who has the right to use public space? (1/n)

brockwell park

Yet again, research and writing for a chapter in my book that originally was historical and as I thought, non-controversial, has now become urgently relevant in the wake of the current crisis.

I’ve written (not finished!) a chapter on Victorian public parks, and contests over their use, particularly by political groups for meetings. I’ve got a hard drive full of photos of council parks committee minutes from various boroughs in England across the late 19th century and early 20th century.

At the time of researching, so far so historical. The relevant research was being done by Dan Hancox on the commercialisation of parks and their temporary closing off for big concerts and other ticketed events, where councils make a little money to the expense of local residents not able to enter their parks for a few weekends a year. Enclosure by privatisation is easy to recognise. (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jul/05/revealed-how-london-parks-are-partly-privatised-festivals-wireless-finsbury-park)

But now we have the threat that all public open spaces will be closed, just as the weather warms up, with the lock-down. Morally it’s a trickier issue. Of course, this may be the measure we need to prevent the spread of the virus and to enforce social distancing. Stay at home if you have a garden folks. But it has raised huge debate about the lack of access to public space among urban residents living in small flats with (as is increasingly common) not even a Juliet balcony to get any fresh air at all. The balancing of public health between preventing the spread and maintaining people’s physical and mental health by allowing them to exercise outside is very difficult to work out.

The issue has centred around Lambeth Council’s decision to close Brockwell Park.

Brixton Buzz

It often seems to be the south London parks and Lambeth council that are the lightning conductors for these issues. Perhaps because of the highly urbanised nature of south London, and its gentrification southwards.

Will Jennings and others on Twitter raise the issue of what is a park and what is a common in these areas:

The south London commons are in somewhat an unusual position in that they are technically still urban commons, but because their ownership and management passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works in the later 19th Century (and then subsequently to the LCC and then to their respective borough councils), they are regulated more as public parks.

Lambeth Council byelaws: https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/lsp-parks-open-spaces-byelaws.pdf

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LCC map of parks 1924
London County Council map of parks and recreation grounds, 1924

Survey of London history: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture/sites/bartlett/files/49.5._parks_and_open_spaces_chapter.pdf

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Parks, recreation grounds and other council-controlled public spaces have always been heavily regulated with regulations and bye-laws. That was part of the point of parks – they were former commons and open spaces that have been enclosed and regulated both legally by regulations and physically by railings and gates that are usually closed at night, and by park wardens monitoring public behaviour. Urban commons (which differ from rural commons) were often the product of the commons preservation societies’ campaigns from the 1860s onwards. Many were regulated by as many byelaws as parks. Access to open space in urban areas in the late 19th century was always about social control, of improving the morals and ‘civilising’ the behaviour of the population, particularly the working classes and poor who lived in overcrowded urban streets who needed the ‘lungs’ of the park as a respite from their polluted working lives.

update from a discussion on Twitter on whether London councils have the right to close commons:

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Jonathan Healey jokingly raised the issue of restrictions on behaviour in public spaces made by clergy and local authorities in the early modern period:

This moral regulation continued well up to the 20th century. With the new public parks in the later 19th century, Sabbatarians and other religious were keen to prevent the population using them on Sundays, when they should be in church. Organised games (football, cricket) and music (e.g. brass bands on the bandstand) were banned in many public parks until well into the first decades of the 20th century. Debates raged in council parks committees and in the local newspapers about whether leisure activities should be allowed on Sundays, and only gradually were concessions made, for example allowing band concerts after 2pm, but then only playing classical music with no dance tunes allowed.

musical world 1870 Sunday League on music in parks
Musical World, 23 April 1870, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VJMPAAAAYAAJ&dq=public%20park%20prohibit%20%20Sundays%20music&pg=PA287#v=onepage&q&f=false
LCC pamphlet 1924
LCC pamphlet, 1924, Lambeth Archives
council restrictions on games 1922
LCC guide to public parks, 1924

field and court games should be allowed on Sundays from 1pm in winter and 2pm in summer at such parks and open spaces as might be prescribed.

LCC guide to public parks, 1924

There were no restrictions on access to public parks during the cholera pandemics, not least because it was still believed that disease spread in the air, so access to fresh air was seen as essential. The Boards of Health were more concerned with patrolling and inspecting other sites where particularly the poor and vagrants congregated or were confined – they set up inspections of lodging houses and backstreet pubs for example.

The restriction on use of public parks and commons for political meetings is another story I’ve related elsewhere and which will be the main focus of my chapter on ‘Railings’, and its most obvious expression was during the Hyde Park riots of 1866 when the crowd tore up the railings in protest at their exclusion.

A later debate about access to parks and commons was during both world wars. Some (though not as many as perceived) of the Victorian railings had been removed for the metal salvage effort during WWII, and much debate in the council parks’ committee minutes concerned whether there should be extra wardens employed to police the parks now that access was easier. Even for parks that retained their railings, some had to be left open at night because air raid shelters were constructed within them. This led to a large rise in juvenile delinquency and petty vandalism to for example the toilets or cricket pavilions recorded by the parks committees, and there was pressure on them to restrict or police them using the air raid wardens to prevent further criminal damage.

