Public spaces – streets, parks and squares – played a major role in the development of democracy, serving as places where anyone, regardless of income or position, could meet, discuss, demonstrate and publicise their causes. The extent to which these spaces are disappearing and the effect on civic life deserves more attention.
Leafleting on the high street is a traditional way to publicise a campaign but is usually banned from the private space outside supermarkets and malls. Picketing is a valuable weapon against a bad employer but may not be possible where premises are inside a business park. Filming in such developments is subject to permission and often the payment of large fees, but it should also be worrying that representation and reporting in large parts of the modern city are restricted to those who meet the approval of property magnates and/or can pay high fees.
How we use land in the city and who benefits from it is a pressing one, especially with the London Plan currently under review by the Mayor.
While the expansion of pseudo-public space deserves attention, even more important is the scale of threat to green space and the green belt across the capital. This year CPRE London revealed a growing number of supposedly “protected” green spaces under threat in Greater London, with a sharp increase in planning permissions over the past two years. Despite the calls of the development lobby, we don’t need to use our precious green spaces to meet the capital’s desperate need for affordable housing. Our most recent report, Space to Build, shows that there is enough suitable previously developed land in London to accommodate more than 1m new homes.
We must be vigilant in standing up for the value of public, particularly green, space in our towns and cities so that they remain the civilised, shared places we all need to thrive.