Postscript: Bloomsbury’s Gardens Reclaimed

The publication of the article yesterday exploring the possible benefits of restricted access to Bloomsbury’s gardens and streets led to some fierce debate in the realm of Twitter. The arguments and opinions espoused were delivered with such great force and were crafted in such a sophisticated manner that I have felt compelled to respond to these in the name of open and civilised debate.

To begin with, it must be said that the writer was entirely aware of the arguments against restriction, and indeed the article was written in the spirit of exploring an unusual and novel proposition rather than to advocate its implementation. Certainly it is the case that Bloomsbury’s gardens currently have taken on a more delightful character than usual and this must surely be down to the fact that only the local population are using them. Thus the question of how this character could be retained when things return to normal was naturally raised, and restricted access is an obvious way to achieve this.

However as the closing note of the article expressed, restricted access to Bloomsbury’s squares and streets is certainly not something which is going to be pursued by anyone, least of all the writer.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let us examine some of the sophisticated arguments which I have been faced with on the home of informed and rational debate: Twitter.

“No! Social reformers wanted these spaces to be open to the public as “open air living rooms” for those who lived in flats and didn’t have their own gardens. Are you suggesting charging for entry or only letting residents of the squares in? The article is snobbish & parochial.”

Diane Burstein, London Tour Guide

Diane, I would argue that restricting access to Bloomsbury’s gardens to those who live in Bloomsbury would achieve the goal of the unnamed ‘social reformers’. Exactly the point of the article was that the gardens are currently taking on this character of an ‘open air living room’ for those who live in the area (of which almost the entire population live in flats and don’t have their own gardens). The key observation is that the openness to all of the garden squares in usual times means that these spaces no longer take on the character of an ‘open air living room’, as who could call a living room a place stacked full with sunbathing tourists, pigeons, and litter? Indeed, the point was that the openness to all means that there is little room for the small local population to adequately enjoy the spaces.

To clarify, I was suggesting charging for entry to those who do not live locally, which would mean free entry for all those living in Bloomsbury, not just those few residents who live on the squares themselves.

To respond to the particularly forceful refutations towards the end of your tweet, I would ask that you read and understand the article before passing your holy judgement upon it.

“It’s elitist and unwelcome.”

A.J. Stranger, London Cabbie

Responding to the accusation of elitism, the two gardens mentioned are in fact within the King’s Cross Ward, described by Camden as being ‘its most deprived ward’. So far from being elitist, I would argue that it is quite the opposite, and restricting access would bestow a special privilege upon some of the least well-off in society.

Indeed requiring tourists to pay for entry would be quite the opposite of elitism – those individuals who can afford to fly to London from abroad to take a holiday are far more ‘elite’ than those living in the local area.

“What a disgusting attitude. Typical posh NIMBY. What makes a public park more ‘yours’ than rough sleepers? So you must be Bloomsbury born and bred? Lived there all your life have you? Many of the WKC young people you’re so horribly snobbish about actually are FROM Bloomsbury.”

Lifelong Londoner from Hackney

This refutation I found to be particularly well-crafted and difficult to respond to.

I was curious about the meaning of the phrase ‘typical posh NIMBY’ so I was forced to look it up. Unfortunately I am not quite posh enough to have as wide a vocabulary as Lifelong Londoner, but Wikipedia was able to help me out:

“NIMBY, or Nimby, is a characterisation of opposition by residents to a proposed development in their local area. It carries the connotation that such residents are only opposing the development because it is close to them and that they would tolerate or support it if it were built farther away.”

Wikipedia

I must admit Mr Londoner that I fail to see how this applies to the article.

In responding to the valid question raised about the ownership of the squares, it is fairly common for local authorities to encourage communities to ‘take ownership’ of their local area, with schemes in place by our local authority Camden to allow communities to take ownership of their streets, and even to encourage residents to take ownership of whole conservation areas. So the idea of local ownership is not something entirely outrageous and is indeed encouraged.

I would also argue that in a moral if not a legal sense, the gardens do belong more to those local residents than the typical rough-sleeper. It is after all the local residents who pay the taxes for their upkeep, the local residents who perhaps appreciate the gardens the most, and the local residents who volunteer to maintain the gardens. Indeed the fundamental observation in the article was that if the public realm (streets and squares) are maintained at the cost of local residents, then even in a financial sense they belong more so to the community.

My qualms about the presence of rough sleepers and WKC young people is not so much their presence but the fact that their presence is almost always associated with criminality, and it is the criminality which I and any reasonable person is averse to. Aversion to criminality is not snobbery in any sense, simply reasonableness.

However Mr Londoner had more to say on the matter:

“Made me very angry reading this. Basically wants a giant gated community. Ridiculous article. Utopia seems to mean only people like me to here. Piss off to a little village in the countryside if you’re going on like that.”

Lifelong Londoner from Hackney

After much reflection I recognised a fatal flaw in this argument. It simply would not be possible for the writer to ‘piss off to a little village in the countryside’ during the current lockdown, as it would surely not constitute essential travel. However once lockdown has been lifted I will reconsider this interesting proposition.

Published by owardkx

I am a resident of Queen Alexandra Mansions, in Bloomsbury. I am also a committee member of Bloomsbury Residents' Action Group and of the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas Advisory Committee, each working to protect residents and heritage in Bloomsbury.

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