Free and Egalitarian Public Spaces (Part Two): Bourgeois institutionalism

Rory Hamilton

Header image: George Square, 1905 (Fæ, Creative Commons)

Social spaces should be designed to collide people together. By colliding people together it makes them sociable. The Oodi Library I spoke of in my last article is meant to be just that – an extension of nearby Kansalaistori Square. In fact, Oodi’s location in Helsinki encourages exactly the type of social collisions that makes it such a success: it is next to Helsinki Grand Central train station, the National Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Botanic Gardens, and parts of the university. Forget the 15-minute city, this is a 5-minute city. 

Street design and connectivity between public spaces plays an important role in supporting our wellbeing. My emphasis on open-plan libraries wasn’t for nothing – when we build spaces they need to be places that people want to stay in and don’t have a time limit. 

So think about where you live, and think about what outdoor spaces you have access to: are they green or are they grey? Natural or concrete? Does the sound of traffic interrupt you, or can you feel disconnected from the rest of the world in the sound of trees? Can you walk anywhere you like or are you restricted to particular paths or pavements? Every time you find yourself in a public space you should question the restrictions you have on your being there.

Open spaces can give us the feeling of connection without being oppressed – but positionality remains important in this context. 

“Working class experience, even of bourgeois institutions, is not bourgeois experience; the working class situation, even within bourgeois institutions, is not a bourgeois situation – this is the reality of class conflict (in every sphere of life).”

(Corrigan and Frith, 1976, p.199)

Here, Paul Corrigan and Simon Frith discuss in ‘The Politics of Youth Culture’ the introduction of state education and its targeted use to impose bourgeois ideology on working class children, including “keeping them off the streets”. 

Green spaces are not inevitably bourgeois institutions as their analysis could be drawn to, but the limits we find placed on their accessibility is ultimately determined by a bourgeois class (more often than not). Take for example, the Scottish Government’s decision to turn part of St Fittick’s Park in Torry, Aberdeenshire, into an ‘Energy Transition Zone’. Being one of Scotland’s most deprived areas, working class communities in Aberdeen are being left behind in an unjust transition that cuts wellbeing in favour of energy profits.

Image credit: Creative Commons / Ric Lander

The Torry community’s participation in nature (i.e. green space) is determined by the Scottish Government management class, and their experience of St Fittick’s Park rests on the permissions given to them. In a stunning example of the Scottish Government’s idea of a ‘Just Transition’ Planning Minister at the time, Joe Fitzpatrick fully acknowledged that ScotGov had weighed up wellbeing and ‘development opportunity’ to choose the latter, “We understand the strength of community feeling in relation to the Energy Transition Zone designation but have accepted that this matter specifically had been fully considered through the planning process.”

Has time passed so quickly from our daily pandemic walks that we forget the value of green spaces? Susan from Friends of St Fittick’s Park would agree: “Everyone should be able to find their own little wild green space, that’s come over a lot in the pandemic.”

But it’s no surprise that Scotland’s bureaucratic-managerial class would choose business opportunities and middle class comfort over the real needs of working class people, who time and again are trampled over and used as an easy scapegoat.  

Let’s take another example of the use of public space: pedestrianisation. A distinct memory from the pandemic for me was the sight of Northcote Road near Clapham Junction station in London being closed off to traffic and cafes, restaurants and local businesses spilling out onto the street in a very European image. 

In recent months and years there has been a strong push towards similar schemes in Scotland’s largest cities: councillors in Glasgow have been reviewing plans to make George Square greener. 

“This is about how we get to and about our city centre, and builds on the work Glasgow is doing to tackle air pollution, promote active travel and improve public transport, including our plans for a Clyde Metro. But it’s also about making the city centre a more attractive place to visit, to do business and to live.”

This has been echoed by work on the redesign of George St in Edinburgh, which at the time, SNP transport Convenor, Lesley Macinnes, said the vision “very much feeds into that European boulevard feel”, pointing to “wide pavements” and “a calmness that will be brought when you remove all of that traffic”.  And in Aberdeen, plans for “Aberdeen Market”, and a revamped Union Street look to be following the plans laid out in the capital and on the Clyde.

Image credit: Creative Commons / alljengi

In the designs for each of these streets, an emphasis is put on wide streets, more greenery, and less traffic. In stark contrast to the bizarre decision-making around St Fittick’s Park, local governments are making choices that promote opportunities for improved physical activity and mental wellbeing, greater engagement with local businesses, and increased natural habitats alongside lower pollution levels.

