It’s Time To Relax Rules In Parks
It started with a row over the hoverboard – it’s this year’s must-have, a silent gyroscopic skateboard operated by minute movements in your toes that works like a Segway without the huge wheels and arms. It’s already becoming popular in Europe, where people are always looking for new ways to travel short distances without the waste and emissions of a car. It doesn’t go very fast (5mph), nobody gets knocked down and since becoming popular the world hasn’t come to an end. Yet like most other things which are fun, it’s been banned in Britain.
This is because of a statute designed for horses and carts. Under section 72 of the Highway Act 1835, motor vehicles on public roads must be registered and their drivers licensed and insured, but as you can’t do that for these things they’re automatically banned. You can be fined up to £500 if you’re caught on one. Police in London have clarified that the boards cannot be used in public at all, either on roads or pavements.
It got me thinking about our public spaces. Why do they forbid so many things we’d like to do, when it seems perfectly okay for councils to monetise parks by hawking off chunks to companies like Vodaphone to stick up ‘hospitality’ tents in them, or to hold sprawling, messy rock concerts – and now expensive ‘Christmas Wonderlands’ – in them?
In most parts of Europe there’s a more relaxed policy to parks – you can play with a ball or have a picnic, walk on the grass or hold an impromptu yoga class if you wish. I see large groups taking stretch classes, playing musical instruments (acoustic only), taking dance lessons and meditation sessions in them all the time. Not so in the UK, where in many you can only keep to paths and look at flowers. But how did this come about? Once our public spaces were places where you could be yourself and practice your skills. Others had interesting things to do and were known as pleasure gardens. In the censorious Victorian era this changed, largely because of the new middle class requiring ‘the correct behaviour of the gentility’ – and the laws were never repealed.
In city squares it was said that ‘the desire for peace is so strong among inhabitants that there is a liveried street-keeper or beadle maintained to cane off boys and dispel organ-grinders and acrobats.’
In ‘The London Square’ Anne Scott-James says; ‘there is no middle class middle-aged Londoner who has not some poignant memory of the London squares of his youth’. She goes on to remark that squares allow for the making of ‘satisfactory friendships’ ie. no Poors. Squares are not parks; many are under lock and key for limited use by the residents, but the same thinking about parks and quiet privacy often extends to our public gardens. They close too early and are marked more by what they forbid than allow.
But we don’t work in factories any more and have learned to contain ourselves via headphones. Why shouldn’t a slow and silent hoverboard be used in them? Why shouldn’t we climb trees, practice acrobatic skills and maybe tightrope walk between them if we choose to without incurring the wrath of a beadle citing 200 year-old statutes? What’s interesting is that the fast-rising POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) in London – 600 more are planned – also operate with draconian laws that extend to no photography.
In an email sent to the chief constables of England and Wales’s 43 police forces, officers were advised that Section 44 powers should not be used unnecessarily against photographers. The message says: ‘Officers and community support officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable.’ But that’s exactly what the POPS guardians are doing. So could not the rules of ordinary parks be relaxed just a little to allow recreation and pleasure without everyone going berserk?