Contested ‘Public Space’ – Skaters win in London


I have just been reading this morning an article in London’s ‘Guardian’ newspaper about plans for the re-development of Southbank’s undercroft space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall and a victory by local skaters who currently use the space to stay there. Which brings me to the question of contested public space, a thorny issue no doubt. It is of particular interest to me, having resided in that part of London for several years in the mid-1990’s. Love it or hate it, Southbank was intended as an ambitious project from the start of its development, one that challenged Britain’s historic notions on design and function of public open space and it obviously still continues to do so.

It resonates, because my home town of Melbourne, faced a similar issue about 15 or so years ago with its controversial ‘City Square’. An ambitious development itself, cased (like Southbank) in Brutalist off-form concrete with a giant TV screen of electric globes (used once because the electricity bills were astronomical) and full of cavernous underground spaces that were intended for the recreation of ‘decent folk’ but became a haven for perceived underground or subversive activity, such as skating or heaven forbid…. young people meeting their friends and hanging out. The outcome was that in the early 2000’s it was given a gentrified overhaul, a hotel built on the site overlooking activity and additions such as restaurants and cafe’s added to bring back the ‘decent folk’. Well it worked, but the site as a result has no heart and is more about commercial activity, than public space these days.

On one side of the argument are those that occupy and appropriate public spaces for activity such as skateboarding, have as valid a right to public open space as any other user, on the other side those that believe that only ‘certain’ activities are acceptable in public space. I have to say that I cynically question  whether much of this is subliminally supported by commercial interests??

Young people need us to provide opportunities and places for them to get away from screens and out of the house that don’t cost money, that’s a fact. They also need the chance to interact with their friends in the ‘non-digital’ world, to learn the skills of social interaction, support and negotiation. Most importantly they need physical exercise and outdoors in public open space is the best place for this. Love it or hate it (and I hate tagging), they are incredibly good at appropriating existing unused spaces for their own purposes, spaces which we obviously weren’t creative enough to find a use for.

As a Landscape Architect I understand that not all public activity mixes and that this has to be well thought through to ensure that the mix of activity, environment and age groups work in the long run.  I do think more and more though, we have to recognise and be aware that our right to access public space IS being encroached upon and this is even more pertinent if you are a young person. On a final note, I’m really pleased to hear that this victory at Southbank, had the support of London Mayor, Boris Johnson.

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