LLSB was invited by the Royal Town Planning Institute to speak at their ‘Who has a right to the city?’ event as part of World Town Planning Day 2014, hosted by New London Architecture at The Building Centre in London on 4th November 2014.
To read the event review click here: http://rtpilondoncalling.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/event-review-world-town-planning-day-2014-who-has-a-right-to-the-city/
Long Live Southbank full speech by Louis Woodhead
Who has a right to the city?
Before I get fully stuck into this, I’d like to give you an explanation as to what my relationship with architecture in London is. Like many of peers, I gained an awareness of architecture through skateboarding. From the age of 14 I spent all my weekends and school holidays, skating around central London, trying to find new and interesting bits of buildings and courtyards to skate.
At first it was nothing more creative than jumping down a two or three stair set, and then looking for four stairs to build it up more. But then it develops into a far more thoughtful way of looking at your city. You look for interesting bits of architecture that can be skated in a unique way. You spend every bus journey looking out the window, scouring the area for interesting looking places to skate.
When our mate got a camera and we started filming, we became far more conscious of the aesthetics of the spots we were skating. We were skating more and more during the night, as we felt London looked better in the dark, empty of office workers.
We like to skate in spaces with a real atmosphere or vibe to it. The other day our mate Jasper took us to an incredibly thin alleyway in Soho. The only things to skate there were the walls, a couple of curbs and a bin bag of rubbish to do tricks over. You can find walls, curbs and rubbish bags on any given street in London, but this was the one he wanted to skate because it was so cramped and thin, because the balconies above us were so stylish, because the alleyway had such an old London feel about it.
However, after all the weekends spent bombing it through the streets of central London, by far the best place to skate was on the South Bank, underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The space, known by the architects as the Undercroft and by the skaters simply as Southbank, had been designed by the architects who built the rest of the Southbank Centre as a free public space. It was not designed for anything specific. It was designed in the hope that someone would come along and find a creative or positive use for it.
Just after a few years after opening, the first wave of skateboarding hit the UK from California. The first skaters came across a space with a smooth floor, with banks and slopes to ride on. By 1976, the space was fully buzzing. It was the epicentre of British skateboarding.
The space was always a free space, a space to be interpreted and reinterpreted by creative minds. Over the coming decades, the skaters stayed, as did the homeless, who were the original inhabitants. But then came the BMXers, rollerbladers, graffiti writers and street artists. Skateboarding, however, went from strength to strength. The space has remained the most famous spot in UK skateboarding. Over the last 5 decades many of the world’s most famous skaters have shot photos or filmed tricks at Southbank. Skaters travel from all over the world, every week, to skate at Southbank and see the space for themselves. It is a space that London is incredibly, incredibly lucky to have.
I’m sure it won’t have slipped many of you by that in March 2013, the Southbank Centre announced their festival wing redevelopment plans, which were to be funded by turning this space, already just one third of its original size, into coffee shops and restaurants. The local community of skaters and other users of the space were horrified at the prospect of losing their world renowned, community built space. Long Live Southbank was formed and quickly became an effective campaigning group.
I joined the campaign later in the year, splitting my time between the table where we collected signatures and spoke to the public about the importance of the space, and the emails, where we were constantly bombarded by no end of people who wanted to collaborate with us in some way: students, photographers, lecturers, musicians, filmmakers, journalists and many more.
After collecting record breaking numbers of signatures, support given by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and signing up member numbers to rival the main political parties, the Southbank Centre conceded that they would have to reassess their plans. In September, we signed a Section 106 agreement with the Southbank Centre, guaranteeing the long term future of our skate spot.
The whole campaign has made all of us a lot more conscious about the way our city is evolving and what sorts of spaces are conducive to the really exciting creative self-expression which we love.
I am a firm believer that the city is for everyone. I believe that if you aren’t infringing on the freedoms of other people to express themselves and live their lives, then the city should be open for everyone.
However, as the blurb to this event laid out, the trend is that increasingly large swathes of the city, whilst still publically accessible, are privately owned and private managed. The added downside is heavy handed private security guards, enacting the rules and regulations of the owners of these estates. You would be lucky to get more than a minute or two skating on many of these estates. Banning orders and heavy fines are not unheard of, especially in Canary Wharf. A busker would hardly have the time to set up. These spaces may be publically accessible, but they are not free for public self-expression.
The self-expression and art I find most interesting and exciting cannot be taken out of its physical context. My favourite busker is a bloke who does really atmospheric live mixes under Elephant and Castle roundabout. He says that his music is so closely connected to and inspired by those damp tunnels that he couldn’t make or perform it anywhere else.
Last year I went to a squatted former garden centre in Camden, where everything about the space, from the artwork on the walls to the layout of the rooms was adapted around the beautiful plants and flowers that were growing all over.
In Tottenham, over the last decade a group of BMXers have taken over two old canal channels. They invested a huge amount of money and time working the sand and cement into a very well made, if amateur skatepark.
For me, such things are beautiful because they come about organically. They are reinterpretations of spaces in a city that would otherwise be dull and unused. They showcase the adaptability and creativity inside us and always have another layer of interest, whether that is the history of the disused garden centre or all the other folk, mostly homeless who hang out in the same tunnel as the busker.
However, such forms of self-expression are an increasingly endangered species, especially in central London. As every last penny is squeezed out of every last square inch as prime retail space, or highly accessible office space, London’s city centre becomes a desert of this sort of creativity. Land, it seems, is too valuable for self-expression. The pull of the pound is too strong. However, public opinion is firmly on the side of creativity rather than capital.
After 17 months of arguing that the Southbank Centre should not capitalise on their ‘prime retail space’ in the name of creativity, we amassed 150,000 members. The public firmly believe that London should be a creative city. The public really do appreciate little bits of creativity that you just happen to stumble across.
The time is now right for politicians and policy makers to look at ways of opening up more creative spaces in the capital. These spaces don’t need to come with plush new buildings. They don’t need to even come with too much planning.
The reason for the lasting success of the skate spot on the Southbank is because the architects left the public to do what they wanted with that space. It was a space left for interpretation. It was a found space that people could take ownership of. It took time, but if you allow cultures to develop organically, eventually they become rooted and great things happen. Next time an interesting space becomes vacant in central London, rather than seeing it as a great opportunity to build a really tall glass building and make a bit of money, the authorities should instead consider leaving the space for people to make what they want of it.
After 40 years of evolution, Southbank is still constantly adapting. The walls change every day with new art, moving the space forwards, whether it reacts to political events or brings in new styles. With so many skaters from all over the world flying in to visit what is a mecca for skateboarding, the local skaters constantly have new influences and styles of skating the space to channel into their own skateboarding. It is a truly fantastic thing that original architects allowed to happen, but not something that they could have accurately predicted. Similarly, we would have no idea how any new space, left to develop naturally, would go. However, I feel it is an experiment worth playing with.
One such space actually became vacant just a few years ago. A stone’s throw from Zone 1, just south of the Elephant and Castle roundabout stood the Heygate Estate. A series of huge concrete tower blocks, joined by walkways that became so infamous for crime, the estate was considered by some as a grim and daunting place to live, ripe for regeneration.
However the plans for redevelopment were stalled, partly by poor management, but also by residents – a community established over many years – who resented being evicted from homes they have known and loved for decades, with only questionable plans to rehouse them.
For a long while, just a few of the flats were left occupied by tenants increasingly starved of basic amenities such as heating and rubbish collection. One autumn the leaves weren’t swept up by the council, giving the space a far eerier, more deserted feel. People began cottoning on, and visiting the estate, often first just to have a nose around, and then, perhaps, to find a way of expressing themselves there. I first went there with a few mates in 2010 to skate (picture of Max). There was an incredibly powerful atmosphere there. We were all incredibly aware of the size and emptiness of the space around us, making the experience of skating there all the more special. Over the coming months we returned there quite a bit. There was always new street art popping up, as the space became increasingly overgrown.
From time to time we came across other folk using the space. There were a lot of free runners, who found the huge number of walls and fences perfect for what they wanted to do. However among the most committed were the gardeners, who took over the community greens in between the vast housing blocks. Sometimes describing themselves as guerrilla gardeners, they founded allotments, grew gardens and even started keeping bees and building a fishpond. Such creative use of space certainly made me pay far more attention to them than I usually would to gardening. It became a very special, very calm and very beautiful space.
Anyone familiar with Elephant and Castle will have noticed that the huge tower blocks of the Heygate are no longer there. The community space was fenced off in 2013, with the demolition going ahead last summer. It was sad to see a space with such atmosphere, and such a fast growing creative community boarded off and surrounded by guard dogs so suddenly, with no thought given to where else people would be able to express themselves.
