The way people experience, use, and access urban space depends in large part on their socio-economic situation. High personal income and a good job can bring access to all the cultural and artistic pleasures a city has to offer, a place to live with the security of property ownership. Perhaps also a level of power to influence their surroundings, as well as a certain insularity from the concerns of their fellow ‘urbanites’ who share the public transport system, city services, and common spaces with large numbers of people.
At the other end of the scale, the homeless, those with no money, no job, and no home, experience the city in a very different way. Shared urban spaces, rather than being perceived as over-crowded places to avoid, are considered from a viewpoint of security, comfort, and accessibility to food, water, and toilet facilities. A public park in central London, for example, used and enjoyed by hundreds of people every day, becomes a quiet and safe place to sleep at night after the gates have been locked, a place to store belongings during the day (out of sight in the bushes), and close to a regular charity food handout. The police, the street cleaners, and the park keepers know what goes on, but such multiple use is tolerated because they also know that clearing people out of such an area merely shifts them to another location.
Being shown around London by a former homeless person provides a different vision of the city, and the way urban space is perceived. On a recent walk with Viv (a formerly homeless person now with Unseen Tours, a social enterprise company working with the homeless and ex-homeless) we were taken around the Temple and Covent Garden area, and shown the safe places to sleep and where to get food and support. A key message that Viv wanted to get across is that no homeless person wants to be on the street, and although a significant proportion may have mental health problems, the majority have arrived there through addiction, or breakdown of home-life or personal relationships. Recent statistics indicate a significant increase in the number of people sleeping rough in London since 2010. An estimated 6,500 people slept rough in 2013/14 an activity that has been described as ‘frightening, demoralising and isolating‘. In addition the data reveal that many homeless people have one or more support needs: around 40% have alcohol problems, 30% suffer from substance use, and only 25% have no alcohol, substance use or mental health support needs. In addition it is estimated that around 30% of rough sleepers have been in prison at some point, 10% in care, and 10% in the armed forces.
A relatively recent problem for the homeless in central London has been a policy of clearing people away from areas that tourists visit, such as Covent Garden, that used to provide warm, dry and comfortable places to sleep (for example in stairwells near sources of heat), or breaking up of small shelters erected under bridges. As the authorities have found out, however, closing off one area to the homeless just moves them on to somewhere else. Private property owners have exacerbated the problem and we were shown one example of a building under new ownership that had installed bars and gates, CCTV cameras, and paid for private security patrols to close off an area of pavement (public space) because it was a dry area where a small number of homeless would sleep.
If we start to conceptualise urban areas differently, for example, thinking of the ‘city as a commons’ then the homeless can be seen to be as much a part of the ‘common weal’ as anyone else and, as such, have the same rights to share our urban spaces. As David Bollier puts it:
“The conceptualization of ‘city as commons’ represents a serious shift in thinking. Law and bureaucratic programs are not seen as the ultimate or only solution, and certainly not as solutions that are independent of the urban culture. Thinking about the city as commons requires a deeper sense of mutual engagement and obligation than ‘service delivery’, outsourcing and other market paradigms allow.”
An ‘urban commons’ approach would therefore ensure that space is available for the homeless (creating or making available new spaces if necessary) – along with support services to help them address their needs and help find solutions to their problems. The homeless have always been with us, and most likely always will be; trying to eliminate them, or hide them away out of sight, is a pointless exercise, they are actually a product of the way our society operates – we create the homeless – through unthinking operation of market forces, and a failure to support the vulnerable who need help. The numbers of homeless people, how we enable them to live in our shared urban spaces, and how we support them, are indicative of the state of our society.
Viv did not just show us where to sleep, where to get a handout, or a free meal, and support but also was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide with deep knowledge of the history of London. We were shown an ancient roman bath house (mentioned by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield), street lighting operating on sewer gas (which used to be common in every urban area), parish boundary markers, the historical origins of local buildings were described in detail and, of course, we went into the Savoy to see Kaspar the cat and hear his story.
During our tour Viv demonstrated her deep knowledge and love of the city, which had only been enhanced, and not diminished, through experiencing our shared urban spaces in a very different way, although it was clear from her descriptions and stories that no-one deliberately chooses to be homeless. It was also made clear that she felt much safer on the streets than in the hostels provided for the homeless, which were experienced as places of violence, abuse, and fear. In many ways we have not moved much beyond the workhouses and debtors prisons of Dickens’ time.
The mark of an enlightened urban government is one that demonstrates the capacity for sharing our ‘common’ urban spaces with the homeless, but it must also provide resources for the support services needed (or at the very least supporting the charities that provide these services) in order to reduce the number of homeless on the streets. This is a problem that neither privatisation of public spaces nor increasing government regulation will solve; shutting the homeless out from any one area simply shifts the problem around to another area. Eliminating the homeless from central areas only moves the problem out to the suburbs, or the fringes. In large urban areas, ignoring the problem is not an option, especially in a society with growing inequality, increasing immigration, rising property values, zero hours contracts, and less security of employment. (On any one night in London in 2014 it is estimated that 750 people were sleeping rough; of those an estimated 45% were UK nationals and 35% per cent from Central and Eastern European countries).
Thinking of the ‘city as commons’ creates the potential to explore alternative solutions to complex problems like the homeless, as it offers scope for generating new partnerships, and innovative ways to utilise existing spaces and services. We start to think more carefully about who gets included as part of the city, who is eligible to be considered an ‘urban commoner’, how we make use of shared spaces, and more importantly, how we go about deciding the ways in which shared space should be used.
Applying concepts and theories of the commons to urban issues will be one area explored in IASC short course on ‘Managing our Common Resources’ starting on 28th September. It is also worth keeping an eye on the upcoming conference on the ‘City as Commons’ in Bologna in November this year, which will provide some interesting insights into the latest thinking on the various strands of work occurring around urban commons.