The town planning schemes and idealistic or indeed simply pragmatic reconstruction plans after both wars sought to maximise access to open green space for all residents (see my previous blog), although in already congested urban centres this was often done aiming at an average acreage per 1000 population rather than trying to make sure every residence was within easy reach of an open space. The space syntax of this accessibility is something I need to do more research on. With the selling off of playing fields, the renewed densification of urban centres as family houses have been split up into several flats, with front gardens turned into driveways and back gardens also sold off or only accessible to the ground floor flat, and especially with all the office block conversions allowed by the easing of planning regulations for permitted use, and new build flats only having those useless julienne balconies, the main issue debated today is that yet again, many people, including young professionals as well as people in lower income bands, have no access to any open space apart from their local parks.

Further reading:

Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Playing fields and recreation grounds

I went on my government mandated local exercise once a day to my local open space, which is some council owned playing fields. The ubiquity of this sort of open space – slightly scrubby grass fields, no fences or barriers apart from a raised mound around the perimeter to stop vehicles, no planting apart from a line of trees along the edge of the path.

https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/514761
https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/514761 © Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Photo from c.1978

In debate about the current imposition of restrictions on parks and city commons – here I’m thinking of the hundreds of flat-dwelling residents no longer able to descend on Victoria Park in Hackney or another city park – the focus has been on definable green spaces that can be closed off, notably parks with railings. But for many of the population, their nearest open green space is not a landscaped park or a National Park, but a playing field or a recreation ground – less definable, less manicured, less uniform, and more open.

Hackney Citizen article

As we know, the Victorians became obsessed with public parks as a form of improvement and to some extent social control as well as preservation of open space against intense urban density. Railings is a major theme of my new book’s chapters covering this period, symbolised by the crowd pulling up the railings of Hyde Park during the popular agitation of the 2nd Reform Bill in 1866.

In the early 20th century, by contrast, the main theme is of open space without railings. Though the parks movement was still lobbying councils for more formal parks, new types of recreation spaces developed. We see a shift from the Victorian railed park with gates closed at night, to open playing fields and recreation grounds, to inner city children’s playgrounds. Once large estate building and slum clearance went underway, there was a proliferation of even less defined open grassy spaces such as the small areas in between tower blocks and houses.

The push for more open space in the driven first by pressure and lobbying by the National Playing Fields Association, founded 1925, who became a powerful body in influencing planning decisions.

https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/1103a6c216e8435da670cfa0ec8d2d50

The move to ‘un-urbanising’ inner cities was further enabled by bombed out sites providing more opportunity (though inner city blitzed areas more often rebuilt upon or converted to car parks, outdoor and multi-storey) and by the optimism and vision of postwar reconstruction plans.

The NPFA proposed standard of 6 acres per 1000 people became a mantra and main target for councils developing town and city plans, and postwar reconstruction. It was technocratic as well as about caring about access to open space.

In some areas and among some associations and planners, the open space standard became a matter of civic pride to increase the proportion of acres per population.

New towns such as Stevenage could boast of planning for well over the acreage standard. Inner cities and industrial boroughs had more trouble, and had to either patch together small spaces which were never enough or extend commons on their outskirts. It would be useful to do a space syntax analysis of the inequalities of access to open space in and between inner cities, suburbia, London vs other cities, rural villages surrounded by privately owned land e.g farms and forest.

The selling off of playing fields from the 1980s onwards, coupled with the decline of large company’s social facilities for their workers which often included playing fields, and further urbanisation and suburbanisation, meant a decline in the ideal of the space standard.

Further reading:

Mike Huggins and Jack Williams, Sport and the English, 1918-1939: Between the Wars (Routledge 2006)

John Allan Patmore , Land and Leisure in England & Wales (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970)

public health and public space

corona virus regulations

The closing down of public space means something completely different now that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Little did I anticipate even 6 weeks ago, never mind when I started the research and writing of this project on the history of public space, that I would experience the strictest restrictions on access to public space in my lifetime, and indeed in the lifetimes of most people since the end of the war.

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1243471335700992000.html

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1244656601799237632.html

These analyses by legal scholars Raphael Hogarth and Julian Norman of the quickly pushed through legislation illustrate a major theme of the history of public space and the law: the ambiguity inherent in defining public space. They also point to the further ambiguity of who forms the public in public space (and private space vice-versa), and subsequently the variegated application of the regulations on the ground by the police, who exercise discretion and interpretation. As Iain Channing’s work on the Public Order acts against gatherings and trespass has shown, usually it is police powers of discretion that shape how the legislation is enacted and experienced by those it affects.

