In the midst of a national emergency, Bloomsbury’s gardens reclaim their original Georgian character.
It is well-known by now to all that we should only be leaving our homes for necessities – for essentials, or for our once daily form of outdoor exercise.
This ‘lockdown’ has meant that Bloomsbury is possibly the quietest it has ever been since its original Georgian conception in the early 19th century. For the first time in two hundred years, the people on the streets of Bloomsbury are only those that actually live in Bloomsbury, leading to a new perspective on the use and appreciation of its renowned public spaces.
For once we can visit St George’s Gardens and Brunswick Square in good weather and not be faced with hordes of tourists sprawling over the open spaces, more numerous than the very blades of grass or leaves on the trees. We don’t have to worry about crowds of miscreants, either rough-sleepers begging for change or simply collapsed on the ground with needles sticking out their arms, or crowds of wannabe gangsters from Westminster Kingsway College blasting wannabe gangster music surrounded in a cloud of smoke. For once we don’t see bins overflowing left right and centre, with litter blowing across the spaces and pigeons swarming around some ignoramus chucking food across the ground and wrappers over their shoulder. All this chaos has departed, and in its absence we can see and appreciate Bloomsbury as it was intended two hundred years ago – as a beautiful place, whose open spaces were intended solely for the private and quiet enjoyment of its residents.
So when things return to normal, whenever that may be, surely we should be asking the question: should Bloomsbury be open to all as it was before, or should we consider restricting at least some of its spaces solely for the use of its residents?
Now anyone who has had dealings with Camden’s councillors will know that this idea would come up against immediate resistance, not least because less than half of Bloomsbury’s nine councillors even live in Bloomsbury. Their own personal living arrangements aside, both London-wide policy and Camden policy is dominated by a vague ideology of ‘inclusivity and openness for all’ perhaps most adequately expressed by Sadiq Khan’s particularly vague ‘London is Open’ campaign in the wake of the referendum result.
Apparently inclusivity and openness for all means that all spaces should literally be open to all, with councillors going so far as to insist that even council estate car parks and bin storage sheds should actually be open to the general public. So if a bin shed is a public space which should be kept open to the world’s population in the name of openness and inclusivity, it’s hard to imagine councillors supporting the closure of Bloomsbury’s gardens.
But there are financial benefits to restriction. It’s quite clear that the levels of street cleanliness have improved dramatically on both the streets and in the squares. Once a fairly common sight, overflowing bins simply don’t seem to occur anymore, and litter in the streets is at an all-time low. Even our local dossing street cleaners seem to be able to keep on top of things.
Presumably then, restricting public space to the local population would reduce the costs of street cleaning dramatically.
The fact that the problem of littering seems to have evaporated suggests that the individuals who do deface our streets are not those who live in the area, but those who come to visit from afar and those who commute into Central London to work. From a moral perspective, it seems hardly fair that those living in Central London should have to bear both the unsightliness of litter and the cost of having it cleared up. Indeed, it hardly seems fair that business should benefit from the tourism industry while residents are left to pick up the bill for cleaning up the mess.
From a heritage perspective too, restriction could be argued to be positive. Bloomsbury’s squares were not only initially restricted to residents of Bloomsbury, but were also often restricted solely to the residents of that square. Bloomsbury’s two most well-preserved squares also happen to be exactly those two squares which have retained this system: Mecklenburgh Square, and Bedford Square. To restrict the squares as they once were could then be argued to enhance Bloomsbury’s special character.
But should restriction be only applied to the squares, or perhaps it could go even further? There is little need for example for commuters and tourists to have access to Bloomsbury’s residential backwaters. These roads are however used by commuters as a sort-of pedestrian rat-run, and this use leads to an unfortunate build-up of litter. Litter bins on these backwaters are considered inappropriate by Camden, so commuters simply chuck their litter on the floor. Sweepers who are tasked to visit these backwaters once daily rarely do, perhaps reflecting the impossibility of that task, and Camden’s monitoring officers cannot hope to monitor all these streets adequately. One monitoring officer for Bloomsbury has an estimated 50 miles of streets to monitor.
It makes sense in a way to restrict these routes from commuting pedestrians, just as the GLA and Camden have restricted residential streets from commuting cars. Such a change would mean less littering, less money spent on street cleansing, and more effort applied to keeping the designated pedestrian routes at an acceptable level of cleanliness.
This would lead to problems of course, similar to those encountered when traffic routes are restricted. Which routes would be designated as commuting routes? Residents on those routes might not be happy at the increased business of their streets. But then again, business would be happy at the increased level of footfall outside their shopfronts.
Perhaps an appropriate trade-off would be to entirely pedestrianise these routes so that only pedestrians travel on them but no cars, thereby increasing the footfall but reducing the density and noise. Anyway, it seems that Camden are insistent on removing cars from almost every street in Central London so to cater solely for pedestrians wouldn’t be too radical a change.
From an historical perspective too, this would indicate something of a return to Georgian Bloomsbury. Originally many residential streets were closed and gated and manned by a warden. These gates actually persisted up until fairly recently, when the LCC ordered their removal in the 1920s with the rise of the motor vehicle. The only remnant of these gates and gatehouses, once a common sight throughout Bloomsbury, are those outside the main entrance to UCL, and of course those outside Downing Street. Perhaps with the decline of the motor vehicle in Central London, it makes sense to return to the way that things were.
So if restriction of backwaters and gardens to the resident population were on the whole supported by residents, and even by businesses, it could potentially be a popular policy for councillors running for election or reelection. After all, the only people who would lose out by such a policy would be exactly the set of people without a vote, while it would benefit exactly those with a vote. So what’s to lose except adherence to ideology?
Indeed, Bloomsbury’s public spaces could even be made profitable for the Council, helping to fund their upkeep. Similar to the Oyster Card system, why not offer to ‘outsiders’ the option of purchasing a day pass to visit as many squares as they can? Beyond the profitability of such a scheme, it would help to impress upon visitors the importance of the garden squares, and that they aren’t just open to anyone to mess around in.
This could be an effective system for entry to squares and residential streets. While residents get a ‘Bloomsbury Card’ which lets them into places for free, other visitors would need to top-up their Bloomsbury Card for entry. Backwaters could then become something of a ‘toll-road’ for pedestrians.
Such a system would help to change perspectives on the upkeep of the public realm. Rather than it being a burdensome drain on the ‘public purse’, it could be transformed into a profitable public asset. Just imagine for example the service that we would receive on the London Underground if it were ‘open and inclusive to all’ – i.e. free to anyone to use. It’s absurd to imagine an Underground where nobody has to pay to use it – after all, how would they afford to maintain and run it? But that is exactly the point – the public realm to commuters is not altogether too different from the Underground, after all it provides a means to get from A to B, and in London it costs a significant amount to maintain and run it. So why should the public, and particularly the local residents, need to pay to maintain it when everyone uses it? It’s as absurd as if the London Underground were entirely paid for through the taxes of London residents at huge cost, but at the same time being open to anyone throughout the world. Or if flights over London airspace required a contribution through Council Tax to pay for that section of the flight.
But despite all the sensible arguments, it’s not something that we are likely to ever see happen, there being so many impediments and so little political motivation. After all, ownership of Bloomsbury’s squares is now varied with the University owning four of Bloomsbury’s squares – why would the University ever close off its squares just for residents?
The best that we can do for now is enjoy Georgian Bloomsbury while it lasts, a strange glimpse of a utopian past which has been afforded to us by this unexpected crisis.