reflections on public space under lockdown

stone in Kennington Park

It’s now been 6 months since my last day commuting from work, and nearly 6 months since the start of a lockdown of some form or another in England.

Here are some brief reflections on what lockdown has highlighted about public space.

Table of Contents

    Parks and open spaces

    The first few weeks of lockdown were characterised by confusion – how does the virus spread? does it stay on surfaces and for how long? Is being outdoors more dangerous than indoors?

    In those early weeks the focus was on spread through touching surfaces. So we saw odd scenes like every potential spot that could be construed as a seat being taped off. These images of the stones in Kennington Park, which I know well, taken by Will Jennings, are perhaps the most representative of this sense of panic of the unknown:

    https://twitter.com/willjennings80/status/1249704394305699841

    At the same time, government guidance delineated what activities were and were not permitted in public parks and other open spaces. So while exercise, including yoga, was allowed, sitting and sunbathing was not. So we had the unnerving sight in some areas of police patrolling through parks and telling sunbathers off. However seemingly random previous parks’ byelaws had been in the Victorian era (everyone seems to cite the ‘no beating carpets and rugs’ byelaw), this rule really felt like an inversion of all normal order, a world-turned-upside down.

    Several well known parks in heavily populated areas, notably Brockwell Park in south London, closed in the first week of April, as temperatures rose unseasonably. The Easter and May bank holidays similarly caused problems.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52183137

    bbc article of sunbathers
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52183137
    glasgow sunbathers
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-52566328

    Driving to outdoor spaces was also initially prohibited by government guidance, the ban not lifted until mid May. The National Trust closed its carparks and properties to prevent people accessing its outdoor spaces. Another of the now notorious images of the early lockdown period were of Derbyshire police using drones to spot people who had ignored the guidance to go walking out in the countryside.

    https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/police-criticised-filming-peak-district-3992542
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-52055201

    The other notorious image, which has quickly become a twitter meme, is this one of a police megaphone shouting at a woman walking:

    woman walking police car

    By June, the impact of devolution began to surface, with each devolved government setting its own parameters for restrictions and quarantines, which is still creating inconsistencies and public confusion currently (September).

    Throughout this period, the issue of public rights of way and access to the countryside have been heightened, not least by informal and unofficial closures of ROW and signs made by farmers and landowners wishing to protect their livestock and workers.

    This produced a whole genre of covid signs, such as this one spotted by Dr Claire Hickman:

    peak district sign
    https://www.thestar.co.uk/health/coronavirus/unauthorised-signs-announce-closures-peak-district-paths-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-2524954

    The Viral Archive on Twitter has been collecting similar signs and writing/markings on urban open spaces:

    See also Miles King and Guy Shrubsole’s highlighting of illegal ROW closures:

    https://twitter.com/MilesKing10/status/1248169473317756931

    See Miles’s blog posts at the time about ‘performing lockdown’ in open spaces:

    Once lockdown eased, it also became evident that people were using public open spaces in different ways. Or at least because people were ‘staycationing’ instead of going abroad, they were using their local parks and beauty spots at different times than usual and thus noticing alternative uses by people they would not normally come into contact with:

    burgess park sex acts
    https://www.southwarknews.co.uk/news/burgess-park-is-now-a-hotspot-for-public-sexual-activity-even-in-broad-daylight/

    Raves returned to the countryside as young people felt frustrated not to be able to socialise in clubs:

    raves June 2020
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/15/summer-of-illegal-raves-expected-in-england-despite-coronavirus-crisis

    social and economic inequalities

    It very soon became evident that lockdown restrictions highlighted and indeed exacerbated the spatial inequalities of race and class in Britain. Lack of access to private gardens and to public parks was most acute in the most deprived urban areas. The debates over whether public parks should be closed hinged on the issue of how gentrification of parts of London meant that working people, especially of colour, were predominantly those suffering lack of access to open space. And with links being quickly made between pollution and covid deaths, most severely affecting deprived areas, this connection was underlined even further.

    pollution
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/19/covid-19-impact-on-ethnic-minorities-linked-to-housing-and-air-pollution

    urban spaces

    As lockdown lifted, and the government encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, the urban street space changed rapidly and pretty dramatically. Local councils enabled temporary pedestrianisation and street licences allowing cafes and restaurants to have outdoor seating on previously busy roads. In the continued hot summer, there was a brief vision of the ‘continental cafe culture’ that has always been an aim of successive regeneration schemes but never achieved on this scale in practice.

