The limitations of compensatory provision

It’s that time of year.   More precisely, time of years.  That period which feels, for me at least, set apart from the year we have left;  but also semi-detached from the one we now notionally inhabit.  I have yet to press the ‘Go’ button for full throttle into 2014.

And in such circumstances, the mind idles.  Mine idles thus:

Working for a moment on the assumption there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, imagine then a world replete with adventure playgrounds, walking buses (I confess I find it hard to include the walking bus as a good thing; it seems to me a thoroughly bad initiative.  However, I’m bound to mention it in the interests of feigned neutrality),  play streets, pop-up playgrounds, playworkers a-swarm in parks and open spaces,  after-school clubs,  privatised ‘public’ shopping malls and whatever other forms of bounded, supervised space or service you may care to include.

The logic, and almost certainly the practical aim, of each of these institutional forms is to create the conditions whereby they can replicate themselves.  And each form will have sound reasons for so doing.  Indeed, viewed simply in themselves, each may bring benefit and pleasure to those that avail themselves of the services provided.  And in this narrow sense, no harm done. Indeed, good may be generated.

But a world replete with the range of services listed would not in fact be a good world, a world to welcome.  It could be a dystopia, a bounded, constrained, supervised world with power and influence located firmly with the service provider, no matter how benignly that power might be exercised.  It would be a world, implicitly and explicitly, predicated on the need to gain permission.   Permission to enter, permission to use.  And wherever permission is required, ‘conditions apply’.   No matter how dressed up, those conditions are ultimately determined by the service provider.  More than that, this supervised, surveilled world requires, almost by definition, regulation and the ministering oversight of shoals of professionals and specialists deploying their various expertises.

What is potentially squeezed out here is ‘space’ – physical and temporal – in which to wander, to be free, unbothered by a supervisory  ‘other’.   The danger is that the initiatives, and the institutional forms they take, can too easily be seen – not necessarily by the institutions themselves – as being adequate replacement for the type of freedoms that can be enjoyed only in a wider, shared,  informal public  realm.

The provisions identified above are to a large extent  ‘compensatory’ in that they seek to counter a loss in the more general environment: for example, to make up for a perceived deficit in play opportunities; or to ameliorate the perceived difficulty of walking to school as the result of traffic.

But we need to  be clear about what the concept of compensation entails.  Once a loss is experienced, the compensation  available is not in general the restoration of that which had been lost or withdrawn.   Lose a limb in an accident, and you receives monetary compensation, not your original limb.  Limit and constrain the availability and use of a shared public realm, and what you may be in danger of receiving  in compensation are provisions; provisions radically different and divorced from the nature of your original loss.

Ken Worpole, in his ‘Here comes the sun: architecture and public space in twentieth century culture’ neatly and eloquently summarises what I am trying to get at, what I fear we may be losing sight of:

‘When outdoors nothing stands between us and the world…When we meet other people in this outdoor world, we are more likely to meet them as free agents and autonomous individuals than we do in the graded and contractual world of institutional or commercial life…The park and the street give us our freedom, and the buildings, too frequently, take it away’.

That niggling feeling

So what bothers me?  I’ve not suggested – subject to the caveats above – that the various forms of provision identified are bad or unwelcome in themselves. To the contrary, there are strong arguments in favour of them, viewed, as it were, tactically.  But, as indicated, services and institutions tend to want to replicate themselves, and to do this they must plough their individual furrows; seek and maintain funding and so forth – massive tasks in themselves.   From a purely practical perspective, sustaining, growing and running provision is a job in itself.

The danger is that where the focus is on providing provision, a gap is created whereby insufficient attention is given to the more complex, nebulous, long-term  aim of countering the diminution of our – adult, child, teenager –  ‘free’ space.  Spaces and places where the conventions and courtesies of informal, quotidian life are acted out in our mutual encounters as citizens, not service users.

Countering the tendency to shrink this public realm is not easily dressed up as fundable packages, nor reducible to the restricted vocabulary of project outcomes.   Which is perhaps why this matter of our wider freedoms appear to be only at the margins of concern – not so much the elephant in the room, as the hole at the heart of matter.

5 responses to “The limitations of compensatory provision”

  1. We are also living in a society where we are being compensated to raise other people’s children for them. I believe they find comfort in knowing their children are being supervised while they are away from the home. Not that it is good for anyone/so many members of the household to be away from home so long each day…


    1. Heather, thanks for comment.

      That point you make about it not being good for,’anyone/so many members of the household to be away from home so long each day… ‘ reminded me of a letter in the Guardian (Thursday 2 January) I’ve been hanging on to. In it, Dr Richard House, Senior lecturer in early childhood studies, University of Winchester, questions policies and proposals to create universal childcare, ‘Imposing [apropos Labour Party policy] universal childcare as a cultural norm will both compromise many vital early attachment relationships essential for young children and interfere with parents’ essential parental learning process, thus merely stoking up intra-familial problems for the future, as children grow older’. Our society seems to have only one criterion for making judgments about policy, a narrowly-based economic criterion obsessed with growth and little else. Not good for children, nor adults.


  2. Hi Bernard
    First day back at work and I’m wandering a bit, but here goes.
    We want a society that values play for children in and of itself, and where play opportunities are freely available in the public realm for children everywhere.
    We live in a society where this is not the case, so we throw our efforts into providing the types of compensatory spaces that you describe. But if we manage to provide more and more of these spaces I envisage a tipping point. When quantative changes lead to a qualitative one. And society starts to understand that free play without supervision and constraints is what is required. It is a bit like the argument for socialism as far as I am concerned. We need to transform societry but need to woork in the here and now to preserve what we have and is under threat. The emancipation of the working class is in the actions of the working class. Through struggle and the provision of compensatory play spaces we will transform ourselves and our society.


    1. Nick, thanks for your comment. You’ve certainly encapsulated neatly the strategic level case that is made for the sort of provisions we’re talking about. And, as I hope this and an earlier article on pop-ups and street play made clear, it’s difficult to be against these initiatives as such, and for the reason you give: we need to attend to and do our best for lives being lived in the here and now.

      I’m more sceptical about the optimism you express: that left to their own devices – forms of provision self-proliferating themselves in their own various niches – will generate a dialectic process that will get us to the place we want to be. That is, loosely and idealistically expressed, people able to move freely through free space, unsupervised, unsurveilled. What may rather be happening is that people’s fears and anxieties are being justified and pandered to; to the extent that they become dependent on the palliatives on offer and cannot see or imagine – or fear to see – beyond them. We may be creating a full stop, rather than a comma, in the wished-for dialectic progression.

      But I suspect that many of us are in the paradoxical position of accepting that compensatory provision is necessary, whilst wishing that at least some of it was not required.

      The article did attempt, if only gently and by implication, to pitch the problem at a policy or political level: ‘The danger is that where the focus is on providing provision, a gap is created whereby insufficient attention is given to the more complex, nebulous, long-term aim of countering the diminution of our – adult, child, teenager – ‘free’ space.’ And here there does seem to me to be a problem that has yet to be addressed. Perhaps one that an independent Play England that rumour has it exists, might turn its mind to. It would require no funding so to do.


  3. Yes- that was easy to read and spoke the truth! xx


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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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