Long Live Southbank

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Things are hotting up in the campaign to save the Southbank undercroft skate park. This is a background blurb from the campaign’s website:

In early March 2013, The Southbank Centre unveiled designs for a £120 million redevelopment of its Festival Wing that revealed their plan to transform the iconic Southbank undercroft skate park into retail units. The Southbank Centre proposes to relocate the revered and popular skate park further down the river, beneath the Hungerford Bridge and build a new skate facility there.

However, the Southbank undercroft is a treasured space, known as the birthplace of British skateboarding and has been home to skateboarders, BMX riders and graffiti artists for the last 40 years. This makes the Southbank undercroft the oldest recognised and still existing skateboarding space in the world. The Southbank Centre’s proposed redevelopment site contains none of these features, has no history and lacks the unique, dynamic architecture that has made the Southbank undercroft a globally renowned street culture space.

Later in March 2013, in response to the Southbank Centre’s redevelopment and relocation plans, a petition directed towards Boris Johnson on Change.org brought the issue to national attention. The petition is still growing and has already been receiving overwhelming support, having been signed by over 30,000 people, highlighting the undercroft’s cultural importance to skateboarders as well as the rest of the British public.

Born from support of the undercroft, our campaign, Long Live Southbank, is dedicated to protecting the Southbank, as it is in its current form. We encourage this because we believe its cultural and historical status to be irreplaceable and that its unique architecture and the vitality of the thriving undercroft community should be present for future generations.

There are now loads of videos flying round the interweb on this. One of them that I particularly like is on the Counterfire website. I like this because the skateboarders speaking in it clearly articulate the broader issues around public space that the campaign connects to. Who is public space for, and how are we going to set out the limits of its use? As the people in the video emphasise, this is a massive issue for London right now, with redevelopments within and outside the centre of the city moving really fast. Who decides what development will be allowed and enabled?

These are important questions that I am trying to grapple with in ongoing research, teaching and community engagement, in which a particular focus is the idea of the commons. I don’t have time to write more about this right now; instead I’ll provide a link to the website of the New Cross Commoners, one local group I have been speaking to recently, and quote a recent interview in which they offer an easy-to-understand example of what they mean by the concept of ‘the commons’:

To explain the commons we sometimes use the example of a square: a public square is controlled and regulated from above, from the municipality, which cleans it and also legally exercises restrictions to its use. A public square gets privatized if, for example, it is sold to a company as part of an estate, and in this case the control is often more strict, the enclosure might become physical as well.

The same square becomes a common when people start using it collectively and organize themselves despite and against the control the municipality or the private estate exercise on it. What is the importance of the commons for a neighbourhood like New Cross? New Cross is one of the neighbourhood in London where the cuts to public services are hitting harder: many public library are closed already, now the hospital and the fire station are under threat, council flats are also privatized despite of long waiting list of people and families without a house.

The government is selling off what is public and at the same time encourages citizens to get together and help each other through the rhetoric of the “big society”. An example of a “big society” project is the new type of free schools encouraged by the government, where “free” is such as in neoliberal “freedom”: those schools are “free” to compete, they are not organized by parents, teachers and students, but entrusted by parents to managers whose job is ultimately to guarantee their competitiveness as businesses.

This is a complex issue, and it has to do with the commons, inasmuch commons can be produced in the interstices between “cuts” and “big society”, and against them.

You can sign the change.org petition (which has over 56 000 signatures at the time of writing) here.

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