Each of these developments is occurring at the centre of the cities, and councils are making choices that give people permission to enjoy public space. By widening pavements, there is greater encouragement of physical activity, and therefore chances of social collisions are increased. The increase in greenery makes the appearances of streets more vibrant and diverse, encouraging people to stay there, socialise, and invest in the local economy if they can. 

In the last year I have visited Stockholm in Sweden and Barcelona in Catalonia/Spain. I came back from both revitalised and filled with an appreciation for intelligent urban planning. Notably, in Stockholm (see also Oslo, Norway) the bike lanes were enormous, encouraging active travel (so many people walked or biked), and taking away from fossil fuel guzzling cars. In Barcelona, streets were wide, and trees were everywhere, so when it was hot it felt cooler, and the air was fresh and clean. Access to green spaces also has direct physiological benefits to us: contact with microbes in the environment strengthens our immune systems, improving the resilience of our skin, airways and guts.

So moves to replicate planning like this in Scotland are welcome. We are a European nation, and European culture can be encouraged to grow with a little help and engagement with the local community. As ever, crucial is local government – if our democracy was anything like European levels this would be much easier, but I’ll sound like a broken record if I keep pointing you to our paper on Development Councils.

The reason local government plays such a key role in the implementation of green space and pedestrianisation initiatives is because they are closer to the communities involved. All of this has the potential to be exciting for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but if communities are priced out of initiatives like Aberdeen Market, or they become an exclusive space where only the middle classes mix, the potential for public spaces to become a bourgeois institution like universities, for example, is dangerous. 

During the pandemic we were encouraged to get outside and go for a walk every day – perhaps in a park – and connect with nature. I particularly think of the example I used in my previous article of single parents working from home in cramped children filled spaces and the benefits this offered them if they had access.

Green spaces that are free and accessible to everyone can improve the mental health of a community. The sight of green parks, trees, plants, flowers, and increased species biodiversity not only cleans that air and absorbs the CO2 our multitude of cars emit, but the colours of nature light up a city much more than grey, concrete buildings, interspersed with glass reflective skyscrapers. It’s like the comparison between nuclear power stations and wind turbines – the local community council might see the wind turbines as a blight on the rural landscape, but they’re a hell of a lot more attractive than big block, industrial structures.

Image credit: Creative Commons / zoetnet

So the immediate individual benefits of free green spaces are clear, and doubly so when we consider the effects of poverty on mental health in low income households. Austerity has hit the lowest incomes the hardest, as issues of housing, wages and energy and food costs compound to create a mental health crisis among working class people ignored by almost everyone. When we consider the availability of green prescriptions in New Zealand, cutting the size of St Fittick’s Park is like cutting investment in the NHS. In Lesley Riddoch’s recent piece, Dr Adrian Crofton of Torry Medical Practice concurred: “Urban greenspace is ‘critical infrastructure’ because of its proven health benefits. Removing a third of the park would not merely reduce this resource, but degrade the remainder. To ask how much park is OK to take is like asking how much health the community can afford to lose.”

Just as investing in libraries and cultural centres can help bridge the digital skills gap that is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year, so too can investing in good quality, free green spaces help combat the worldwide cost of depression and anxiety ($1 trillion per year, globally).

It is worth noting how important the integration of pedestrianisation schemes with improved public transport infrastructure is. If you’re closing off access for cars, people need to be able to get there somehow, and encouraging easy accessible alternatives is crucial for bringing people along with you, especially working class communities for whom extortionate public transport costs would be exclusionary and remove access to many developments like this. See Robin’s article for more on this.

Frith and Corrigan argued that youth culture should be “understood as a response to the problems posed by a framework of bourgeois institutions”. As such, bringing people along with you is probably one of the most crucial parts of any new policy. These can’t be plans imposed from the top down, then they really would be bourgeois institutions.

“The problem is to decide in what sense that response equals resistance and under what circumstances that resistance has political implications.”

If the contrasting developments around green spaces shows us anything, it is that the vast majority of Scotland’s political class does not value the nation’s working class population, and the implications of their alienation are not great enough to spur the change they so desperately need.

I would really encourage readers to take a look at a few other examples, petitions and reports:

  1. Incredible Edible: https://www.localfutures.org/programs/global-to-local/planet-local/food-farming-fisheries/incredible-edible-todmorden/
  2. Living Streets’ report on the pedestrian pound (2018): https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/media/3890/pedestrian-pound-2018.pdf
  3. Gavin Brewis’ petition against Glasgow’s anti-working class drinking bye-laws: https://www.change.org/p/end-glasgow-s-anti-working-class-no-drinking-in-public-places-byelaw?source_location=search

3 thoughts on “Free and Egalitarian Public Spaces (Part Two): Bourgeois institutionalism”

  1. Alasdair Angus Macdonald

    There is a very good article in there and one with which I very much concur.

