Since joining Shared Assets as an intern, I realised I had been pre-occupied with ‘public’ or ‘communal’ spaces and their uses for many years.
I had seen public spaces as a place for art and community-building, as an undergraduate in the USA while assisting the beautiful parades and pageants of Spiral Q Puppet Theatre in Philadelphia. Back then, I marvelled at the way these communal events could re-make streets that were often perceived as uninviting or even unsafe.
I had also seen public spaces as the last resort of the desperate. In March 2011, I was working as a full-time volunteer at the Simon Community, a homeless charity. I took part in a protest in Westminster Cathedral Piazza against a proposed byelaw to ban food handouts and rough sleeping around the Cathedral. While the council decided not to enact the proposed byelaw following consultation, if they had, they would have been bringing an American trend across the Atlantic. Rather than attempting to understand why people are using public spaces in ways many people find upsetting, such bans seek simply to criminalise these people out of these spaces altogether. This is not a new idea; the U.K. has a long history of implementing vagrancy laws, which some academics have argued tend to coincide with periods of economic depression.[i]
With inequality rising during an uncertain economic recovery, now may be a good time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: Now and in the future, what is ‘public’ or ‘communal’ space? Who can use this space, and what are the limits on what they can use it for? These are questions that Shared Assets seeks to address, in practical ways, on a daily basis.
My internship with Shared Assets has given me the language to talk more clearly about the things that both my previous experiences, and my time at Shared Assets have taught me: that certain spaces and places are assets of immense value when (and sometimes only when) they are held for common use. Assets such as parks, waterways and woodlands across the country (and indeed the world) have value not just as amenities (although this aspect is very important), but also as sites for sustainable livelihoods, housing and art. These assets benefit everyone, but can have an especially big impact on the quality of life of the poorest people in society. While wealthier individuals can withdraw to their ‘private’ spaces when communal ones disappear, for the most vulnerable, there may be nowhere else to go.
Shared Assets is challenging us all to re-evaluate how we think about common spaces. How can we sustainably make the most of them in every way from energy and food production, to creating new livelihoods and community spaces, while still being inclusive and equitable to all members of society? I know the Shared Assets team will keep asking these questions, and then seeking innovative solutions in partnership with communities. In this way, they will help us all build a 21st century commons with space for everyone.
[i] Humphreys, Robert (1999) No Fixed Abode: A History of Responses to the Roofless and the Rootless in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillian.