Protecting our public places

Brenig Davies highlights the lack of respect shown to our public places

Respect for the concept of public place is getting rarer as litter appears to be constantly encountered. Increasing this form of antisocial behaviour might not be increasing, but perception of antisocial is a reality for some. Such fears may undermine use of public space.

Comparisons with other countries similar to ours is beyond the limits of this article. There are though sufficient examples in our local towns and cities to reasonably draw tentative judgments on the notion of a sense of ownership of public place and its relationship to civic pride. Civic pride contributes to pleasant public place with all the joy that brings. The concept of public place used in this article is not confined to carefully tendered local authority parks; it is written as an observation to our everyday surroundings, services and the built environment.

The simplest form of public place is our pavements: we all use them, we all share them. This allows us to form a view of the erosion of respect of public place in some areas; or more pointedly the way some users have obvious disrespect for pavements, through dropping litter; or ignorance or disregard of the cost of creating and maintaining public place in clean and good condition.

Pavements, so the assertion goes by some, are public places belonging to no one; there is no notion that the concept of public space belongs to us all and therefore should be respected by and for all. Bus stops are covered with scratch marks, felt-pen cover timetables. Raucous behaviour frequently goes unchallenged for fear of reprisal. You will have your own examples. But an excess of litter is the most powerful indicator of the erosion of the concept of public place. The disrespect for public place is one of the most environmentally scars on our society – our struggle to maintain litter free roads and pavements is a constant endeavour to promote civic society.

Erosion of the notion of public place seems to be concomitant with a decline of a proud civic society.

Growing litter may exist due to absence of thought about the shared notion of public place. Casting aspersions on those who casually drop cans, chocolate wrapping, chip paper… is just a manifestation of the problem. Causes of litter dropping run deep in our society.

Suggesting the lack of respect of public place being more evident amongst those who just don’t care about creating litter is to suggest that litter is an act of defiance, and it may be so in some cases. It might also be the absence of justifiable pride in one’s locality, and for good reason if local authorities and other services of state fail to meet standards that respect individuals; especially those living in economically deprived areas. Though failure of public services may apply in the most prosperous areas of towns and cities, along with disrespect for public place.

Pride in one’s locality and public services predispose antithetical attitudes toward those services created to help them. In some communities disrespect for public services may be justified. This has serious consequences for fostering and embedding civic society with pride in open place.

Societal indicators of respect of public place is beyond my knowledge, but it seems reasonable to assert that there is a relationship between community pride and respect of public place.

The lack of respect for public services, amenities (such as children’s play areas and urban parks) and institutions, sometimes fails to encourage respect for public place through poor design; architectural brutalism of the 60s being one example of impersonal design. It is ironic that some public architectural brutalism are now becoming ‘listed buildings’.

The built-in (though not intended) absence of access to open place in high-rise flats has failed to create a sense of community and individual ownership of open place, for which the ‘new’ built environment was designed. Such planning and architecture, strangles open place at birth – with some, paradoxically, of the new residential areas, built in the late 60’s and early 70’s, winning architectural and planning prizes. Density and the design of buildings and communities represent a group of critical contributory factors that fail to encourage clean and well kept open place.. Ah for the gift of hindsight.

We will all know of areas that fail to foster pride. I am not talking here about ‘fly tipping’ but rather examples like scratches on bus shelters, unsightly graffiti, that seem to take an age to be replaced or removed by relevant authorities. Litter strewn along pavements and roads and other public places that seem to last forever. One consequence therefore is to do little to encourage behavioural attitudes that promote neighbourhood and civic pride. Public pride promotes public place and civic pride; the opposite is a factor in dismissing civic pride, so necessary for the maintenance of public place.

An individual’s or group’s feeling of rejection and neglect by publicly funded services, will form breeding grounds for habitual anti-social behaviour. No less dismissive of respect for public place are those from prosperous areas of town. Typically they will ignore their dog’s mess, though there are clear signs and bins for dog waste bags.

There are well kept public place in many towns and cities – especially tourist areas or the location of civic offices or monuments – where here we would describe the public place as ‘spotless’. Yet those same towns and cities will have neglected open place.

This essay is written to bring attention – if attention was needed – to a seemingly rise in the disrespect of open place by so many. ‘Spotless’ streets are such because authorities ensure that these high community charge areas are kept clean to avoid complaints from articulate residents. These towns will have poor public place, but will be out of sight.

The old chestnuts of ‘I blame the families’ or ‘The schools should be doing more’, are chestnuts on their own or together will not help to promote and maintain the notion and practice of respect for public places.

We have seen as tourists or on business visits that some towns and cities (or at least the areas referred above) take the design and maintenance of public place seriously, accruing societal benefits for residents and visitors.

Solutions to improving respect for the concept and practice of open place, coupled with comprehensive community pride, seems destined to remain illusory for far too long and therefor for all of us. Yet, in remaining optimistic, pleasing architecture, and its contribution to healthy open place, ought help people feel valued and respected. For sure, we all deserve better.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Since retiring from further education, Brenig Davies continues as Queen’s Award Reader for further and higher education, and is a member of several education Boards.

One thought on “Protecting our public places

  1. I clicked on this – and, frankly, I’m disappointed. If I want to read a rant about litter and fly-tipping I can go to social media. Some of the groups there seem to be packed with rants and outrage about these topics (and many others). It’s worrying that getting hot under the collar could lead to raised blood pressure and impact on health – heart attacks and so on. And then to moods of depression. Facebook, we are told from one research survey, does tend to have a negative impact on mental health! Back to this post ‘Protecting Public Places’: isn’t it possible that by complaining about lack of public spirit, community cohesion and civic-mindedness we are actually contributing to the divides in society? We moan about litter bugs and we praise ourselves for a spot of litter-picking. We’re adding to the ‘them and us’ syndrome. Worse is the suspicion that we may be blaming young and younger people for the problems – while those of is of the older generations (baby boomer me – and proud) sit back and say things ain’t what they used to be.
    Besides this there are suppositions in this article I’m not happy with. Agreed – it starts on our pavements. But many Welsh communities don’t have the luxury of pavements! And where are these carefully manicured parks? Local authorities can barely keep up with cutting the grass a few times a year – and sweeping up autumn leaves is probably now a park-keeping practice consigned to history (although that may not be a bad thing for the local park ecology).
    My view – in agreement with the post – is that many, many of these informal public spaces do need care and attention. As do our historic buildings and structures (not mentioned in the main piece). Their general untidiness and disrepair does impact on individuals and whole communities – and it’s a negative impact.
    The well-being of many communities (whether cities, towns, estates or villages) may partly depend on the forgotten, neglected and abandoned public places and spaces being revived.
    And that’s a big job for everyone.

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