    However, the opening of the article is a long piece of carping, which is, sadly, the modus operandum of so many self-proclaimed ‘radicals’, with an attack on ‘bourgeoise institutionalism’. Why do you need an enemy? Why is blaming a key aim?

    The changes in Glasgow and Edinburgh and elsewhere have been implemented by ‘Scotland’s political class’. Again, the need for a bogey man to BLAME. The plans were developed by ‘professionals’ – another word with dark connotations!!!! Serious attempts have been made by Glasgow City Council (I live in Glasgow) to engage with the public and to involve them in the design process.

    As a retired person, I have enough time to engage in these consultations and my experience is that the people leading them are open to ideas. Problems usually arise when the self-appointed spokespersons for some particular group come along and do the performative rage, insulting the people running the conference and lecturing the rest of us. They have an inhibiting effect on others trying to participate.

    The difficulty for much of the public is lack of time because of work and family/care commitments and, on the few occasions they participate it is because some aspect of a plan affects them adversely – most often the removal of parking space! However, when they have time to participate and engage in the process, they begin to see the wider scale and look beyond the immediate. Often, when changes have been made, such as in George Square, then they actually see the benefit – space, sociability, lack of traffic noise, hearing birds sing, noticing that the Square actually has trees!

    So, please adopt a more upbeat tone. If you are trying to convince people, be positive and recognise your own prejudices about the bourgeoisie, the political classes, the professionals. (Full disclosure – I was a senior professional and, although born and raised in poor circumstances, have become bourgeoise in many respects. I am not a member of a political party but I recognise that politics is essential in a participative society.)

    1. Rory Hamilton

      I wouldn’t proclaim to speak on behalf of anyone apart from myself, I am simply offering an opinion piece on current developments, not lecturing on how to do things. For my own full disclosure, I might consider myself somewhat bourgeoise, however, this is why I felt it important to recognise that my experience of public spaces is not the same as everyone’s (see my discussion of Corrigan and Frith).

      St Fittick’s Park offered a clear example of the potential for things in the sphere of free outdoor green space to go wrong, and deprived communities ending up as collateral damage yet again, and in this article I felt it important to highlight that. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Common Weal had seen a policy commitment implemented only to end up disappointed (National Energy Company, National Care Service, ScotWind, Rent Controls, LEZ, Land Reform, Deposit Return Scheme).

      I don’t think it is an unfair position to advocate for free and egalitarian public spaces that work to the benefit of everyone, and in the same space join the many other voices criticising the goings on at St Fittick’s Park. I’m not actively looking for someone to blame – I think it’s important to hold power to account, and it would be hypocritical of me to advocate for such spaces but not defend them where there is an attack on them.

      As I argue in the piece, local government is a good thing – we need more of it! I only seek to warn against imposition from above in the context of St Fittick’s Park.

      Another example I could have highlighted would be the revamped Battersea Power Station, once a sight of industrial activity, now a huge shopping unit, filled with designer shops inaccessible to the vast majority. Consider the housing developments surrounding the space, with just 9% designated as ‘affordable housing’, entire communities to be priced out. A good piece here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/oct/05/every-square-inch-monetised-battersea-power-station-playground-super-rich

      I would agree with the rest of your comment that, especially for many in the working class, time/work/family/care commitments makes it challenging to participate and that is especially an obstacle to true participatory democracy. Understanding how to overcome those obstacles that exclude voices from decision-making processes is important to enabling meaningful change.

      Thank you for your feedback though, I always used to think I had a fairly positive outlook, however perhaps my recent dismay at some of the things I listed above might have dampened my optimism somewhat. I will certainly come at my next piece with positive zeal and as much hope as I can muster.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald

        Thanks for taking the time to respond at length.

        I agree with your concern about St Fittick’s Park, but I think you were overstretching your article by making it part of a piece about public spaces and the democratising of decisions regarding them.

        There are 2 or possibly three articles in your original article. I think the would have had greater impact by dealing with them separately.

        However, for years I have made similar criticisms of many of the MANY articles by Gerry Hassan. In 2014, for example, he wrote several pieces in which he took apart forensically arguments being advanced by Better Together and other pro Union groups. But very often, rather than putting a full stop, he would add another couple of paragraphs asserting that what he had analysed was no reason for independence supporters to feel complacent because they had not even begun to develop arguments for independence.

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