The Blog

There's a Battle Going on for Public Space in London

As so often, changes in philosophy are working their way from the ground-up and it is the "leaders" of society that are going to have to adapt and change.

Standing at 306 metres high, The Shard, near London Bridge railway station, is currently the tallest building in the European Union.

The playwright, actor and director Noël Coward once lamented "I don't know what London's coming to -- the higher the buildings, the lower the morals." Coward didn't live to see the war being waged by developers today to conquer the capital's skyline with their latest construction designed to resemble a kitchen appliance, vegetable, or grooming product but his words are certainly just as pertinent. Our buildings have become a phallic homage to the greed and hunger of capitalism. Instead of being places for us to live, work, and play - or even beautiful constructions of which to stand in awe - they are now used primarily as money-making tools for rich investors. Whilst many families are priced out of London, a small percentage rejoice at the altar of the property price index which, like the average height of every new-build, is being driven ever upwards.

The transformation of London's skyline is, however, just one manifestation of the battle that is being raged in the capital to dominate and control purportedly "public" spaces. Last week outrage spread across the Twittersphere after images were shared of spikes installed outside a set of luxury flats on Southwark Bridge Road (thankfully now removed) that were designed to deter homeless people from sleeping in the entranceway. The London Cycling Campaign's "Space for Cycling" movement is seeking to highlight just how cramped and dangerous the capital's roads are for bikers and pedestrians - forced into a daily battle with taxis, buses, cars, and, astonishingly, HGVs. And now it seems that the Mayor Boris Johnson is mobilising for a war against Londoners' freedom of public assembly after ordering 3 German water cannon.

The fact is that shifting homeless people off Southwark Bridge Road and onto another street or dousing protestors in 18 litres of water per second is not going to fix the deep-rooted problems of society - though this hardly needs stating. What we need to do is redress the balance of our economic and social outlook towards one that values the community and public-space rather than the individual and the private-sphere - and that takes us back to the story of London's high-rise properties. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later Marx argued that the invention of private property had corrupted the morals of humanity by creating inequality, greed and envy and a motivation to act with fear towards other members of society. Once status is achieved, individual members of society lock the gates of their castle, building ever stronger reinforcements against the masses apparently clamouring to usurp them and take their gains.

The impact of the attitude can be seen right now on the streets of London. What unites all the examples above is how the insecurity and fear of those in power plays such a potent motivating factor. Well-to-do Londoners who own property and wealth don't like seeing the destitute outside their luxury apartment because it gives them an uncomfortable reminder of the deep inequality and poverty that exists, quite literally, on their doorstep. The aggressive behaviour of motorists' towards other road users betrays the sense of entitlement that many feel to own and monopolise the space they occupy. This sense is heightened amongst bus and taxi drivers for whom the road is not just a piece of tarmac, it is their place of work and not somewhere to be intruded on by outsiders like cyclists and pedestrians. Boris Johnson says that he needs water cannon to prevent the disorder which he fears will hit the streets of London this summer. Should disorder erupt as the Mayor fears, it will be motivated by the participants' own sense of economic anxiety and isolation from the governing forces of society.

These stop-gaps solutions cannot fix the underlying malaise. What we need is a fundamental change in how we view and value public space in London and who we think the city is for. There is now extensive research, encapsulated by the mission of the Liveable Cities campaign and Charles Montgomery's book "Happy City", into how the design and layout of cities can play a major role in helping the people that live there to feel happy, secure, and fulfilled. Unsurprisingly it emphasises the need for public over private spaces, traffic-free zones, and beautiful rather than overbearing buildings. Getting to that position will not be easy however whilst our economy and social philosophy is geared towards benefiting the individual over the community and those in authority have so much to gain (financially and politically) from firing the economic belly of the private-sector.

There is a great deal of hope for change however. Community-led projects, cooperatives, and street-takeovers are springing-up across the city and helping to drive forwards a new vision of public-ownership - and one suspects that no matter how many water cannon Mr. Johnson has in his armoury, protests will continue to erupt so long as people feel agitated and motivated to act. As so often, changes in philosophy are working their way from the ground-up and it is the "leaders" of society that are going to have to adapt and change.

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