Imagine a brand new tree-top adventure play area in an urban park, with state of the art climbing features, rope bridges, and super-long ziplines high above the ground. Imagine beneath it a conventional children’s playground – standard swings, slides, a little climbing frame. Up in the trees, children whose parents can afford the ticket price whizz through the air and clamber across bridges. Down below, the rest are stuck with the public swings and slides on the ground. The privatisation of public space has created a two-tier play area, where the ‘haves’ look down on the ‘have-nots’ – literally.

This is Battersea Park in south London, and a private company called Go Ape runs the aerial adventure experience, having leased a corner of the park. The council demolished an existing adventure playground to make way for it, and paid for the new free playground, half the size of its predecessor. Go Ape argues that the revenue they bring in will help enhance and revitalise the park, The council states that “We have a duty to maximise our income wherever we can.”

Privatising public (play) space

Councils have certain statutory duties – providing social care, child protection services and libraries, for instance. Maximising income is not one of them. Some have pointed
out the irony of London councils effectively selling off their public green space, while
£60m of public money will fund the Garden Bridge – just a little further along the Thames from Battersea Park in fact. A space that will be neither public nor green, it seems.

This is not just a London issue. The privatisation of public space is happening everywhere, not just in the capital – and especially in urban areas. A recent Heritage Lottery Fund report estimated that 45% of local authorities were considering disposing of some green spaces and one-fifth were specifically considering disposing of parks.(1) This would be an irreversible and tragic loss.

Few will object to local authorities seeking to attract greater numbers of visitors to parks, and providing more attractive green places for relaxation and leisure activities. But commercialising space that was intended to be free for everyone to enjoy must be a source of concern. The ends do not justify the means, even less so when the financial drivers – namely, funding from central government funding cuts – are needless and arbitrary.

Haves and have-nots

Children develop physical and social skills through play. It also provides formative learning experiences. A play area in a public park should be somewhere where children from all backgrounds mix. But what do kids here learn? That if you don’t have money, you get second best. That, contrary to what you’re told, the best things in life aren’t free. That you are excluded and looked down on, in every sense, on because your parents aren’t rich. Great life lessons there.

In an age where ‘free’ and ‘public’ are increasingly synonymous with ‘devalued and worthless’, and only things that cost money are considered worth having, this tale of two play schemes reinforces that toxic message.

(1) State of UK public parks 2014: research report to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.


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