The question of ‘reasonableness’ in how the public health regulations are implemented also raises the ‘Wednesbury reasonableness’ principle in law and how it is applied by public bodies using discretion:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4506978?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Associated_Provincial_Picture_Houses_Ltd_v_Wednesbury_Corp

The restrictions on freedom of movement for the sake of public health are of course entirely necessary, but the unprecedented severity highlights the complacency we have perhaps shared over the last few decades over how we assume what is public space, and our rights of access. The confusion raised by the pre-lockdown encouragement to go to National Trust sites and other open landscapes, only to be clamped down on when this did not prevent social distancing and large gatherings, with a rush to enjoy the spring weather in anticipation of the lockdown, is also something I’d like to explore more in retrospect.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-52055201

derby peak district news

https://www.grough.co.uk/magazine/2020/03/26/edale-rescuers-dismayed-at-number-travelling-to-area-to-walk-during-covid-19-outbreak

There’s also an issue about whether the emergency legislation is also being stretched by landowners and farmers to block legitimate rights of way:

tweet by @ianphilips2454

I’m not going to do more comparisons yet, as we’re still in the middle of an evolving situation, but needless to say the current lockdown is bringing into sharp relief the spaces we regard as public and the nature of public gatherings in everyday life as well as at festive occasions. It highlights the types of behaviour and practices we enact in them. It also vividly brings to bear and arguably exacerbates the deep class, gender and ethnic inequalities in access to both public and private space, and their policing, that will need further investigation.

definitions of public space

parliament and embankment

I’m starting to compile as many definitions of public space as I can from here.

2011

First, the definition from the London Assembly’s 2011’s report, ‘Public life in private hands Managing London’s public space’, which started to acknowledge the massive shift to privately-owned public spaces in the capital.

appendix 1 definition of public space 'all spaces including streets, squares and parks that everyone can use and access in principle, regardless of who owns or manages the space'

‘all spaces including streets, squares and parks that everyone can use and access in principle, regardless of who owns or manages the space’.

2004

The 2011 report also quoted the 2004 government report, Living Places: Caring for Quality, https://www.futurecommunities.net/files/images/ving_Places_Caring_for_Quality_Report__ODPM_.pdf, which defines ‘public realm’ as

‘all those parts of the built environment where the public has free access. It encompasses: all streets, squares and other rights of way, whether predominantly in residential, commercial or community/civic uses; the open spaces and parks; and the ‘public/private’ spaces where public access is unrestricted (at least during daylight hours). It includes the interfaces with key internal and private spaces to which the public normally has free access’.

1990

The 2011 report notes ‘this is different from the legal definition in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990’ (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/section/336)

“open space” means any land laid out as a public garden, or used for the purposes of public recreation, or land which is a disused burial ground’

and the more traditional planning definition of Public Open Space.

It also notes the additional category of ‘public green space’, including urban parks and gardens, country parks and canal and riverbanks.

2014

See also the 2014 government guidance about the definitions of Open Green Space in replation to planning and sport: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/open-space-sports-and-recreation-facilities-public-rights-of-way-and-local-green-space

open space definition 2014
green space definition 2014
green space definition 2014

new commentaries on the decline of public space

Kennington Common

There seems to be a glut of commentary on the decline or privatisation of public space at the moment.

In particular, there’s been lots of publicity around geographer Andrew Smith’s research on councils hiring out their parks for events:

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:

also the issue of the Ministry of Defence attempting to deregister commons near their land:

This may be a key line of historical research for our @ruralmodernism network – land requisitioned by the MoD during the two world wars and then the battles of local people to claim it back.

 

I’m also looking forward to reading Guy Shrubsole’s new book: https://twitter.com/guyshrubsole/status/1034382231777755136

Twitter accounts:

@DemolitionWatchLdn

@openspacessoc

 

 

Please let me know if you know of any good recent articles or twitter accounts.

 

public space or open space

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:

 

continuities of ‘social crime’ protest about land use

James Greenhalgh’s book, Reconstructing Modernity: space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities (Manchester UP, 2017) is a thought-provoking account of the development of postwar planning, especially in Manchester and Hull.

His main point concerns the continuities between planning in the 20s/30s and the postwar periods.

Negative No: 1968-0867 - Negatives Book Entry: 18-04-1968_Estates_Wythenshawe-Airport Etc_Various Sites
Manchester Archives Plus, Negative No: 1968-0867 – Negatives Book Entry: 18-04-1968_Estates_Wythenshawe-Airport Etc_Various Sites, Town Hall Photographer’s Collection – GB127.M850

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).

Tactics

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.

Desire path (19811581366)
a desire path
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:

  • mass ploughing of fields,
  • trespassing along short cuts or stopped-up paths,
  • releasing of animals for pasture.

Briony McDonagh, ‘Making and Breaking Property: Negotiating Enclosure and Common Rights in Sixteenth-Century England’, History Workshop Journal, Volume 76, Issue 1, October 2013, Pages 32–56.

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.

OS_PLAN_1-1250_SJ7989NE_1959 - OS Plan 1:1250-Part of GB127.M850 Manchester Town Hall Photographer's Collection
Manchester Archives Plus, OS_PLAN_1-1250_SJ7989NE_1959 – OS Plan 1:1250-Part of GB127.M850 Manchester Town Hall Photographer’s Collection

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.