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.