Learning from the Selfish Giant

Oscar Wilde’s short story is a beautiful, enduring parable.  It’s relevance for today is starkly illustrated by a housing estate in Lambeth where a wall was built to separate children from different housing tenures.  Sadly, although this case has hit the headlines, it’s not unique.  At one level, it’s yet another example of private developers, including social (sic) landlords, running amok.  But there’s a much deeper significance to this issue.

Paranoia-fueled social segregation and the use of walls to enforce it can be traced from antiquity to Trump.  But it signifies a distinct 21st century regression that can be linked to the distorted place of housing in contemporary society.  The cult of private home ownership is one factor, but it goes wider and transcends tenure.  Before a meeting last week, I wanted to drink my coffee in the sun-lit communal garden of a Camden council estate, but it was fenced off and gated in a similar way to the private gardens of Victorian squares in Kensington.  Like my hero Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill”, I found a way in, only to discover there was nowhere to sit.  This stingy attitude to space that is at least communal, even if it isn’t truly public, is typical of new property developments where the acronym “POPS” (privately owned public space) has become insidious.  In such places, it feels as though public space is meant to be seen, but not used, except under conditions.

I recall doing some field research at a typical private property development in Kingston-upon-Thames where improving the “public realm” was one of the benefits that would, supposedly, result.  This was part of a quid pro quo, agreed with the council, for the developer being relieved of providing any non-market rented housing, again, a familiar tale.  The identikit plaza – branded bars, cafes, restaurants and shops beneath private apartments, with token public art – was pleasant enough, but included invisible social barriers.   As at the Camden council estate, there were no public benches (or public toilets, another important feature often absent).  All the seating (and toilets) was provided by the food and drink outlets.  In other words, you could only sit down, relax and enjoy the public realm (and go to the toilet) if you could afford, at least, a cappuccino.  At one point, I rested against a low wall, while carrying out my observations.  Almost immediately, I was challenged by a security guard who, apparently, had been watching me on CCTV.  He was friendly and a bit embarrassed, but said the residents who paid him were anxious to keep an eye on “loitering strangers”.  Someone I interviewed in a gated (actually, literally walled) community in another part of London, said:

“People outside say ‘it’s a walled city’ and my answer is ‘the walls are open’.  Anyone can come in.  There are lots of people here who have middle class values, but if you’re prepared to behave in a way that’s reasonable, you can come here…I’m not a shrinking violet, but there’s no way I’d go to any of those pubs across the road on my own, but here I feel completely safe and locked within my community. I don’t have a prejudice against people who come from Woolwich, as long as you’re prepared to operate by the reasonable standards of our community…”    

Reading this back nearly eight years later, the foreshadowing of some Brexit tensions are hard to avoid.  In fact, the constipation of the use of public space is part of the same “democratic deficit”.  As well as skateboarding, drinking alcohol that hasn’t been purchased at an expensive bar and a general anxiety about young people, limiting freedom of political expression has become commonplace in corporate-space.  Having organised several protests in areas that might be considered intrinsically part of the public realm, including Parliament Square and City Hall, I’m very familiar with the restrictions placed on people who want to demonstrate in public.  Many of these have been adopted within the last decade or so and reflect transfers of ownership and management away from democratically accountable bodies, towards private corporate interests.

But these different forms of social separation operate at different levels and extend to our own front doors.  At work, I frequently encounter an inability or reluctance of people to communicate with their neighbours, sometimes about very basic things.  Increasingly, I find myself called upon to mediate situations that, in the past, would not have required the intervention of external, official agencies.  We often talk and think about “housing privatisation” in terms of public policy and the transfer of public assets, but there’s another aspect of privatisation in which some of the day-to-day habits of social exchange and civility have been lost behind the edifice of private domesticity.  The American academic Andy Merrifield has described contemporary cities producing a state of “tragic intimacy of proximity without sociability…encounter without real meeting”.

Many of these issues converged around the body of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.  I’ve written before about the significance I attach to this appalling event and the warning it sends about the possible consequences of urban alienation, particularly when laced with racism and fear of the young.  I’ve heard many people talking about the segregated Lambeth playground with “Is this what we’ve come to?” disgust.  Our housing and urban policy is creating very divisive landscapes, but it’s not too late.  We need to remember the lesson of the Selfish Giant.  He built so many physical and social barriers around himself that in the end, he endured an eternal winter of loneliness.  But when he smashed the wall down, the spring and happiness returned.


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