No, really. Look at what Rowan has written in the Grauniad this morning:
One of the recurring challenges is to find a way of safeguarding young people’s space without policing it in an intrusive or humiliating way. Adults must think twice before assuming that every group of under-20s in a street or mall is likely to be a threat.
The infamous Mosquito is described as an “indiscriminate and knee-jerk response to a perceived problem”. So far, so liberal.
But His Grace also burbles slightly less convincingly about how we’re less good at public space than the Victorians were. To be fair I do live in an area which has regeneration coming out of its ears, and undoubtedly there are unloved town centres throughout the country, but on the whole I’d say the public and government concern with public space, somewhere for “the community to come together”, whatever that may mean, is deafening, if not always coherent. I was recently in Liverpool for the first time, and upon seeing the mighty fine St George’s Hall as I emerged from Lime Street, built in the Grecian style in an era when raving capitalists liked to pretend they were Pericles, I asked my companion what it was now used for. Hm. He wasn’t sure. There’s an art gallery. Maybe an exhibition space? Had he ever been there? Not for years. The best use he really had for St George’s Hall was as a nice building to look at. When “community space” fails to serve an above-averagely cultured Scouser (no tittering at the back there) in his home town, it’s hard to see how it can be said to be a worthwhile community space at all.
The problem is not, on the whole, with a lack of public space. It is that, as the Primate (one of my two favourite ecclesiastical words*) correctly identifies in the quote above, adults simply don’t like the idea of how children and young people might choose to use it. So they push them out of it. A poster on the “Disorderly towns” thread I blogged about the other day related the sad case of Winchester, where the authorities have banned people from lounging on the grass by the river, thus disrupting a proud and centuries-old public binge drinking tradition, dammit.
A further example, I recently had cause in the line of work to read some very thoughtful comments by a Haringey police officer on the lives and activities of young people in Haringey. The officer remembered when s/he first joined the force in Haringey, kids used to play football on the estates a lot of the time and it was a constructive way of occupying themselves. Nowadays, estates in the borough are plastered with “No ball games” signs because the residents automatically assume they will become a nuisance. So they go and hang around on the streets instead, then someone calls the police who have to come and speak to them, and the kids unsurprisingly get a bit narked by the whole thing. Even the terribly harmless middle-class little teenage People’s Republic used to get moved on from the shopping centre by the tinpot Napoleon security guards therein and made to conduct her social life outside on a narrow stretch of kerb next to a busy three-lane road (by god, we knew how to have a good time in Epsom in the mid-nineties).
In fact I reckon we’re exactly like the Victorians, building public and communal spaces into residential developments, office blocks and public buildings because we can, with no real idea of what they are for or whether people’s utilisation of them will fit with some orderly and (sorry, chaps) distinctively middle-aged ideal. This ideal is essentially informed, it seems to me, by those wonderful little architectural stick-men drawings from the 1950s in which one figure sits on a bench while another pushes a stick-pram past and a third stands thoughtfully under a stick-tree. This was what the planners of Milton Keynes et al thought the future was going to look like, and their cultural children have taken up the fight to restrict town centre behaviour to a narrow range parodied in The Truman Show. This is not liberal, and I was really pleased to see that awareness in the responses to the Disorderly Towns piece, and I am doubly pleased that a senior politician (let us call him) from outside the party has written something saying so.
Pity said senior politician has recently made such an ass of himself, really.
* The other one is archbishopric.