P. Garside and M. Hebbert, eds, British Regionalism, 1900-2000 (1989)
James Greenhalgh, Reconstructing Modernity: Space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities (Manchester University Press, 2018)
Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: the design and development of Victorian parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
I’ve been looking at Croydon council’s Parks Committee records for the early and mid 20th century, so these issues over municipal finances and control of parks is high on my research agenda at the moment. more thoughts in the next blog…
Some of the many recent articles on public space & privatisation:
I’m working on terminology and usage this week. Reading through and keyword searching the local newspapers, it is evident that ‘open space’ is by far the more common term for places that we would now call ‘public space’. I will do some more digging on when I think the terminology shifted, but this crude google books ngram shows a similar pattern:
The term public space only starts to pick up frequency/proportion of books published in the mid 1970s, and overtakes open space in the late 1990s.
The peaks in usage of open space are in 1913 and 1945.
The term ‘privatisation of public space’ only hits the bookshelves in (British) English in 1998.
The impact of Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, published 1972, is clear too:
His main point concerns the continuities between planning in the 20s/30s and the postwar periods.
Yet what struck me the most from his research – and which I need to do more of in this project – is his focus on everyday spaces.
So rather than outlining, as many planning historians do, the well-known architectural experiments of Modernism in planning and construction, he examines the ordinary indoor and outdoor spaces that shaped residents’ lives in estates like Wythenshawe or on the temporary prefab developments. He trawls through planning disputes and estate archives for local controversies over the uses of cleared bomb sites, grass verges and other ambiguous spaces (though he uses the term ‘liminal’ to describe these, which I will not).
What further jumped out at me – and here’s the benefit of looking at this topic from a long-duree perspective – are the parallels with early modern/18th century types of protest or resistance by residents against the pre-planned uses ascribed to spaces by landowners, developers and the council.
In May 1943, a few residents of the Roundwood Estate in Northenden took the campaign for ‘dig for victory’ into their own hands by digging small plots in a piece of land that divided their gardens from an ajoining industrial area. This move was unsanctioned by the council, and indeed the city surveyor condemned their actions,
that it is most undesirable that any tenant of adjoining property should be permitted to establish would become a precedent, for other people could justly claim a like privilege. this would endanger the growth of the whole belt of trees and defeat the scheme of development of the Estate.
Greenhalgh points out how the council wished to preserve not only its legal position over the land but also its ordering vision of the space as a tree-lined boundary between industrial and garden. (p. 173)
In the cold winter of 1947 Manchester city surveyor reported several occasions whereby damage had been done to trees on the council estates. It is likely that, during the fuel shortages still in place after the war, residents were taking wood for fuel. Greenhalgh derives from the evidence of Wythenshawe estate committee that such incidents were common, and
‘whilst most of these incidents were recorded as vandalism, damage was also caused by residents viewing the trees as a resource’,
a view that over-rode attitudes of the greenery beautifying the estate. Interestingly, the Corporation reported that ‘constant patrols have been organised to cover all the development areas and spinneys’, to prevent further degradations. (p. 174).
There were further debates over trespass over private gardens, and the degradation of grass verges by local residents taking short cuts that turned into what we now call desire paths, thereby again subverting the ways in which the planners intended residents to walk through and around the estates.
Briony McDonagh amongst other early modern historians have underlined the significance of subaltern forms of resistance and protest against dominant landowners’ delineation and enclosure of land. These include:
The continuities of tactics in these very different circumstances and places is intriguing – the claiming or reclaiming of land through ritual and habitual forms of work and play: digging up soil for planting, overturning (or intriguingly in the postwar case, creating) fences and hedges, trespassing by using old paths or creating new ones.
The repeated use or ritualised actions, deliberate or not deliberate, echoes the emphasis in histories of early modern and 18th century on the role of ritualised bodily actions in community justice and protest, for example in the moral economy food riots and in enclosure riots. Hence the gathering of firewood from the trees by the Wythenshawe residents has echoes of gleaning and fuel gathering (albeit not customary reclaiming rights they had felt had been taken away).
The main difference perhaps is the type of property: in the mid-20th century, the residents are enacting these forms of small resistance against the purposes ascribed to these essentially new spaces, marked out as new estates by the Corporation. As council tenants for the most part, they also occupied a different status than the tenants of the lord of the manor.
Social crime or protest?
There is an old debate in the historiography about the extent these sorts of actions constituted ‘social crime’ or popular resistance, or vandalism or juvenile delinquency. Greenhalgh stresses the role of young people in such actions, and the differing views of authority on whether or not their actions were legitimate, criminal or vandalism.
