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Who is keeping us safe from what?

Before its grand re-design, our neighbouring high school had electronic gates, security, metres-high walls of fencing and other mod cons of an open prison. On the single occasion we visited the school, we genuinely expected to be frisked and have our fingerprints taken.

The fences and all those 'security measures' were there to protect the children or us, the adults? It would appear the latter, as, the moment the classes finished for the day, hordes of PCSOs and neighbourhood wardens would swarm the streets, 'just in case'... the children don't leave quickly enough? Talk to each other on their way back/to the bus stop? Hold hands? Joke? Share what they have learned with the rest of the world? Discuss the impact the increased police presence in their neighbourhood may have on them/their families/the area where most of the people are from black and ethnic minority groups?

A few weeks back, we stumbled upon this solution for a 'play designated area' on a council estate:


And again, the main idea seems to be that of prescribed containment rather than an invitation to play and imagine, to prevent rather than encourage human interraction.

It is possible that someone somewhere had thought building fences was about 'safety'. If safety was at stake, when exactly did the children become these flesh-eating monsters whose movement and thoughts have to be monitored 24/7? Or is it us who are no longer children? We weren't born vicious, so what could have made us be like this?

Safety is one of the standard, if not favourite, spins as, obviously, you'd have to be evil to ever question it – a well-used shortcut through the Heygate had to be closed off because of 'safety', and it had nothing to do with the developers' need to get on with making lots of money for themselves. 'Safety' is why people still living on the Aylesbury Estate are incarcerated in their homes (and it's nothing to do with developers' needing to get on with making profit). Safety is also why the zoo animals are in cages, why Dulwich Village and London Bridge area, both with high crime rates, have been boarded up, etc.

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The above happen to be Southwark examples but are by no means exclusive to it. Every single privately managed 'public' space has the fences around it too, not always as visible but no less offensive. Every single attempt to prevent people, be they photographers or buskers or homeless, from being in and enjoying a public space, is that same fence.

Here's a different story from a different place.


This pre-war building was a home to some 20 families of different ages and shapes and sizes, although majority had children. All the homes were council homes. People who lived in them were paediatricians, teachers, out of work, office workers, students, TV journalists, truck drivers, builders, pensioners, academics and middle management and none ever needed or requested a separate entrance. There was no 'ground floor retail' yet we all survived somehow. The courtyard wasn't huge and was in a way quite traditional – a no-longer-functioning fountain structure took up the central part of it, with two largeish flower beds on either side, with walkways all around, stairs up to the communal balcony (rooftop of the three garden flats) but no 'play' area as such. So, when not in a nearby park or at school, the children would use what was there – the narrowish space by the side of the building would become a football pitch and the neighbour would either close her kitchen window or shout at us to keep the noise down. We'd draw in chalk elaborate racing routes for the toy cars across the entire courtyard, round the corners and back. We'd go up onto the balcony then slide down a roof or a tree into the garden next door. Sometimes we'd get really miserable about having to keep quiet between 2 and 5pm which was the unofficial siesta for adults. Sometimes we'd just carry on playing indoors or, on a nice day, play boardgames out in the courtyard, quietly. Sometimes we'd sit outside and read with the really old woman living in one of the garden flats. Sometimes, before we went shopping, we'd ask the neighbours if they needed anything too.

It wasn't all roses – we did not all get on with each other all of the time – there were times when some of the grown ups argued with each other. Sometimes some of the grown ups would scream at the children or not really engage with them. Some of the time it felt like we were living in each others' pockets, as the stream of neighbours coming over for a coffee never seemed to stop.

And all of us not only 'survived' it all but, on the whole, came out of it alright, as we had this space where we could be children or adults or old people and interract with each other, negotiate and learn from and with each other and recognise and accept each other's similarities and differences. The idea that we were, first and foremost, each other's (potential or actual) consumers was most certainly not a norm.

This space is not a thing of nostalgia and can exist elsewhere. It will not be 'given' by any one higher power or authority. Reclaiming our communal spaces and states would be a good first step.

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  • Thanks for that, not familiar with Tim Ingold but will go have a look/listen

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  • Guest - Arthur

    Thanks for a great post. I recently heard anthropologist Tim Ingold speak along the same lines: "The real exercise of power is to hard surface the world so other forms of life can’t get through. Resistance is to bring life back.”

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