    But it came with problems, with concerns about the West End of London being so packed that social distancing was impossible on ‘Super Saturday’ in early July after the pubs reopened:

    super saturday soho
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-53297033

    The implementation of social distancing measures also saw the morphology of streets change in densely populated areas, most physically with the replacing of car lanes with pedestrian routes and cycle paths on some large roads.

    tfl borough high street
    https://tfl.gov.uk/travel-information/improvements-and-projects/streetspace-for-london

    Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, a key demand of the ‘living streets’ movement were also temporarily trialled in some London boroughs.

    low traffic neighbourhoods
    https://www.mylondon.news/news/zone-1-news/what-exactly-low-traffic-neighbourhoods-18681131

    Legislation

    The Open Spaces Society provide a useful summary of the various changes made to both legislation and government guidance related to use of open spaces:

    OSS guidance
    https://www.oss.org.uk/covid-19-update/

    The right of public assembly

    Legal scholars have pointed out the barrage of emergency legislation that has been passed without full parliamentary scrutiny over lockdown, and that much involves restrictions on public gatherings. The increasing vagaries and contradictions inherent involve, as much legislation about gatherings has historically, a series of numbers – 1 household, 1 ‘bubble’, 30 people, now the ‘rule of 6’.

    See the multiple and very informative posts of Adam Wagner @AdamWagner1 :

    As Black Lives Matter and later X-tinction Rebellion protests tried to navigate the restrictions and assert their right to protest, and more illegally as large groups held raves in the countryside, inevitable parallels were made with the passing of the Public Order Acts in 1986 and 1994:

    rave legislation
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53877683

    Wagner also points out the ambiguities inherent in the legislation’s use of the word ‘mingling’, the first occurrence of such a term in English & Welsh legislation:

    Some legal scholars argue that the government’s ambiguity between regulations, legislation and guidance has exacerbated the situation. See for example Tom Hickman’s paper, ‘The Use and Misuse of Guidance during the UK’s Coronavirus Lockdown’: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3686857

    [to finish]

    Alternative Guide to London Boroughs

    The Open House London organisation invited Owen Hatherley to produce a guide to all 33 London boroughs. It’s available here: https://shop.openhouselondon.org.uk/products/pre-order-open-house-london-guide-2020

    Given that most of the Open House activities can’t take place in person this year (weekend of 19-20 September 2020), this alternative guide provides a brilliant variety of approaches, insights and takes on what it’s really like to live in the material space and architecture of London.

    open house cover
    Open House London cover of the Alternative Guide

    I was honoured to be asked to write the Croydon entry, with a focus on public space.

    It is my first published writing on the borough, and stems from some of the research I’ve been doing for the project that this website is showcasing.

    contents page
    contents page. Look at that range and variety of authors.

    I conclude that the 1950s and 60s redevelopment of Croydon in favour of office accommodation and roads severely diminished the availability or amenity of central open public or civic space in the town centre, a problem that has not been fully remedied by pedestrianisation.

    I also point out the current fashion among the big developers redeveloping Croydon again for calling the open spaces between the new massive towers as ‘town squares’. Squares are back, but they are privately owned and controlled, and I doubt will form a communal space for either residents or the general public.

    london square
    ruskin square
    saffron square
    lansdowne road

    But I also praise the range and extent of green spaces in and around Croydon, and hope they are retained in the face of current rezoning and redesignation of land use under the various plans.

    purley way playing fields
    Purley Way playing fields, July 2020, under lockdown

    I love Open House London. It’s genuinely one of the highlights of the year, marking the end of summer and the start of the new academic year. A final mosey round new places and familiar sites, often in an Indian summer in the last rays of warm sun before it goes cold and dark for the rest of the year.

    I’ve seen some great buildings (notably the Isokon and Pullman Court art deco buildings in Belsize Park and Streatham respectively), been shown round wonderful housing schemes by local residents (Cressingham Gardens, Golden Lane, also the Walter Segal self-builds in Lewisham) and got into the most delightful spaces on my doorstep (St Bernard’s estate in Park Hill, Croydon).

