Space invaders

If the authorities want to give public places their soul back, they should leave them alone.

Josie Appleton

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The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has launched a campaign to rescue public places from compensation culture.

Fear of litigation has led local authorities to turn Britain’s urban areas into ‘fun-free, soulless space’, says CABE – removing or banning anything that could present a possible risk to members of the public (1). In February 2004 Suffolk County Council outlawed hanging baskets from lampposts in Bury St Edmunds, in case one fell on somebody’s head. Norwich City Council threatened to chop down horse chestnut trees, worrying that people could be injured by sticks or that squashed conkers on the roads might cause accidents. One council even removed a swing from a village playing field on the grounds that it faced into the sun and could blind children.

These miserly measures are in part a response to the public’s tendency to blame and claim. When somebody receives a cut leg from a broken pavement today they might well drag the council to court (encouraged by an army of ‘no-win, no fee’ personal injury lawyers). CABE says that bogus or excessive compensation claims cost local authorities £117,000,000 per year; ironically, Manchester City Council spends more on litigating compensation claims than it does repairing broken pavements, which are the cause of many of the claims (2).

But many of these councils’ measures are purely precautionary, baring little relationship to real accidents or compensation claims. People are hardly queuing up to sue for children blinded while swinging on a swing, or head injuries from falling hanging baskets or conker sticks. It is doubtful whether such accidents have ever occurred in the past, or ever will.

Hanging baskets are removed on the basis of a ‘what if…?’ series of speculations: what if a basket were to fall?; what if somebody was walking underneath at the precise moment when it fell? On this basis, councils perhaps should remove roads, pavements, steps and all public buildings, since these are probably more common sources of injury. As Julia Thrift from CABE says, ‘you might as well ban the lampposts [the baskets] were hanging on, in case people bumped into them too’ (3). And if councils really wanted protection from litigation, they could ask people not to leave their homes.

The safety obsession of local councils prevents people from enjoying their public places, by removing the few recreational spots where they meet and have fun.

However, public authorities’ risk-aversion goes wider than Norwich conker trees or Suffolk hanging baskets. There is a tendency across the board to rein in public activities, for fear of what people might do to themselves or each other, if left to their own devices.

Witness the demise of New Year celebrations over the past few years. The revelries of London’s Trafalgar Square and Edinburgh’s Princes Street have given way to policed and sober affairs. Every New Years’ Eve, public spaces are surrounded by lines of yellow-jacketed policemen, checking tickets or searching people for alcohol. On 31 December 2003, Mayor Ken Livingstone put on a three-minute fireworks display in central London – but told people to stay at home and watch it on TV, for fear that large crowds would be a public safety risk (4). Edinburgh’s 2003 celebrations were cancelled at an hour to midnight, because of high winds that raised safety concerns (5).

Alongside these attempts to clamp down, there runs a huge parallel industry trying to increase participation in public space. Dozens of organisations aim to promote people’s involvement in local spaces, and these receive heavy government backing. In early February, deputy prime minister John Prescott announced £201million as part of his ‘sustainable communities’ plan, £30million of which was set aside to encourage the community to ‘get involved’ and ‘take pride in their local public places’ (6).

Yet this attempt to increase participation springs from the same official anxiety about leaving the public to its own devices, as do attempts to clamp down. Instead of allowing free, spontaneous participation in public space, participation is generated and supervised by the authorities. As a consequence, the results are often just as soulless and fun-free as are spaces designed around risk-aversion. ‘Public participation’ projects tend to look much the same in any town or city, and are rarely a source of local pride – just look at all those community arts installations, which appear similarly anodyne from Brighton to Aberdeen.

In fact, it is only a spontaneous interaction between people that could help to give public space its soul back. Public space gets its spirit from local people, from the ways in which they decide to enjoy themselves and live their lives together. Officials would do well to build attractive and well-designed spaces and keep them clean, and then leave the rest to the public. A sense of public spirit will only develop if people have space to meet, drink, demonstrate, swing on swings or gather conkers, without interference. Who knows – they might even stop suing their councils.

(1) Compensation culture condemns us to live with dreary public spaces, CABE, 24 March 2004

(2) Compensation culture condemns us to live with dreary public spaces, CABE, 24 March 2004

(3) Compensation culture condemns us to live with dreary public spaces, CABE, 24 March 2004

(4) New Year fireworks planned, London Evening Standard, 9 December 2003

(5) New Year is cancelled, Guardian, 1 January 2004

(6) News release, 05 February 2003

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