Header Image: Oodi Library Helsinki (Bahnfrend, Creative Commons)
I was recently stranded in Newcastle for five hours on my way down to London. I found myself in need of a space to work that wasn’t going to cost me a coffee and a cake to stay there while I waited, with good plug access, and a quiet, non-disruptive atmosphere.
Since the pandemic, I have built up quite an appreciation for public spaces which provide this. As a student I had the luxury of university libraries and study spaces where I didn’t feel obliged to ‘buy a space’ or have a time limit, but since leaving my studies my options have severely reduced, and I can’t help but feel that inclusive public spaces which are free and egalitarian are becoming few and far between.
For many of you, I’m coming to this late: 83 libraries in Scotland have closed since 2009/10, and public spending on them has gone down by 30% despite a 40% uptick in footfall according to recent figures. Across the country, just 544 public libraries are left to cater for 45 million visits per year.
Of course, at the heart of these cuts are the cuts to local government, and the forced hand many councils are being dealt by Holyrood centralisation. Take Aberdeen, for example, the SNP-led council has closed six libraries across the city to add an extra £280,000 to its budget for other crucial services like health, care, and schools.
But should free and egalitarian public spaces not also be considered a crucial public service?
To understand this, the context of the pandemic is important: enforced working from home was challenging for many low income families who had either little or poor quality technology and limited space (or at least child-free space) to work in.
Providing free, comfortable spaces which are universally accessible (therefore should theoretically have no stigma attached) is crucial for enabling working-class people to be their best, and to participate in public life. Save Aberdeen Libraries campaign argue that, “People living in poverty are less likely to be culturally, politically and civically active; this can lead to a downward spiral where the voices of those in the most deprived circumstances are not heard and their needs given less priority.”
At the heart of this issue is local democracy, and inclusion in local decision making. So let’s look at somewhere that has done the opposite with more participatory decision making, and more public investment.
Finland’s Oodi Library was a case study in public participation in planning, with more than 3,000 citizens voting on the design of the library, crowdsourcing ideas, and collectively spending €100,000 of the allocated budget.
The library was designed, thanks to the participatory process, to include:
- A restaurant
- A cinema
- Games and games rooms
- Shared tools and instruments
- Events spaces
- A small library and a reading room
The result? A cultural centre opposite the Finnish Parliament that citizens have a sense of ownership over with 50% of citizens in Helsinki using the space at least once a month and 20% using it weekly.
“It belongs to them. That’s clear if you look at how popular Oodi is now.” (Harri Annala, librarian)
This inclusive approach gives everyone a sense of ownership, and as such co-designed public spaces can be a welcoming space for everyone, allowing people of all backgrounds to thrive, especially those who find themselves exploited or forgotten about in other spaces.
Image: The book room, Oodi Library, Helsinki (Ninaras, Creative Commons)
Because really that’s what these spaces should be: places to be yourself. You can feel part of a community, and feel welcomed by other users, but you can equally feel free to retreat into yourself if you desire.
Independent coffee shops are great for supporting local businesses, but if you can’t afford to regularly (or even irregularly) spend £3.00 just to try and get a little bit of work done or switch off from life, then it’s not an inclusive space for you.
On top of that, the clientele will likely be those who can afford to spend that much, and the price threshold therefore creates a barrier on the basis that a certain type will go to those establishments. This means if you dont look like them, talk like them, spend money like them, you won’t feel part of a community, you won’t feel like you fit in, and that sense of community is actually pretty important on a subconscious level.
In this sense, it’s not just important to have the space in the first place, the design of the space is crucial too.
The tidiness, and the view of a building might not seem that important in terms of productivity, but productivity simply doesn’t happen in a crowded, noisy, dark, or cramped space. I’ll hedge a good bet that for the majority of us we appreciate plenty of desk space (if that’s your type of job), with large windows that let in plenty of natural light – a space that you want to stay in.
Having an open plan is important on a number of levels. First it takes away from the feeling of claustrophobia the same way that high ceilings do. Second, the combination of open space and a good view or tall windows is that it provides a similar feeling of wellness that being outdoors does, it opens up the space even further. And finally, you can see the other people you share the space with so you build a sense of community without even knowing anyone or without being involved in something.
As Benedict Anderson might say, you have formed an imagined community: none of you know each other, but you see each other in a similar space (perhaps frequently), and between you there is a constructed shared goal, of productivity, learning, self-enhancement / awareness. You are connected not through oppression, but relief.
All of this can be motivating, but equally, because you are in an open space you don’t feel like you have to compete with the others you share the space with. It’s the ability to opt in and out of the community as you please.
What’s also important about these spaces, from libraries to parks, is that they remain in (or return to) public ownership. When we open up our spaces to private ownership, they become billboards and advertising spaces. Take open plan buildings again: the tall windows aren’t plastered with advertising, and if you pasted over the view there would be outrage, so why do we let this happen in other public spaces which have been privatised?
“It’s more of a cultural space. You don’t need to consume anything.” (Andy Johansen, visitor to the Oodi Library)
For many it might be hard to stomach major investment in more ‘free things’, when we’ve got an NHS in crisis, a planet burning around us, and food and energy prices soaring. However, the value of free and egalitarian public spaces cannot be understated. As Tory MSP Miles Briggs has said,
“Libraries are not just a place to borrow books, they are at the heart of local communities, and make a real difference to the daily lives of millions of Scots. Free, high-quality public libraries are key to addressing so many of Scotland’s most pressing challenges – from the ever-widening attainment gap, to Scotland’s growing digital skills needs, to our cultural recovery from the pandemic.”
Indeed, for every £1 invested in libraries, the cost-benefit gained is £6.95, and they are key to closing the digital skills gap which according to Save Aberdeen Libraries, “costs the UK economy an estimated £63 billion every year.”
So investment in libraries and cultural centres can open up a multitude of services and spaces for activity, from Lego building, to book clubs, ESOL sessions, writing groups, to band practice, sewing machines, events and talks, and tourist information desks – the potential is endless, if we just valued the space in the first place.
How do we do this? Simply really, we make it law. Finland’s Library Act provides the legal framework that enabled its participatory approach. The Act aims to improve literacy, make information available to the public and, most importantly, promotes equality. As a result, public libraries are some of the most popular cultural institutions in the country.
Investment in good public spaces is important, and that means not just turning a dingy old building with no light, and low ceilings into a “free space”; it means creating space that people want to come to. The same goes for our parks and green spaces.
If the pandemic taught me to love libraries, then it also taught us as a society that massive state-led investment in key infrastructure can make an enormous difference to individuals, communities and businesses, up and down the country.
Finland has been successful in making it absolutely normal for citizens to be responsible for designing and budgeting major public infrastructure. Let’s follow their lead, trust our citizens and make free and egalitarian public spaces the understated, pioneering spaces for local democracy that they should be.