In the southeast at least, fading summer departs with grace cut across by wet and windy bluster. Autumn beckons. But the sun shone last week, and in that lingering warmth I found myself in Vauxhall Gardens, site of the original Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens between around 1650 – 1850.
The historical gardens offered pleasures more extensive than those available today, but the past few years have seen the Gardens reclaim one aspect of their former glory: people are using them again, as a through route, as a place to linger. Within the Gardens is Vauxhall City Farm, a stalwart which, if memory serves, dates from the early 1980s. But this is simply background to my actual subject: Deckchairs.
This short post offers a variation on the theme of the previous posting, ‘Seats of choice‘. Pictures will make my point as well as, perhaps better than, words. But a few words can be permitted.
Vauxhall One – the name of the local Business Improvement District – has funded free deckchairs (and therefore the staff required to put them out and take them in) for the use of anybody caring to enjoy warm weather. Great for workers on a lunchtime break, great for local people. (There is a limitation here, which is a shame, funding does not extend to cover weekend use. But this is not public money.)
One of the benefits, so central to enhancing people’s perception of shared social space, is that deckchairs contribute to populating and animating the public realm: other people’s presence contribute to people’s sense of safety; and a little people watching.
And what they also do – as with the individual, movable, free-for-use chairs in Paris parks – is to loosen up space, introducing a note of higgledy- piggledy into the public realm. They settle where their temporary mistresses and masters desire, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.
Evoking and symbolising the very ideas of relaxation and ease because, well, because that’s what deckchairs do, that’s what they mean: relax, chill. Don’t even try, don’t even try to look cool or sophisticated. You’re in a deckchair, cool and sophisticated just doesn’t work .
Underlying all this, though, is a point that needs to be put more seriously. Whether individual moveable seats in parks, or deckchairs, or loose parts for play in shared public open space, all require a degree of staff presence. Call them maintenance staff, call them park keepers, call them what you will, but for the public realm to flourish, to engage with those that would use and enjoy it, care and tending is required. And only people can do that. (Note, that the deckchairs in Vauxhall are not available for use to the substantial residential population at weekends.) In budget terms it’s called ‘revenue spending’; or, even more boldly: public revenue spending. But revenue spending is what we do not have. And it shows, certainly outside the magic circle of parks and open spaces thought of as ‘destination’ places.
It may be, of course, that we do not much care after all.