Social Spaces: Open for Business?

“As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’,
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”[1]

For me the pub is the ultimate social space – the living, breathing space of the everyday – no hierarchy, no taboos. Give me a really down-at-the-heel pub, dingy and drab, with a long-ago cigarette tarred ceiling and a surly barmaid who refuses to acknowledge my hand purposefully placed on the bar clutching a fiver. Although public by nature they exist as private property, yet strangely what prevails is a sense of ownership that cannot be constructed or ‘etched on’. Sadly, as with many others, the lights went off in my local pub recently, and as the damned silence fell, metal sheets were fixed over the windows and doors and a ubiquitous ‘To Let’ sign was hastily nailed up. Maybe this pub will be taken over, sold off at a bargain bin price to a private developer, or maybe it will lie abandoned, the weeds creeping through its brickwork in a backwater of forgotten land. Perhaps it acts as a sign of the times; the swift switch from ‘public’ space to ‘private’ space.

Private developments are now favoured to public developments and spaces that we as citizens own are being quietly, slyly sold off to developers, so councils, withering from central government cuts, can make a fast buck. There are examples on our own doorstep and many more to come, from leisure centres to libraries, and with very little consultation councils choose to sell sell sell: a very physical symbol of the de-democratisation of public space within the UK. Vast privatisation of land has created pseudo-public spaces, as first witnessed on a large scale in the Docklands nearly thirty years ago. Public-private partnerships have since become the most common method of redevelopment. Councils attempt to sweeten the pill by using the usual rhetorical language: ‘urban renaissance’, ‘regeneration’, ‘renewal’, whilst greedy developers stand in the wings ready and eager to replace social spaces with commercial spaces – think ‘Tesco Town’ in Gateshead or the Liverpool One development – a nightmare of consumption – a commercial enclave in the heart of the city, now owned, managed and controlled by a private company complete with its own security force, where spontaneous street performance and protest are off the cards. The standard jargon that developers spiel of creating ‘world class tourist destinations’ with a ‘live, work, play’ attitude is a very cutting example of the commodification and ‘branding’ of social space. The current proposals for Glasgow’s George Square highlight the extent to which the marketing of place and the easy disposal of public property are now customary. Proposed restrictions on mass gatherings and protest in this most central and symbolic square are, in a sense, “collateral to urban revalorisation and the on-going rebranding of Glasgow as a ‘creative city’”[2]. The plans proposed aim to reconfigure the square, converting it into a ‘flexible corporate space’; ‘a blank canvas’ for spectacle-making, place-changing, consumer-led attractions.

The division of space along economic lines threatens social cohesion. Cities have often been designed to divide, to protect the wealthy from the ‘inordinate other’, creating hostility that feeds on suspicion and fear. The growth of gated communities in the UK is arguably the first step in a regression back to the streets of the Victorian era where whole swathes of city streets were inaccessible, barricaded off from the ordinary citizen. The Enclosures ended over 150 years ago, but land is still being taken from the masses and given to the few. Haussmann’s repeated bouts of urban redevelopment; his creative destruction of central Paris physically tore through the Parisian slums, bulldozing homes in the name of ‘civic improvement’. His design deliberately engineered the removal of the working classes, the ‘disobedient’ revolutionaries and their ‘threat to civic order’. The boulevards of Paris were designed to hinder revolution, lying wide and straight in the landscape to deter barricades, allowing easy access for police firing squads to control the noncompliant masses.

Haussmann's redevelopment of central Paris (author's own photograph)

Haussmann’s redevelopment of central Paris (author’s own photograph)

In the 1950s the ‘master architect’ of mid twentieth century New York, Robert Moses, in his own words, “took a meat axe to the Bronx”, slicing the neighbourhood in two, viciously attacking an impoverished community by driving a huge motorway straight through its heart. Moses, by favouring highways over public transport networks, made his leisure facilities inaccessible to the poor. He built ostentatious leisure amenities without access for public transport and built bridges that were impassable for buses. His motorway systems were emulated all over the world, allowing people to navigate the city as a whole without encountering the lives of the inner-city residents. As a true Ballardian vision, his overpasses sweep above decrepit areas, offering the motorway user a mere glimpse in the distance below at the underclass lying physically and symbolically beneath.

Robert Moses, Cross-Bronx Expressway (Image credit: Andrew Moore)

Robert Moses, Cross-Bronx Expressway (Image credit: Andrew Moore)

Cross-Bronx Expressway construction, 1957

Cross-Bronx Expressway construction, 1957

These forms of ‘regeneration’ are now ubiquitous: every city that has ever courted ‘urban progress’ has allowed the rot of the capitalist planning system to take hold and multiply. In David Harvey’s words this is “accumulation by dispossession”[3]; capitalist property speculation is so severely bonded to displacement that this cancerous process has been permitted to mutate, growing ever stronger like a fledgling disease, seeping into every nook and cranny of city space. Today, the privatisation and regulation of public space occurs through more high tech means, almost emulating those techno-dystopias that are so familiar to us through “Hollywood’s pop apocalypses”[4] and new wave sci-fi films; cyberpunk visions of twisted, but often subsequently realised, future worlds. These are, in Mike Davis’s words, ‘Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism’ where the enclosure of wealth, CCTV surveillance and private security ensure ‘safety’ from the dangerous masses.[5] Architecture is used as silent warfare, where high security gated compounds, such as the Los Angeles neighbourhoods that Davis references in his celebrated book City of Quartz, act as “the architectural policing of social boundaries”[6]. Whilst in everyday life we are under the relentless gaze of the Orwellian eye; CCTV cameras placed precariously on every roof, glowering down over doorways and drainpipes.

