The house is an individual possession, and should be worked for, but the park or the common which a man shares with his neighbours, which descends as a common inheritance from generation to generation, surely this may be given without pauperising. (Octavia Hill – 1883: Homes of the London Poor)
Much has been written about the value of community or social spaces. Octavia Hill, one of the key figures in establishing The National Trust, was formidable in advocating the need for social space suggesting that the public need “places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in”. More recently, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the contribution public spaces make to community life and how people use them.
One (very) early observation about life in Tel Aviv (which is replicated throughout Israel) is the emphasis placed on the importance of maintaining the use of public space for young people and the wider community. Other than the sanctuary of the Hayarkon Park, public space in Tel Aviv is limited – particularly green space – however, wherever there is communal space two things are apparent. Firstly, any facilities are clean, well maintained and working. Examples include; public toilets, outdoor and free to use gym equipment, cold water fountains and children’s play areas. Secondly, the general public’s access to the public facilities are not controlled, monitored or restricted. As a result, throughout the day and late into the night, you will encounter all ages – young and old – using and sharing the same communal space. At the very least, this provides a shared interaction between young people and adults within the same communal space. Moreover, without the incessant use of CCTV – ironic for a society with such strong roots to the military – young people have the freedom to play, hangout and socialise without the threat of being ‘moved on’.
Before I left London, I paid a visit to The Museum of London’s Street Photography Exhibition where a collection of photographs from the late 19th century to present day were exhibited. I found particularly striking how many of the pictures showed young people playing and ‘hanging out’ on the streets. I’m certainly not harking back to ‘the good old days’, however in England, over the last ten years there has been an alarming reduction in the amount of free communal space young people can ‘just be’ without the risk of being labelled as thugs, gangs or trouble-makers.
This was reiterated within the JRF report highlighting that by allowing young people to play or simply ‘hang out’ fosters and strengthens local attachments which are at the heart of local communities.Maybe it’s time for local authorities and the voluntary sector to work together to re-examine how London organises and manages its communal space?