Some indicative reading:
Roger Wells, ‘Popular Protest and Social Crime: The Evidence of Criminal Gangs in Southern England, 1790—1860’, Southern History, 13 (1991)
John Rule and Roger Wells, Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England, 1740-1850 (Hambledon Press, 1997)
Bob Bushaway, ‘From Custom to Crime: Wood Gathering in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-century England’, in J. G. Rule, ed., Outside the Law: Studies in Crime and Order, 1650-1850 (Exeter, 1982)
Timothy Shakesheff, Rural Conflict, Crime, and Protest: Herefordshire, 1800 to 1860 (Boydell Press, 2003)
More recent work for example by Iain Robertson, drawing from Karl Jacoby, has described such actions as Highland crofters protecting land usages and Forest of Dean Free Miners asserting their customary rights as enacting a ‘moral ecology’.
The residents of Wythenshawe and other estates in the postwar era perhaps were not consciously or deliberately enacting a moral economy by any means: it was often, just taking a short cut or growing some veg on the side, but there is still a sense of resistance against the definitions of space and how they were planned to be used by the developers and Corporation.
I’ve recently visited three US cities: Boulder CO, Portland OR and Seattle WA. Wandering round neighbourhoods in all three, I saw similar placards in front gardens, driveways and windows. These are liberal cities, so the most common placards to see were defiant Black Lives Matter placards, and also, variations on a poster about welcoming all genders, sexualities and ethnicities, and the placard starting with ‘in our America all people are equal…’
I may come back to how the placing of these placards in front yards of people’s homes in residential neighbourhoods change the nature of public space in different ways to posters displayed on shopfronts. Hopefully there is already work being done in sociological and cultural geography studies about the identity politics of the campaign propaganda.
What I also noticed in many neighbourhoods were placards from more local campaigns around housing policy, gentrification and more specifically about the building of affordable housing. The placard above in a residential neighbourhood of Seattle was opposing the 2014 HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda):
The scholarly literature on American cities and gentrification is much more advanced than that of the UK in cultural geography, urban studies and sociology. From David Harvey onwards, there are numerous strands on the neo-liberal city, including by Setha Low and others. I’ll keep updating my bibliography on this, but if you have suggestions of useful material to read on this more specific issue of policies to address unaffordable housing with altered planning, do comment below.
But the point of view of the residents in the neighbourhoods making these protests is also clear and understandable in terms of the impact on their public space and established forms of community. It was really noticeable walking around that after going through a leafy neighbourhood with older wooden detached houses, some derelict, one would turn a corner and there would be large construction projects of apartments. And it would always be flats. So the level of greenery would be lessened; more density changes the functions and functioning of the local communities.
In such cities with a very high cost of living (and the mass homeless issue in Portland and Seattle is another separate issue), problems of housing are acute and it is interesting to compare the debates around affordability, supply, zoning and city policies with what has been going on at home, not least in Croydon where every other office block has been bought up and changed into ‘luxury’ flats following the relaxation of restrictions on change of use a few years ago, spearheaded by the then MP and housing minister Gavin Barwell.
I’m piecing these somewhat disconnected bits of my holiday with current local issues at home with my research because I’m currently reading Peter Saunders, Urban Politics: a Sociological Interpretation (Hutchinson & Co, 1979), which is a sociological case study of planning policy in late 1970s Croydon. It has a whole chapter on why and how ‘the deep south’ stockbroker belt of Purley and Sanderstead opposed building on the Green Belt on their outskirts, using the justification that they were not nimbyists, but also preserving open space for the benefit of the poorer residents of the north part of Croydon, Thornton Heath and South Norwood. Yet because in effect the great and the good of the ‘deep south’ were part of the political elite, they were able to influence council policy, and the effect of rejecting development plans in south Croydon intensified the problem of lack of housing and public space in the north of Croydon. (pp. 242, 248).
questions I will be thinking about and trying to find more literature on relating to the US comparison:
why and how do local residents’ groups oppose policies on affordable housing or the building of different forms of residence such as apartment blocks?
how do such communities view what public space is and how they use it?
why do people put placards in their front gardens? Does this change the nature of the public space around them and the street?
Do placards in front gardens make the street political? Does it work? what happens if someone with a ‘we welcome…’ placard is neighbour to someone more conservative?
how do groups like the anti-HALA campaign in Seattle operate; are they NIMBYists or how do they conceive their aims and role?
