Sunday, 30 August 2009

Who owns the land?Article from Inc Ed site

Britain has a long history of parcelling up and fencing off land that was once there for all to share. For over 200 years people have fought against public land being turned into private property, from the great land trespasses of the '30s to the struggles against the enclosure Acts.

Although we tend to think of these struggles as something that happened in the distant past, there is a thriving organic movement against the ongoing tendency to privatise public space.

Author of Ground Control Anna Minton explains: "Every town and city in Britain today is witnessing new regeneration schemes which are having a profound impact on public life, public culture and democracy.

"Large parts of the city, including the streets, are being removed from a genuinely public realm and handed over to private companies, who own and control the entire area, policing it with private security and round-the-clock surveillance.

"The consequence is high security, 'defensible' gated architecture and strict rules and regulations governing behaviour."

This week, Glasgow council took local residents to court for renovating a patch of land that had lain derelict for 25 years.

The residents, part of the North Kelvin Meadow Campaign Group, were fed up with the eyesore of the disused land, which was attracting drug users.

With little community space of their own, they decided to clear the ground, plant flowers and veg and began to use the land for neighbourhood events and all sorts of wholesome activities.

While many of us might have thought that this was a benefit to the area, the council was more concerned with asserting its property rights.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie attended the court hearing.

"The sheriff declared in court that the community group here have 'done nothing but good.' A plot of wasteland and a magnet for criminal behaviour has become a gorgeous space for kids to play in and for local people to grow food," Harvie says.

"It was standing-room only in court and there could be no better illustration of the strength of opposition to the council's position.

"The decision to take members of the North Kelvin Meadow Campaign to court breaches the council's own policies on derelict land, wastes local taxpayers' money and the injunction they've asked for is petty and unjustified.

"It's not too late for Glasgow City Council to see sense and start supporting this project."

Indeed, some councils have been willing to work with the ingenuity and love of local residents.

Take the Incredible Edible group in Todmorden, Lancashire. The group started by planting a few herb gardens and things blossomed from there.

Far from opposing the group, the local council decided to work with residents and granted them "community growing licences" in July.

It's just as well because the group had not only planted veggies all round town and set up a "food hub" to distribute the produce, they'd already started planting trees including two orchards.

Where the council sees the public as a resource rather than just a passive recipient of services, everyone is stronger.

Glasgow council's mistake has been to attempt to criminalise those who care for their neighbourhoods when they should be drawing on their desire to improve the place that they live.

Richard Reynolds, a leading "guerilla gardener," has helped to create many secret gardens around London, reclaiming disused space.

He explains the modest aims of the radical movement. "It's all about waging war against neglect and scarcity of public space. It's especially important at the moment because there are lots of sites where, because of the recession, not very much is going on in terms of development.

"What we do is go onto these sites and do a bit of planting - vegetables, flowers, and so on - just to make them look nicer."

Guerilla gardening is probably the most well-known elements in a constellation of grass-roots movements to reclaim public spaces that includes, for example, the thronging cycle rides of Critical Mass that reassert the right to use the roads from intensive car use, sometimes in the face of heavy police opposition.

Critical Mass even sparked a newer sister association where dozens of roller-bladers take to the roads en masse in an anarchic, cacophony of music and movement that is a real joy to behold.

However, as welcome and fun as these reclaimed spaces are they offer temporary resistance to a permanent problem that goes deep into our towns and cities.

The creation of a patchwork of gated communities that isolate residents from their area is an ever growing phenomenon. No longer confined to small enclaves of the rich, otherwise ordinary estates are becoming walled in ghettos where you can only come and go through steel-barred gates.

These are literal barriers to building community cohesion where transgressing the borders of these communities is constantly monitored by security guards and CCTV.

Even our high streets are "run" by private companies and patrolled by their guards to ensure that we stick to shopping.

It's a subtle device that most of us are unlikely to notice in our day-to-day lives. What can look like simple repaving and the addition of a few bollards is actually marking out territory where the public is welcome only on someone else's terms.

Minton describes how "even innocent activities such as taking photographs are forbidden, not to mention handing out political leaflets, skateboarding, rollerblading and busking without permission. Disconnected from the surrounding environment and local character of the area, these places feel like they could be anywhere."

These new enclosures are an attempt to sterilise our towns and cities. To immunise us against unexpected and non-commercial activities, they lock out strangers.

However, a society that locks out strangers ends up locking up everyone and we begin to regard even ourselves as alien to our environment unless we do something to say: "These are our gardens, our roads. This is our home."

Unless we take control over our living environment, we may well find that those spaces are taking control over us.