Although anti-social behaviour (ASB) is largely associated with ‘rough’, i.e. poor estates, there’s also a fear of similar problems in public spaces. Whereas the first venue tends to only affect those living there, and the government’s respect agenda supposedly targets this, the second venue is being talked up with reference to outdoor drinking. There’s a discourse of fear around parks and public squares, which CABE want to design out. However, there are differences of place that complicate this accepted story somewhat.
Where I live now there are few parks that are fully accessible public spaces. One park is really small, with the town museum at one end and a kids playground at the other. It’s pleasant enough, with a fairly average cafe, but you couldn’t have many people in it. At the other end of town there’s a bigger park, but this has no facilities except kids playgrounds, and is used by dog walkers and teenagers. Families do go to the playgrounds, but you wouldn’t picnic there. In order to stop ASB, the second park is subject to an alcohol ban, so if you did you couldn’t drink.
Where I used to live in Hackney, there was little fear of the two parks I lived between (Finsbury and Clissold). In both a real mix of classes and ethnicities use the space: lots of people picnic, play football, sunbathe, drink and sometimes smoke cannabis, take kids to the playground, and use the cafes. In Finsbury Park there seemed to be a small street population smoking dope and drinking special brew, but this didn’t seem to put off the middle-class parents, and this low-level disorder sits side-by-side with a playgroup and an art space. I don’t think there would be any support for alcohol bans, and at times this would kill the parks’ atmospheres.
This seems counter-intuitive: of these, the parks with the most alcohol/drug taking are far more popular. My feeling is that the London experience is caused by the sheer force of numbers. Given that the parks are extremely busy/popular, it’s hard to feel unsafe, even if there are differences in norms of behaviour. Furthermore, this force of numbers self-polices so that anti-social behaviour doesn’t happen.
Where I live now the middle-classes are conspicuous by their absence. There’s a private park in the area, that’s been developed on an estate (as in landed property, not housing estate) with formal gardens. People can get an affordable season ticket so they can have their picnics / playground time in a non-public space, and if you want to take a bottle of wine that’s fine.
There’s obviously something different between these places. I’d suggest that there is a difference in the history of how spaces are used (in Hackney some parks are like those described, and some aren’t), that may be caused by the population around them. However, there’s also a difference in how cultural divides work. I don’t think the white middle-classes in London, for example, have any more friends out of their ‘group’, than they do anywhere else. However, there is more ‘recognition’ of others, if that’s the right word. It’s harder for people to avoid the crowd if they’ve got to get the tube to work instead of driving to work. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also reduces fear.