Why are councils banning virtually every conceivable activity in public spaces: pigeon feeding, begging, busking, rough sleeping, smoking in parks? And why are these bans so often popular?
At base, it seems to be because civil society is seen as a war of all against all. Any person’s activity is seen immediately as a restriction upon or violation of another. This is expressed in sayings such as: ‘Your right to smoke violates my right to a smoke-free environment.’ One person’s freedom to play music means that another’s life is ‘made a misery’ . One person feeding the birds means that another gets ‘covered in mess’.
The conceptual model of civil society is that of individuals facing each other as implacable and opposed interests. Any one activity – any freedom of one person – is resolved purely and simply into the negative effect on another. The activity, indeed, becomes defined only in terms of this negative effect: busking becomes ‘noise pollution’, leafleting and pigeon feeding become ‘littering’, ball games become an ‘obstruction’ or ‘nuisance’, begging for money is ‘intimidation’.
It is for this reason that activities previously seen as a benign, even positive part of the urban environment are today classed as ‘anti-social behaviour’ and acquire an aspect of criminality. It becomes inconceivable that anyone would defend the ‘right’ to drink or feed pigeons in public spaces. ‘Are you saying that it is a human right to engage in unsocial behaviours?’ asks one man. ‘Do you really think people should get drunk, publicly beg, do wheelies in carparks, intimidate the public in parks?’ asks another.
These activities are criminalised because they are viewed – and to some extent, experienced – only as a violation of other people. The definition of crime, previously restricted to a significant violation of person or property, becomes generalised to almost any public action which could ‘affect’ others.
Indeed, for some individuals their mere presence in public space is seen as harmful: hence council bans on ‘loitering’ or police crackdowns on young people ‘congregating’. One BBC Radio London presenter suggested that street drinkers should be stopped from ‘lounging’ on a park bench. Councils are banning smoking in parks because it ‘exposes others including children to smoking behaviours’. Your crime is merely that you have exposed others to the sight of yourself or your activity (which is objectified into something foreign and described as a behaviour).
This model of civic life is quite different to that which motivated Victorian bylaws, with their nit-picky bans on playing music in the park or playing cards on the street. In these cases, the ban had a class basis, elite versus masses, and the question of freedom in the newly formed public spaces was almost entirely a working-class cause. It was they who pushed back the legal boundary for protests into Hyde Park, filled the streets with pamphleteers and players and pavement artists. The ban was motivated by an elite fear of the public acting in concert, of the unpredictable, restive energies of the crowd.
Today, by contrast, freedom in public spaces is seen as an effete, ivory tower position, which nobody with any real experience of urban life could possibly support. The model of an unregulated public space is some kind of hell: wheelies in carparks, vomiting, urinating, firing BB guns, shooting up, ‘winged rats’, vermin, bird and dog faeces. It is a cacophony of barbarity. It is supposed that the public lacks any self-constituting power. There is nothing in the free association of individuals which could bring any kind of order or civility, any kind of mutual benefit or pleasure. As a result, it is supposedly only through the state that the public space is established as a compact.
Implacably opposed individuals face one another and cannot resolve their conflict for themselves; as soon as one moves the other is harmed, and vice versa. So the official mediator is called in, to place restrictions on activities – to say, as with Oxford City council, that the city centre shall not be a place for anybody to do anything. Or else, if people must do things, they must do them in discrete ‘zones’, where different activities can be carried out without meeting or coming into conflict. In a park there is a playground area for children (no dogs, no smoking), a dog walking area (no children), a ballgames area (no dogs), a field (no ballgames, no drinking, no dogs). One park even allocated a specific bench for street drinkers to sit on. The public space is sliced up, feudalised into its separate interests.
Yet this appearance of things is misleading. It may appear that the conflict within civil society necessitates state regulation, but in fact the opposite is more the case: that state regulation generates a conflict within civil society. It is the regulation and orchestration of public spaces, the ever-presence of the third party mediator, which polarises individuals as implacable opposed interests. It is the existence of an anti-social behaviour hotline which means that neighbours no longer go around to ask someone to turn the music down: they communicate not directly but through official mechanisms, which polarises a minor disagreement into an all-out conflict.
In fact, the pleasantness of public spaces depends in large part on their freedom from regulation. In the 1960s the American urbanist Jane Jacobs described the intricate web of urban interactions: the way in which people going about their business as private individuals look out for each other and enhance each others lives (1). Drinkers at the soda stand keep an eye on kids playing; the deli owner keeps people’s keys and packages. Jacobs notes how a ‘slum’ neighbourhood – with its soda stands, sweet shops and bars, sidewalks full of kids playing ball and adults loitering and chatting – was a model of lively civility. By contrast, in the new housing ‘project’ opposite, with its manufactured public meeting rooms and cultural centres, kids were busy squirting fire hydrants through people’s windows.
It was the manufactured, state-constructed neighbourhoods that were the sites of barbarity, not the spontaneous, mixed-use sidewalks, where strangers stepped in swiftly to resolve children’s arguments.
The same would be the case today – except that public spaces have become so regulated, civic relations so mediated by bureaucratic organs that there is rarely any chance for relations to form or be negotiated on independent terms. These points occur not so much as an everyday habit, but more as a moment, something rare breaking through. We all witness these occasionally and find them immortalised on YouTube: with videos of a Liverpudlian drunk starting a crowd imitating his one-foot dance, or a boy stealing a busker’s mike to sing a solo. Here, buskers, street drinkers, children and adults are shown not in hostile opposition, but as enhancing one another. Such unexpected influences and inspirations are as much a part of public spaces as are disputes or disagreements.
The truth is that the ‘public spaces protection order’ doesn’t protect public space, it destroys it. The PSPO is founded on a model of civil society as a war of all against all, and in being enacted starts to bring about this very hell.
(1) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs