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Recognising the impact of open spaces

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Space is inherently public. As human beings we inhabit a variety of different spaces, which shape our lives, our opportunities and our aspirations. We are shaped by the families we are born into and brought up by; by the attitudes we inherit from a young age to aspiration, education and work; and by our sense of belonging to the communities we are a part of.

With the decline in the availability of free public spaces – prompted by radical cuts to public services, individuals have reacted to the closure of specific public spaces – deploying the unlikely protections of the Localism Act 2013, which makes it considerably harder to sell a listed community asset to individuals who are not community bidders, or the protections of Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998 which places a burden upon local authorities to justify why an empty publicly owned building cannot be used by members of the community when those community members have public rights of protest, assembly and expression. This issue is due to be heard in the High Court on 19th March - which concerns a possession claim against inhabitants of a disused Family Centre in Arnos Grove.

These were also the issues that were raised in Friern Barnet, when the council sought a possession order over a local library site that had been reopened and ‘occupied’ by the community. Over three months this community had organized to donate 8000 books for loan, computer and internet access, a jobs-board, yoga and Pilates classes, tuition and classes for young people. After the court proceedings, the council leased the building at a peppercorn rent to the community, resulting in the creation of Friern Barnet Community Library & Hub. This long-running campaign showed how a community hub and library evolved from public demand. This demand, in turn, stemmed from recognising the value of public space.

It’s in difficult times, more than ever, that public spaces acquire social value. They represent the potential that public space has to transform the lives of individuals as well as the society we live in. Such spaces are where the excluded go to find respite, access literature, where the unemployed go to search for jobs listings, or to get help on checking their CVs.

Sheffield City Council’s Intervention Project on finding an integrated service solution to tackling unemployment, which was piloted in Shire Green, an area in the north-east of the city with high unemployment, demonstrated the importance of using available public spaces with the specific purpose of supporting the unemployed into work. Understanding how public spaces can shape opportunities was central to this work.

The starting point for this research was a walk-through the public space which defined the problem - the researcher caught the same buses as the unemployed did into and out of town; walked along the streets to look in some of the same shop windows; sat in the same areas of the library; visited the same Advice Centre and the same surgery and Housing Centre. Public space itself highlighted the challenges and the opportunities for the unemployed: information locally was outdated, advice was dispersed and transport costs a major barrier to finding employment.

Using  customer journey mapping, the local public services came up with some practical  integrated solutions to the problems which had been identified – for example, more coherent use of library space by service providers, credit union outlets in Housing Offices, and greater support for the unemployed in  doctors’ surgeries, local community centres and sure start centres.

We know from these projects that public spaces are where people often go to build confidence. Volunteering, contributing to the life of a community and interacting with the outside world can become a vital stop-gap – providing the skills and the confidence to then move into full-time employment or community life for those who have been workless or isolated for a significant period of time.

Spaces such as these are important because they open the world up for those who enter them beyond what might be found at home, on the doorstep. It is the way we choose to shape them, and our recognition of the impact that those spaces can have on people’s lives that can make a profound social difference.

Reema Patel and Christine Megson

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