The sinister new politics of public space

The sinister new politics of public space
Your prejudice is showing — Closing parks during a lockdown is inhumane, especially when housing is so cramped and gardens a rare luxury.

Far too many people in the United Kingdom live in substandard housing. Overcrowding, damp, broken appliances, paper-thin walls, inadequate heating and ventilation affect far more people than they should. Escaping these problems is imperative; and usually, a lot of people get through them by spending time out of the house, at work, or going out in the evening.

Coronavirus measures have trapped even more of us at home than normal. Now, huge numbers of people have been forced to work from our bedrooms or living rooms, and to entirely abandon our social lives. 

I work from home usually, and flare-ups of my disabilities mean I’m often housebound for a week or so at times. But having options for going outside when I feel up to it is crucial for feeling better. Unfortunately, these small escapes – like being able to get out of the house for a coffee alone for an hour, or meeting a friend for a quick drink in your local – are out of the question. Without a garden, my options are now to go to one of the few shops open nearby for groceries, or walk in the park: that’s it.

So the decision by Lambeth Council to temporarily shut Brockwell Park this weekend was met with fury by many people. Tweeting their decision, the council blamed locals, stating that “3000 people” had used the park for sunbathing or sitting in groups. It didn’t mention that the park is half a million square metres, and that 3000 people visiting within the 12 hours it was open is a contextually tiny number. There was plenty of space to ensure social distancing was observed, and a small number of wardens asking people to observe the rules if they were broken, rather than counting how many entered all day, seems more constructive than depriving the local community of a huge park in the middle of a terrifying pandemic. (East London’s Victoria Park – which lies in a similarly built-up area – has also been closed). 

I previously lived near Brockwell Park: green space is incredibly scarce around the area, and it’s surrounded by many very busy roads. Shutting the park only means pavements will be busier, with people closer together, and at much more risk of infection and injury through traffic. The majority of residents in the borough have no garden, so green space is a lifeline for those who are trapped in the home – especially for those with kids cooped up in small flats, trying to entertain and wear them out all day.

The policing of individuals has also been intensely worrying. A Sky News camera crew followed Brighton and Hove police as they admonished members of the public for various perceived flouting of the rules. Most worrying was their aggressive treatment of an older man, sat alone on a bench, far from anyone. A policewoman was filmed marching up and demanding that he keep moving. He was in pain, he explained, as he had sciatica and was resting in the middle of a walk. The police officer dismissed this: the public must be moving at all times, a detail that is not explicitly present in any of the guidelines issued by the government or public health bodies. It’s worrying: if the police are becoming draconian in their interpretation of the rules and attacking anyone sitting outside alone, they’ll very quickly make life miserable for people with disabilities or those recovering from injuries, as well as pregnant women and older members of the public.

Much of the backlash amongst the public comes from people who’ve been merrily tweeting about their own gardens, wilfully ignoring the fact not everyone has outdoor space, and that we’re all desperate for fresh air. Worse still is the trend of going to a park, and then filming or photographing members of the public, denouncing them for being outside in the ‘correct’ way. It assumes that people who are sat down or playing sports are not from the same household, or worse, that they shouldn’t be sat down at all. 

We’re all sick of being cooped up indoors, and siblings playing football or tennis together can observe social distancing and still have fun. I fail to see how sitting down during a walk outside, even with a beer or two or whilst sunbathing, risks more than jogging. Very few joggers who’ve passed me on pavements or even in parks have observed social distancing rules, yet the new puritans are intent on judging anyone who does anything bar walk briskly or jog alone. It is the peak of middle-class curtain-twitching: a high self-regard coupled with absolute contempt for families who can’t afford homes with big gardens; flatmates driven mad by being trapped in small flats without living rooms; disabled and older people who need to rest amidst walks; people who are in abusive relationships who just want a break and to spend some time alone outside. It heightens every class tension, and allows the government to avoid scrutiny as the right-wing obsessively police other people and blame individuals for the spread of the new disease.

Public space should be a right for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Parks should remain open, and we could even go further; opening up golf courses and the gardens of stately homes. Too much land is given over for a tiny number of men to play an elite sport. When we’re all cooped up indoors with little green space to enjoy, it makes perfect sense. The privatisation of public space is a crime, especially when housing is so cramped, and gardens a rare luxury. Don’t close parks, gently ask people to stick to the rules if you have to, but also don’t be one of the people righteously furious at perceived rule-breaking by people you know nothing about. You can’t see sciatica, you can’t see whether a woman sat on a bench with her kids is in a violent relationship that has escalated in brutality with lockdown, and you can’t tell if a group sat together are flatmates. You can tell that people happy to film and denounce complete strangers have a whole raft of prejudices they have used the pandemic to covertly unleash. Keep parks open, use staff to stop dangerous behaviour if necessary, throw open golf courses, and keep your opinions about the general public to yourself.

Follow Dawn Foster on Twitter

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