Our common ownership of London is under threat

Two London councils plan to charge children to play in public spaces, whilst another attempts to drive out homeless people from some of London’s most visited places. Has the time not come to assert our common right to the city?
Joe Penny
12 July 2011

Over the past few months news has emerged of three seemingly unrelated proposals, potentially affecting two ostensibly unrelated groups’ equal access to certain London spaces. Interestingly, these proposals have not been connected in the media – but they should have been!

Belvedere Splashpark could start charging for entry

First there came the news that Westminster city council are planning to breathe new life into a once failed by-law to criminalise homelessness around popular tourist attractions, namely the Westminster Cathedral Plaza. If this by-law is passed not only will it become a criminal offence to sleep on the streets of much of Westminster, it will also be illegal to provide food to these would-be ‘transgressors’.

Secondly (and thirdly) there is the news that in Wandsworth, and more recently Bexley, proposals have been made to charge children to use park facilities: over £1 to use a Splashpark in Belvedere Park and £2.50 to use an adventure playground in Battersea Park (Wandsworth Council were forced to put these plans on hold last Wednesday after a public outcry.) If taken forward, children from poorer families will effectively be priced out of playing in these spaces – or at the least their use of these facilities will be limited.

At first glance it is easy to dismiss these events as isolated occurrences, linked only perhaps by local economic rationalism; one council’s attempt to ensure tourism continues undisturbed and two councils’ novel schemes to raise a little extra money in these times of austerity. But these should not be dismissed as isolated cases; they are snapshots of a much larger issue. Or put differently, pieces within a wider and more worrying jigsaw amounting to nothing less than the ideological, and if current trends are not arrested, material remaking of this city.

Of course in London, as in ‘global cities’ the world over, this remaking has been going on since the 1970s, when the capital transitioned from an industrial to post-industrial city. Urban geographers call it the neoliberalisation of the city – or just neoliberal urbanism, referring to the constellation of post-1980s economic policies and governance arrangements (pushed by all governments in the UK since Thatcher, hand in hand with financiers, vested business interests and property developers), which have had the collective effect of commoditising the city and blurring the distinctions between public and private space (placing a growing emphasis on the latter).

As a result many spaces that we could once call our own, where we could linger at our leisure and experience some of the joys of urban life, have been privatised and increasingly securitised. This in turn fragments our access to the city, limiting it to those who can pay for the privilege and those who conform to narrowly defined social norms.

This problem has been most acutely felt in the great cities of America: New York and Los Angeles being prime suspects. Here, as Sharon Zukin and Don Mitchell eloquently point out, the ability to access and enjoy once freely-cherished spaces has come under the almost relentless pressure of market-driven forces, often in the guise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) which, in a predictable desire to secure their businesses and loyal consumers (and inevitably surrounding spaces), have driven out ‘transgressive deviants’ – read those less likely to ‘consume’ the city, and whose presence may deter paying customers: the homeless, ‘winos’, skateboarders, and the like.

So, when taken together and placed in this broader context, moves to charge children to play and to harass the homeless off the streets (to where exactly one might ask?) show themselves to be more than just pockets of egregious decision-making. They point to the gradual replacement of a convivial polis, where all have the right to enjoy London’s ‘public’ spaces on more or less equal terms. With this comes an encroaching ‘airport urbanism’: a dystopian vision of a city future defined by economic imperatives and shaped into a hierarchical socio-spatial regime of privilege, control and exclusion.

Thankfully, London may yet be quite some way away from this possibility. But even so, evidence of spatial injustice must be countered wherever we see it – no matter who it affects. Today it is some of the most vulnerable, the homeless and deprived children, who are seeing their access to the city circumscribed, and it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that this could affect more and more of us in the years to come – save perhaps the very rich and privileged. Indeed, one need only look at the proposed housing benefit cap and the unequal impact that the Universal Credit will have on poorer Londoners to see just how far this could go. As Chris Hamnett warns, London could soon become home only to the wealthy; a city built on a Darwinian logic – survival of the financially fittest.

Lest this become a reality, what is to be done? Well it should be noted that a lot is already being done. Protests have been staged, angry media and blog responses have been written and even hyperbolic political consternation has been added. These should be celebrated. Unfortunately, however, much – if not all – of this has been fragmented, and to some extent transitory. We are yet to see a sustained and collective movement, or even counter argument, that has connected the disparate dots and articulated an alternative vision in London of a more open convivial urban future.

The first move towards this must come from a collective assertion – leading to a movement – of our Right to the City. Our common right, as French urbanist Henri Lefebvre advocated, to appropriate space, to participate in decision-making on issues affecting our lives and to ultimately shape the city of our heart’s desire. For inspiration we need look no further again than across the pond where, in the face of arguably stronger pressure to fully commoditise cities, activists have formed a national right to the city alliance – a counter-force offering an alternative urban vision based on equality, diversity and democracy. This is what we need here; perhaps now more than ever.

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