I’ve also been comparing the US Open Spaces society and their National Parks movement history with the UK equivalents, but as that’s rural and this post is urban, I’ll leave it until a future post…
For an older planning history of Portland OR, see Martha J Bianco, ‘Robert Moses and Lewis Mumford: competing paradigms of growth in Portland, Oregon’, Planning Perspectives, 16: 2 (2001)
Dr Niamh NicGhabhann has just sent me a link to her new article on the aesthetics of protest and spaces in the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland: ‘City walls, bathroom stalls and tweeting the Taoiseach: the aesthetics of protest and the campaign for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 2018:
Don Mitchell’s article revisiting his previous work about People’s Park, CA is perhaps the most strident in the issue to argue against the prevailing acceptance that privatisation has killed off urban public space. There’s a kernel of ‘mea culpa’ in his reflection on the impact of his original 1995 study of the riots in People’s Park of 1991, and other riots of that era such as in LA in 1992 (Mitchell, 1995). This study was part of a range of geographical and sociological works proclaiming the ‘end of public space’ in the 1990s.
Before this period, contemporary studies of public space had not been so pessimistic. Oscar Newman’s 1970s polemic about ‘defensible space’, though influential in architecture, stood alone in its critique of hostile architecture. Yet from the 1990s onwards, volumes of material has been produced on privatisation of public space: private policing, anti-homeless spikes and benches, Business Improvement Districts and ‘pseudopublic’ ‘malls without walls’.
At the same time, sociological studies of popular protest were identifying a shift in policing tactics, from the 1960s tactic of ‘escalation of force’ (i.e. beating protesters up) to ‘negotiated management’. Police were increasingly enabled by two frameworks governing public space: new legislation governing rights to assembly and speech, and local authorities zoning space for (peaceful) protest. In turn, they moved to negotiation with protest organisers over the form of protest: ‘Both strategies eventually reworked the relationship between public space and politics, emphasising public space as a space of control, limits and again order’ (Staeheli and Mitchell, 2008; Mitchell, 2017, 506).
Mitchell identifies the two key books that started this trend in the 1990s towards a critique of the privatisation of public space:
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles (1990)
Michael Sorkin, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space (1992)
Davis argued that private encroachment by capital into the public realm was remaking the city as a violent frontier of capital accumulation (Mitchell, 2017, 504). Sorkin posited gentrification as a process that turned urban space into Disney World style commodification.
The image [of public space before privatisation] seems to be one of open or relatively open access, of little capital control over the full functioning of the space, of light policing. Public space is primarily defined by what it is not: private space. The end of private space in the American city is its privatisation. (Mitchell, 2017, 504).
Mitchell’s focus is on the US, where much of this early literature originated. In the UK, the theoretical literature on private-public spaces has come a little later (though I need to do more research on this), and has been publicised even more recently in the press by the work of Owen Hatherley and Anna Minton, and to some extent, the Guardian’s ‘Cities’ section.
Where Mitchell disagrees with this literature now is that it assumes that the process ‘from above’ is a given. At the very point in the 1990s when it seemed that privatisation was closing down all avenues for expression, in fact the emergence of ‘new social movements’ and the ‘invention of new modes of urban sociability’ reworked the meanings and userships of public spaces. Mitchell argues that public spaces are still evolving and continue to be challenged and used in different ways.
Florian Langstraat and Rianne Van Melik have already participated in this critique of the ‘end of public space’ thesis in a 2013 article. They also challenge Sorkin’s ‘rather bleak picture of modern life … characterised by social exclusion, sanitised consumerism and restrictive security measures’ (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 429).
They group their main objections to the thesis into three points:
the dominant tendency in the literature to define ‘publicness’ in narrow terms (i.e. defined by the owners or authorities rather than by the users)
the over-emphasis on well-known primary or ‘flagship’ urban spaces
the dominance of studies on Anglo or American sites. (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 431).
Drawing from Paddison and Sharp’s study of two neighbourhoods in Glasgow (2007), they argue in particular that most public space is not located in the city centre, and is therefore not as well known, and ‘processes such as privatisation might work out differently in these ‘banal’ spaces’ (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 432).
I think perhaps they go a little too far in swinging the pendulum the other way – their argument ‘such claims [about the privatisation of public space] should only be made, if at all, for a very limited number of newly regenerated inner city areas (Langstraat and Van Melik, 2013, 432)’. The work of Minton and others on pseudo-public spaces has shown how the process is dominant in most city centres in the UK and USA, although I accept their (and Mitchell’s) challenge to examine these sites in new ways, looking at how the public uses such spaces in practice, ‘reinventing new forms of urban sociability’. But their pointing to the ‘banal’ spaces of suburbs (and by extension, rural spaces?) is promising, and something I definitely want to investigate.