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August 22, 2018

Privatisation of space

When is public space not public space? The answer might be when our free access to that space is restricted in some way.  However, we seem to accept that many public places, national monuments and so on, should be able to charge for entry on the basis that the costs of maintaining these public assets need to be met from somewhere. But where to draw the line? Is this the slippery slope towards the privatisation of our public spaces? Recent events in Glasgow and Edinburgh serve to highlight the thin line between public and private space.


Catriona Stewart The Herald

WHEN the Victorian philanthropists gave up their land for the common good of the common man, could they have imagined what like those greenspaces would be 175 years later?

Much they would recognise: the fine entrances of imposing iron gates, the ornate railings, the avenues of trees, grand terraces and rainbow flowerbeds.

How would they feel, however, to see their gifts fenced off from general use and trampled by festival fans?

In Glasgow this summer, Kelvingrove Park has been commandeered by Fiesta x FOLD, an event that began last year in the park’s bandstand but this year spreadeagled into the greenspace proper. This meant large hoardings going up to prevent passers-by being able to glimpse performances for free and a national cycle route closed to accommodate it.

Residents at Glasgow Green had it the worst in the city with the TRNSMT music festival, which ran over two weekends before the singer Bruno Mars took up residence. The combined events put the space out of use for a month. Local residents complained of having what is, essentially, their garden removed from them without their say-so.

Of course, the organisers of TRNSMT came back swinging, saying the event was of wider economic benefit to Glasgow, residents had been offered tickets and it was a chance to show off the city to the international performers who took part.

Kelvingrove and Glasgow Green are not the only city parks being hawked for profit. There is a licensing application in for a German beer festival on Queen’s Park Recreation Ground, which was already used in June by Zippos circus.

In Victoria Park there is a stooshie over plans from Glasgow City Council’s Land and Environmental Services to grass over 28 of the main flower beds in the formal gardens at the end of the summer.

These are Victorian flower beds, part of a landscape listed by Historic Environment Scotland, and the Friends of Victoria Park group puts up a thin edge of the wedge argument against the local authority’s intentions, believing the remaining flower beds will soon also be under threat. Already the park has lost planting at its bowling greens and in its, again historic, Fossil Grove.

The council suggests the Friends might like to take over the flower beds but, firstly, it is a large ask from a small volunteer group and, secondly, that takes paid work from council employees.  

Trying to pass responsibilities for parks onto Friends groups is a common tactic seen from local authorities around Britain as maintenance budgets are slashed.

Victoria Park recently hosted FriendsFest, a festival based on the American sit-com. Friends of Victoria Park wanted the council to pledge to use any money from FriendsFest to maintain the flowerbeds, however, income generated by the parks is pooled and shared out generally among the council’s Land and Environmental Services.

In Edinburgh, hoardings have gone up around Princes Street Gardens to prevent sight of the Summer Sessions event, to general dismay.

Surely an entrepreneurial city should monetise its assets in straightened times, even if that’s using a park as a drive-in movie theatre or music venue? When budgets are tight, low priority issues need special case pleading to ensure they have the resources they deserve. It’s interesting, given all parks provide for communities, that there isn’t a national body to defend them.

Parks, the lungs of our cities, surely are a special case and not to be colonised by private events. Functional and beautiful playgrounds for adults and children, they are gardens for those who live in flats. They cool the air of cities in summer temperatures. Parks support current key policy areas – outdoor play in education and a need to encourage exercise to stave off obesity. They are good for mental health.

Most of all, they are “ours”, a collective, shared and, importantly, free amenity, and so the privatisation and commercialisation of open spaces feels jarring. It is cannot be right to prevent use of these common plots for the sake of limited numbers of people.

There is, however, only so much charity to be gleaned from local communities and only so much revenue in council coffers.

If the parks must earn their keep, above all they already give us, then there should be discussions about more creative, less intrusive ways to do it. A good start would be a cap on the number of days a year a park can be out of general commission. They must not become event spaces first and parks second.

Parks exist as rare egalitarian spaces where equal access for all should be enshrined.

They are public property, not revenue streams and to make them so would be a short sighted move. Without a campaigning body, it’s up to communities to protect their parks. Start by using them: the more people are using them, the less likely we are to lose them.