    There are virtual tours and some activities going ahead 19-20 September, and I very much hope everything returns bigger and better next year.

    Cropper Street/Osborne Street (3)

    I’ve written much about the radical history of Cropper Street, Collyhurst.

    PHM exhibition
    part of my exhibition at the People’s History Museum in 2019. The panels are now at Manchester Communication Academy.

    The BBC 2 documentary Manctopia, is a detailed investigation into property development in Manchester.

    Episode 2, shown 25 August 2020, features an interview with a resident of Osborne Street, which Cropper Street became, who is facing eviction and a compulsory purchase order for redevelopment as part of the Northern Gateway scheme.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000lwn5

    cropper street programme

    I wish I’d known they were making this documentary before. I would love to give the local residents more information about the long history of their street.

    There is something special about such an unremarkable place, and I wasn’t that surprised that it was the very street that is set for redevelopment, that features in the documentary, and such a strong character like Anne who moved here after the slum clearances of the 60s. She says stridently in the programme: ‘This is a 70s housing estate and I don’t think they’re bad housing.’

    A must watch programme for seeing the tensions created by property speculation, ownership and ideas of place. There’s lots of discussion of the word ‘gentrification’, notably by the Collyhurst residents, and by the people running a homeless charity on Dantzig Street, Angel Meadow, who are acutely aware of the long history of their area, citing Engels’ role in observing the area in the 1840s. And there is discussion of incomers and outcomers, based not on ethnicity or anything prejudiced, but in terms of wealth and class.

    squares

    cleaver square 2018

    some recorded thoughts inspired by Aya Sakai, ‘Reassessing London Squares; the development of preservation policy, 1880-1931’, Town Planning Review, 82: 6 (2011).

    podcast 8, squares

    See also: H. Lawrence, ‘The greening of the squares of London: transformation of urban landscapes and ideals’, Annals of the Association of American Geography, 83 (1993), 90-118; H. L. Malchow, ‘Public Gardens and Social Action in Late Victorian London’, Victorian Studies, 29 (1985), 97-124.

    more on nuisance and annoyance

    Further reading: (h/t to Chris Williams)

    Urban Governance: Britain and Beyond Since 1750, ed. by Robert J. Morris, Richard H. Trainor (Ashgate, 2000)

    Michael Winstanley, ‘Oldham Radicalism and the Origins of Popular Liberalism, 1830-52’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 619-64

    revisions to the emergency powers act on public gatherings

    coronavirus regs

    Feed by the human rights barrister Adam Wagner :

    Link to the legislation changes here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/684/pdfs/uksi_20200684_en.pdf

    coronavirus regs
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/684/pdfs/uksi_20200684_en.pdf

    tweets about the felling of the statue of Colston in Bristol

    further reading:

    Bristol Radical History group: https://www.brh.org.uk/site/

    Iwan Sudradjat, ‘Foucault, the Other Spaces, and Human Behaviour’, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/82579543.pdf

    Angharad E. Beckett, Paul Bagguley & Tom Campbell, ‘Foucault, social movements and heterotopic horizons: rupturing the order of things’, Social Movement Studies, 16 (2017), http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/101839/3/Heterotopia%20Article%20Beckett%20et%20al%20Final%20Edited.pdf

    Zine conversation about parks & protest

    no ball games

    Horrid Covid! online zine invited me to do a conversation with the curator, Helen Kaplinsky, for their issue 4, ‘Parks’. Listen to 30 mins of us talking about parks, privatisation, public space and protest.

    We cover discussion of the origins of parks and ’emparkment’, access to public space, pandemics and legislation, and the development of protest from the local to the global.

    Listen now:

    https://hc4thepark.hotglue.me/?Scroll

    https://hc4thepark.hotglue.me/?Scroll

    early municipal housing in Croydon

    map croydon housing

    further reading:

    John Broughton, Municipal Dreams

    #heritageofprotest

    There have been some great contributions to the #heritageofprotest tag on Twitter this week. Here’s Dave Steele on the protest sites of Birmingham. I like the materiality of the site being carved out of the sandstone.