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Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Misuse of Public Space

Every day I go down to the sea and take my exercise as a walk along the seafront. I'm afraid it's not very brisk and not very long, and at the moment I'm trailing a stick, but it's good for morale.

A seafront in a coastal town - the Promenade - is a very good example of public space. It's maintained out of taxes and there are no restrictions on access. Taxpayers fund the paving, the lighting and the cleaning though private donors often enough fund seats and benches In Memory of a dead family member. There is no policing and though there are signs prohibiting this and that (it varies from town to town), everyone and anyone is free to come and go, more or less as they please.

And, of course, some people behave anti-socially. And each of us will have their own ideas about what is the most anti-social form of behaviour. Take your pick:

- Is it young men, heads down, cycling along as fast as they can?
- Is it skateboarders?
- Is it dog owners using the Promenade as a convenient place for their dogs to shit?
- Is it children running and shouting?
- Is it alcoholics leaving tins and bottles everywhere?
- Is it rough sleepers lying on benches?
- Is it people lighting barbecues on the beach?
- Is it smokers?
- Is it people playing loud music?

Whatever you think, I want to emphasise that there are two different kinds of anti-social behaviour illustrated by this list.

First, there are behaviours which impose a cost on taxpayers through the demands they make on public services. Councils clean up the dog shit and even if dog owners Pick Up after their animals, then the bins have to be emptied and the shit carted to landfill. Actually, not a very pleasant job. In effect, there is a subsidy here to dog owners, since everyone has to pay towards the - not insignificant - costs of clearing their muck. We wouldn't tolerate it if it was the dog owners who deposited their own shit on the promenade; it's unclear why we tolerate their dogs' shit.

But when a dog owner allows their animal to jump on a complete stranger who happens to be passing, then this is a different kind of anti-social behaviour. It's an invasion of someone's personal space and their right to go about their everyday business peacefully and unmolested. It's in the same category as barbecue fumes, loud music, and second-hand cigarette smoke. Curiously, dog owners seem to think strangers should welcome assaults from their dog - but imagine what they would think of another human being who came up to them,uninvited, and started pawing - even if that person was saying "It's all right, I'm friendly!"

Of course, there has to be some Give & Take. Promenades after all aren't meant to be places for those who (like me) enjoy silence and solitude - though I am pro-children and I don't have any problem with them running and shouting and so on.

But in the Give & Take, questions do arise about just how much an average user of Public Space should Take. I'm not sure we really know how to debate this. I'm not sure that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty will yield an obvious answer to the question, Should barbecues on beaches be allowed?

The easy solution adopted my many English seaside councils is to partition public space - on this beach you can barbecue, on that one you can't. But of course, barbecue smoke does not recognise such distinctions.

Our most famous beach at Brighton has Dog Friendly sections, quite big ones, though it doesn't have any Child Friendly ones. It's not really satisfactory because dogs off the leash run everywhere. In Worthing, the council expects dog owners to leash their dogs when walking on the promenade. But, of course, they don't.

In Brighton, cyclists are directed towards cycle lanes painted along the promenade. In Worthing, the lanes were there once and have now been painted out. Cyclists can cycle anywhere. I think this is a better idea: the lanes encourage those young men with their heads down and that's dangerous because children will without thinking run into the cycle lane. Even adults will wander into it as they stroll along chatting. I am pretty sure that No Lanes is the safer option, since everyone has to stay more alert.

Well, there are some thoughts.

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