Whose streets?

Public spaces became increasingly valued during lockdown – and increasingly policed. We must continue to reclaim and celebrate it for everyone, says Morag Rose

October 28, 2020 · 7 min read
The LRM in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens (Photo: John Hawes)

‘The streets belong to everyone’ has been the manifesto for my art and activism for many years. The LRM (Loiterers Resistance Movement) is a psychogeographical collective based in Manchester, and we believe in the power of playing out on the streets. More specifically, we use walking together as a way to explore our environment and ask difficult questions about who and what the city is for. Our manifesto states: ‘We all like plants growing out of the side of buildings, looking at things from new angles, radical history, drinking tea and getting lost, having fun and feeling like a tourist in your home town. Gentrification, advertising and blandness make us sad. We believe there is magick in the Mancunian rain… The streets belong to everyone and we want to reclaim them for play and revolutionary fun.’

LRM embarks on creative walks, drifts or derives to decode the palimpsest of the streets, uncover hidden histories and discover the extraordinary in the mundane. We aim to nurture an awareness of everyday space, (re)engaging with, (re)mapping and (re)enchanting the city. At the heart of this is a belief in the value of public space.

This means somewhere, anywhere, people can freely gather or pass through without permissions or tickets or entrance fees. It’s the street or square or green, often somewhere mundane we don’t always pay attention to – but where we can encounter other people, negotiate difference and enjoy serendipitous encounters. See and be seen, play hopscotch or football or ‘I spy’, eat a packed lunch, meet a neighbour, plan community action, read a book, make a speech or simply do nothing. We are the public and in shared spaces we become part of our community at an everyday, experiential level.

Policing space

The very existence of public space has been threatened by neoliberal enclosure, securitisation and commercialisation. Austerity led to cuts in enabling infrastructure such as public toilets. Rather than genuine public space, many cities now have ‘privately owned public spaces’ (‘pops’). Use of these areas and there may be restrictions on activities, from handing out flyers to swearing or lying down. Legislation such as ‘public space protection orders’ have introduced similar penalties.

Before lockdown, Greater Manchester Law Centre and Greater Manchester Housing Action had been opposing new rules that effectively criminalise homelessness. The policy was not enacted due to Covid-19 but activists remain vigilant.

Thinking about who is using public space-and who isn’t – helps uncover the power relationships that shape our lives. Simply being in a communal environment can offer respite from the domestic sphere and enable a sense of quiet belonging and tacit togetherness. The desire for everyone to be able to shape public space by being in it – to claim the right to the city – remains an aspiration, however, rather than a reality. Some bodies are policed much more vigorously than others. The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the pernicious racism that affects who feels safe in public. Anti-racism protests are also powerful examples of being together and taking up space as catalysts for action.

Simply being in a communal environment can offer respite from the domestic sphere, and enable a sense of quiet belonging and tacit togetherness

Spatial inequality, like so many inequalities, was intensified by lockdown. Government guidance assumed everyone had garden access and there was a classist tinge to condemnation of people in parks. At the same time, there was a renewed appreciation of communal green space and the hyper local. Mutual aid networks formed new bonds between neighbours. We paid closer attention to our surroundings.

Yet anecdotal evidence also suggests that emptier streets often lead to more street harassment. Friends have noted increased sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic abuse, and perceived moral judgements passed on those who move slowly or rest on a bench.

The need to socially distance, an increase in home working and a reduction in public transport also led to a plethora of local campaigns to increase active travel and improve facilities for walking and cycling. In many areas, licensing restrictions have been relaxed to allow cafes, bars and restaurants to extend onto pavements and newly closed roads. While this has been welcomed by many, it is space for paying customers – not to be confused with public space. Private space encroaching further onto the commons is another exclusion on economic grounds. By cluttering streets, removing parking or narrowing accessible routes, such changes also fail disabled people.

After the lockdown

We must protect our rights to be in non-commodified and un-prescriptive places. Until social distancing is abandoned completely, we will continue to face the challenge of gathering together but apart – and of finding new ways to take up space. My own interventions have tended to be at a micro, hyper-local level. I have dearly missed the sensations and serendipities of walking with others in the real world but alternatives have brought their own particular benefits.

Since 2006, LRM has facilitated free communal walks in and around Manchester in the first Sunday of the month. We didn’t want to stop them during the lockdown because it felt more important than ever to continue these conversations, but we had to adapt. So we’ve been ‘walking together, alone’ using technology to keep connected. Every first Sunday, Loiterers follow the same creative walking instructions, applying them wherever, and however, they wish. We each wander at our own pace in our own local environment, inside or out, sharing experiences via group chats. You are welcome to join us (thelrm.org).

Moving beyond our locality has made these events accessible to people previously unable to join us and enabled collaborations with walking artists such as Blake Morris and Sonia Overall, whose works share similar themes and who have shared new scripts for us to follow.

Together, we resist the idea that we are all suddenly flâneurs – isolated, atomised and detached from each other and our environment. We reassert the value of public space as enabling active participation in our communities. We need to stay curious and pay close attention to what is, and what is not, happening in public space, to absences and exclusions. Holding ground, keeping places free for everyone, matters more now than ever.

Recent restrictions can be a catalyst for a reinvigorated relationship to the outside, but we must take a holistic approach to creating a truly open and accessible public realm. This includes tackling street harassment and the oppressive structures that enable it, alongside a commitment to inclusive architecture and design. It means listening to people who dwell there already and thinking imaginatively about for whom, and what, our everyday environments should exist.

Morag Rose is an anarchoflâneuse and lecturer in geography and planning at the University of Liverpool. This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

Review – Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors

D Hunter's 'Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors' is an exploration of working-class struggle and strength, writes Liam Kennedy

Bank Job directors Daniel and Hilary

Review – Bank Job

Jake Woodier reviews a new documentary film that brings heist aesthetics to a story of debt activism

Review – Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry

Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine's edited volume is a powerful indictment of the modern migration complex writes Nico Vaccari

Review – National Theatre Connections 2020: Plays for young people

From climate change to the perils of the information era, the collection powerfully explores the struggles facing contemporary teenagers, writes Jordana Belaiche

Gambling with lives

Betting firms have infiltrated football culture and destroyed lives. James Grimes argues its time to reclaim the sport

Political goals and corporate carewash

Marcus Rashford is challenging neoliberal framings of poverty. We should call him a hero, argues Siobhan McGuirk – without letting his sponsors off the hook