The selling and transforming of social spaces reduces democracy to an optional ‘add-on’; where ‘public consultation’ is a phoney, tick-box procedure. Anna Minton writes that “The places we create reflect the social and economic realities of the time and provide a litmus test for the health of society and democracy”[7]. Therefore, is the fact that we are “setting out to create undemocratic places simply a reflection of the times we live in”[8]? Governments are currently unwilling to invest in city space without the involvement of private collaborators and it may be a long time until planning policy changes. Yet in the past architects have often forged change and created true social spaces with the assistance of governments.

The visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design Central Park, conceiving of this space as a public landscape, one that would bring classes and ethnic groups together in a shared experience of place. He believed common space should be accessible to all and envisaged Central Park as an egalitarian space where inner city residents could breathe clean air. With our urgent need to preserve and create new social spaces, Olmsted’s vision linking social reform to urban renewal is particularly poignant.

Furthermore, Communist planning, although centralised and state controlled, was often visionary in its attempt to embody the Marxist ideals of egalitarianism and communalism. Standardised city plans were designed to develop the ‘psyche of the masses’ through the creation of mass social spaces, bordered by museums, galleries and the ubiquitous people’s palaces. Grand boulevards led the eye to vast squares and acted as a passage for pageantry and parades, for the eulogising of the party during national celebrations. From these sites of ideological intervention emerged new collective social relations and values, where everyday place was fused with propaganda, and architecture was to be as much symbolic as functional. Skanderbeg Square in the centre of Tirana, Albania was designed not as a space of consumption, like our present-day city centres, but one of production and education. On the periphery of the square sit the National Historical Museum and the gigantic Cultural Palace with its opera house and library. The creation of this huge social space was to transform how people engaged with one another in a communal sense. Capitalist spaces of commerce were replaced by cultural spaces, compelling people to actively engage with the arts in an everyday manner, where services were free for all. In 1991 Albania was the last and most rigid domino of European Communism to fall, yet since then the square and its main boulevard have continued to act as the main social and political axis of the city, albeit with more resistance, and minus the endless Communist rhetoric. From Spring to Autumn this space provides a path for the everyday practice known as ‘korza’, where a large proportion of the city population promenades up and down the main streets at dusk between cafes or with no particular destination. The objective is to see and be seen, chat with friends and take in fresh air – a very vibrant and of course social tradition.

Worker’s clubs also acted as primary sites for collective learning and socialising, giving low paid workers their first access to culture and education in an everyday manner. Clubs were placed next to factories and workplaces for ease of access and acted as places of cultural stimulation, not places for passively consuming culture. Konstantin Melnikov, the maverick architect of the Russian Constructivist movement, designed unique worker’s clubs fusing flexible, practical design with radical architectural forms. Most famous of all is his Rusakov Club, a colossus of architecture; a building designed from the inside out. The auditorium’s cantilevered seating sections protrude as great hulks out of the building’s shell, whilst inside, moving walls create flexible spaces. This is no ‘iconic’ super-starchitecture, there is no motivation to break records or court that very Capitalist strain of International Modernism here, just resourceful, inexpensive design, coupled with a most ingenious social concept.

Rusakov Club, Konstantin Melnikov (author's own photograph)

Rusakov Club, Konstantin Melnikov (author’s own photograph)

In today’s political climate, devoid of ideology and idealism, will councils ever construct spaces which are not diminished knowingly by commerce and profiteering private companies? Or are guerrilla strategies of informality the only tactic for retaining and making anew our social spaces? If this is the case, can we exploit the gaps in formal regulation and control, making use of the margins of the ‘official’ city: those edgelands and wastelands that lie vacant on the peripheries of towns? Through squatting and physically ‘occupying’ space can we retain and create egalitarian social spaces?

Subverting capitalist city space is possible with a little doggedness and tenacity. Park Fiction in Hamburg offers an efficacious realisation of guerrilla urban planning. This is an area that has suffered prolonged neglect by city authorities, but when the council tried to sell off the harbour area of the neighbourhood to a private developer, local activism developed into a demand for a public amenity rather than a private development. One of the most successful strategies the neighbourhood adopted was to not only protest for a public space but to act as if one already existed, by occupying the site and developing it themselves. To this end, the group organised a series of public events on the site, including talks, exhibitions, open-air screenings and gigs. They also developed special tools and techniques to make the planning process more accessible for local people: by creating a planning container that moved around the neighbourhood they could collect residents’ wishes for the area. This continual and unceasing use of the park has made it a social reality; through ownership of the site the group now have control.

Untitled

Park Fiction, Hamburg

Park Fiction exemplifies that spaces adapt and become ‘social’ only through use; only when space is used does it become place. Regrettably, we are now witnessing the de-democratisation and privatisation of public amenities, whilst the gloss and promise of the ‘urban renaissance’ has dulled, faltered and morphed into gentrification. Yet the current conflict of capitalism may give us a chance to turn the tide. Commerce has consumed itself through bonuses and borrowing so, with a little resistance and resolve, perhaps our empty high streets, marginal edgelands and vacant pubs can offer opportunities to remake social spaces, creating new forms of urban intervention and activism in the process. If this is possible, I would certainly raise a glass to that.

This article was originally published in Convention, Habit or Custom: a publication that was part of an event at the Newbridge Project in Newcastle upon Tyne. This event, developed and organised by Lloyd-Wilson explored the complexities of our everyday conventions, habits and customs. See http://www.lloyd-wilson.co.uk/downloadnewspaper.html to read and download the full publication.


[1] Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land

[2] Eoin Anderson, Neil Gray, Emily Roff, ‘Stripped for Business’, Scottish Left Review, 2013, 74

[3] David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review, 2008, 53

[4] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), p. 224

[5] Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (eds.), Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York: New Press, 2007)

[6] Ibid, p. 223

[8] Ibid

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