Whenever we walk through the streets, squares, piazzas and parks of big cities, or even small towns, we imagine we are treading on public space, open and accessible to all. Not any longer. The divide between what is ‘ours’ and what belongs to a private organisation is not always easy to recognise.
When you stand in front of London’s City Hall, arguably the city’s symbol of democratic government, you are, in fact, standing on privately owned land. The same goes for Paternoster Square near St Paul’s, and shortly, the planned Garden Bridge across the Thames. You might ask whether this matters, given that the public can still access these places most of the time, but the truth is, we are losing control of what is rightfully ours.
Cities are not made by buildings, but by the spaces people occupy in between. In buildings we work or have our homes – in the streets we interact with others and the place itself. As geographer Doreen Massey asserted, ‘Instead of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations’.
The French Situationists understood this when they went on psychogeographic dérives through 1950s Paris, reinventing a tradition of the flâneurs of the previous century. In Amsterdam the Dutch authorities allow public spaces to be used freely, even for the most intimate of encounters.
We all need space, both private space away from the world – homes, sheds and rooms of our own – and public space that give us freedom. The ‘right to roam’ is as relevant to urban space as it is to the countryside. Like the Swedes and their Nordic neighbours, who enshrine allemansrätten (everyman’s right) in law, we need an equivalent to keep our spaces truly public.
Let’s reclaim the streets and public spaces in our own neighbourhoods, towns and villages before we lose those too.