It was saddening too, to see the treatment of the Occupy Democracy protestors a fortnight ago. A few hundred protestors gathered on parliament square, with the intent of staying there for 10 days, to draw awareness to the huge democratic deficit ongoing in the UK. They created a fantastic community, more political than many of those I’ve previously mentioned, but just as creative in their interpretation of public space. All tents, tarpaulins and sleeping bags were seized. 2 days in, the police cordoned off the main green of Parliament Square, with its great history of democratic protests, in order, apparently, to reseed the grass. I passed by one wet evening, as the drizzle turned to a down pour, to see the protesters, as sleep deprived as you can imagine, still smiling, still singing, still getting their message across.
Who has a right to the city? It seems, if your views are too far askew from the mainstream, and you become a little too prominent, you quickly lose rights. As the regeneration of the Heygate Estate became increasingly controversial, the council began painting over street art. As Camden becomes increasingly dominated by chain stores, the Council have decided that they want to ban busking.
For me, as a skater, the most obvious device preventing free artistic expression are skate stoppers, the nobly bits that get put on ledges, benches and at the bottom of stairs, designed to catch your wheels and stop you from skating. I got shown a magazine, of which I’ve got a few spare copies on me, that describes them as tools of oppression. Compared to the tear gas of Hong Kong, perhaps this seems like hyperbole. However what it does do, is set out that this area of the city, which we shall completely cover in skate stoppers, like much of the city of London has been, is a space where you cannot reinterpret the built space in this way that suits you. We have decided that this is somehow anti-social and we are going to enforce our opinion on you.
I would actually look upon the planners who put those ugly metal bits on ledges as the ones that are anti-social. They’re the ones discouraging kids from getting outside, exploring their cities and opening their minds to see the architecture of the streets in new ways.
Through Long Live Southbank, I met a PhD student, Theo McInnes, with a similar interest in people reappropriating the urban landscape creatively and sometimes radically. He interviewed myself and a few other members of Long Live Southbank as part of his dissertation on Unconventional Urbanism. He was interested in finding people who broke down the unwritten rules and normality of public space, and take it back for the people.
The big fear that we both held, was the homogenisation of the city. We both hated the idea of the city becoming characterless, samey and boring. Where the city is becoming characterless, I would say such as in an area like Canary Wharf, it is often because the authorities insist on a huge number of rules to govern these spaces. No busking, no skateboarding, no rollerblading. The ledges have anti-skateboarding devices on them and there are thousands of CCTV cameras, deterring anyone who would dare to do a little public artwork.
I have spent far too many days, skating around the city, coming across spots I used to skate but now have those ugly metal caps on them, getting the police called on us by security and then seeing the same happen to buskers and BMXers and everyone else. These days it always ends up with us returning to Southbank. The more time we spend trying to skate the rest of the city, the more Southbank feels like a little haven of freedom where people can go about expressing themselves without constantly getting shut down.
I’ve begun to see it as a model for public space. It is free. It is constantly changing. It has a really strong sense of identity, although it is just one part of the local ecosystem. We chill with the booksellers under Waterloo Bridge and the buskers on Hungerford Bridge. The space has 40 years history with many of the world’s most famous skaters getting tricks there over the decades, yet the space is forward looking and constantly progressing. It is in use near enough 24 hours a day. But most important for me is the uplifting feeling self-expression there gives you. When you skate there, you feel free, which for me is an ideal we should look for in our public spaces, and in our city as a whole.
And right now, it feels like far too much of our city is not free for public expression. The people’s right to the city is very limited, which I don’t think is right or fair.
I’m just about done. I did briefly mention earlier that the Southbank skate spot is just 1/3 of its original size. This is because, when the Royal Festival Hall was redeveloped in 2004-5, much of the space was taken away without consultation, to be used as temporary storage space but under the promise that it would be returned as soon as possible. This promise, made by the Southbank Centre in a newsletter for the skateboarders, proved false. Whilst the space is unjustifiably underused by the Southbank Centre, they show no intension of returning it to its original and promised form. Therefore, the next stage of the journey is to investigate the possibilities of restoring this space. If any of you would be interested in helping us work towards this, please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or come up to me or my mate Paul over there after we’re all done. We have a few copies of our Cultural and Heritage Report for those keen to get involved and help.
Louis Woodhead, LLSB